Parents, educators, and researchers are trying to gauge how much learning has been disrupted by pandemic stress and the abrupt switch to online learning last spring.
By Erin Duffy
Becky could picture her twin boys’ first day of Kindergarten.
She and her husband would walk them into their classrooms at Saddlebrook Elementary in northwest Omaha. They’d snap photos, meet teachers, show the boys where to hang their backpacks.
But like so many other things in 2020, the pandemic turned their family’s big Kindergarten milestone upside down. Her boys spent much of the 2020-21 school year learning the building blocks of math and reading via iPads before returning to in-person school part time in October and full time in February with thousands of other Omaha Public Schools students.
Her sons’ teachers tried their hardest—Becky heaps praise on them and the school for working through a trying year.
But logging in and out of apps, forgetting passwords, and watching their teacher and classmates on a screen frustrated her boys. Beyond losing out on those warm-and-fuzzy first day of school memories, Becky also worries about the impact on their education.
“Are they going to be where they should be?” she said. “Where their peers are? I don’t know. That is a fear.”
That concern is playing out across classrooms, as parents, educators, and researchers try to gauge how much learning has been disrupted by pandemic stress and the abrupt switch to online learning last spring.
In Nebraska, all public school districts have fully resumed in-person learning, although some families have opted to remain remote. Educators are hopeful that students will bounce back as they return to the classroom.
But several national studies and Nebraska testing data from fall 2020 suggest that students’ math skills may have regressed. Catching up kids who have fallen behind will likely take more than a few quick review sessions, experts caution.
An Omaha World-Herald analysis of student assessment data from 43 Nebraska school districts found students were typically slightly behind or right around grade level when it came to reading but lost substantial ground on math.
Nationwide NWEA fall test results found that students in grades 3-8 scored similarly in reading compared to students in 2019, but math scores dropped 5 to 10 percentile points.
“Generally, math seems to be the trouble spot, said Lisa Roy, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute’s director of program development.
“Even if they were (attending school) at home, kids are reading probably more,” she said. “But parents are not able, necessarily, to incorporate math into everyday learning.”
Math skills are distinct and often build upon each other, explained Kanyon Chism, the Buffett Institute’s associate director of program development. Over different grade levels, students learn addition, then decimals, then multiplication. Miss one part of the sequence, and it can be hard to catch up.
Gomez Heritage Elementary Principal Rocky Parkert spent a recent Friday morning trying to get third and fourth graders pumped up for spring testing.
“I have been so blown away by the resiliency of our students, especially, and our families,” he said. “They’ve had that positive, can-do, will-do attitude this entire time.”
Parkert still expects to see some dips.
“My guess is we won’t see the growth that we would normally see from our students,” he said of state testing.
Over the last year, the South Omaha ZIP code that includes Gomez Heritage has had the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in Omaha. Parkert knows that students struggled with the initial shift to online learning and that few working parents had the time to guide their young learners step by step.
He’s shared studies with his staff about the hard lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and closed schools for months. Students there suffered lingering trauma that had to be addressed before jumping right into math drills. Focusing on grade-level instruction versus remediation seemed to produce better results. Individualized attention and tutoring helped, but it took at least two years to get many caught up.
Read more about the social and emotional impacts of the pandemic on kids here
Pandemic learning loss may even include preschool-age students.
In a June survey conducted by the Buffett Institute, nearly 65% of Nebraska child care providers reported enrolling fewer preschool-age children. Some parents may have kept kids home, and at one point state health measures required providers to reduce capacity. That means more kids could show up to Kindergarten less well prepared.
Impacts vary by student. Some kids, including those who faced bullying or racism at school or those who like to learn at their own pace, may have flourished when given the ability to learn from home.
But just as the pandemic has magnified existing health disparities, experts say it’s likely—and unfortunate—that students who lost the most ground academically are the most vulnerable, those who faced challenges in school even before the pandemic due to poverty, racism, or disabilities.
Consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated that by the end of the 2020-21 school year, students of color could lose six to 12 months of cumulative learning loss in math, compared to four to eight months for white students.
Online learning frustrated plenty of families, across all backgrounds and income levels. But students who had a parent at home to help likely had an easier time than immigrant or refugee students whose parents struggled with homework help because English might not be their primary language, Roy said.
Huge gaps already existed among the metro Omaha districts. In 2019, 37% of students in one district were reading proficiently by third grade, according to state test scores. In another district: 87%.
Gomez Heritage first grade teacher Octavia Butler believes focusing only on what’s been “lost” erases the other skills their students have learned this year, like empathy and a better grasp of technology.
Still, Butler is doubling daily word lessons and trying to get students to feel more confident about reading and writing.
When students returned to the classroom full time, “obviously we didn’t need to go back and redo the fourth quarter of Kindergarten … but at the same time they were not exactly ready to start first grade work,” Butler said.
Local school districts like Millard and OPS are preparing multi-year plans for combating potential learning loss. Instead of backtracking to repeat entire lessons, teachers will likely focus on “acceleration,” trying to keep kids learning at their current grade level while quickly filling in any holes. Nationally, some districts are looking into intensive tutoring or extending the school year.
“They’re really trying to be thoughtful about how are we in the next three years going to try to recover what may have been lost?” Chism said.
OPS is offering half-, full-day or hour-long sessions of summer school, or “next-level learning,” to all students in June and July. Other ideas: schools might partner with outside organizations to provide extra help before and after school, Roy said, and provide parents with simple tools and learning activities.
“One thing we learned during this pandemic is parents appreciate teachers more, and teachers appreciate parents more. There’s an opportunity to build on that,” Roy said. “Parents really want to know how they can support literacy and math at home.”
Becky’s sons now seem to be thriving after the return to in-person instruction, chattering about the volcano lesson they had in school that day. She knows kids adapt quickly, but their writing and reading skills could use a boost.
So she’s already signed them up for summer school in OPS—they’re too young to realize they’ll be losing some of their summer break to squeeze in extra learning.
Erin Duffy, the digital communications specialist at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. As a journalist, she spent more than five years covering education stories for daily newspapers.
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org.