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"Whatever we're doing, it's not enough."

Learning still hasn’t rebounded since the pandemic. Educators are perplexed—and worried.

The pandemic may have given us an all-new reason why Johnny can’t read. Or do math, or many other things children are expected to master at their grade level.

Educators had expected America’s schoolchildren to make up for lost learning once they returned to the classroom post-pandemic. At first, things seemed on track. Yes, students were still behind at the end of the 2021-22 school year, but they appeared to be making up ground according to the testing group Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a not-for-profit organization that helps school districts improve learning.

Since then, however, progress has slowed and even slid backward by many measures. There’s no doubt that the isolation of remote learning was rough on youngsters; the unnatural classroom atmosphere made interaction difficult. But after two years back in the classroom, and kids getting summer and other remedial sessions to catch up, progress is still very spotty. 

Help from the Feds

The federal government has stepped in, giving huge amounts of money to expand tutoring and summer learning programs designed to get students back to where they should be.

But as much as the effort is, it’s apparently not enough. Beyond what they’ve already received, studies indicate that on average, students would need slightly more than four months more instruction to recover what they lost in reading and four-and-a-half months in math. 

There is also a socio-economic component. Kids in majority white schools were only two months behind and Asian groups managed to hold their own. But for students in majority Black schools, the academic hole was staggering: By the fall of 2021, they were half a year behind in both mathematics and reading. As NWEA director Karyn Lewis points out, even if struggling students could magically catch up, that would still only return them to pre-pandemic levels, which were already lacking compared to kids in most other industrialized nations.

Interestingly, children from countries that had shorter school closures during the pandemic did not suffer the same fate as the US. And those with quicker rebounds all had "high levels of socio-economic fairness.”

“Whatever we’re doing, it’s not enough,” says NWEA’s Karyn Lewis. "The magnitude of the crisis is out of alignment with the scope and scale of the response and we need to do more.”

Many teachers agree. “I feel that there is more assistance needed,” says Ashley Blemler, a public school teacher in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Within our school, we are facing staffing shortages and therefore cannot adequately assist students.”

Stretched to the breaking point: Word is out

Staffing shortages—with many educators leaving the profession in droves—was a common motif among teachers interviewed. Some would only speak anonymously. One from a school district in Ohio says, “The pay is poor, and we are stretched thin, and stressed from all the restrictions in the curriculum. There aren’t enough entering the profession to make up for it.” Equally hard to come by: Substitutes. Another educator, who also insisted their name not be used, said, “It’s hard to get anyone into teaching these days. Word is out.”

With resources strained and teachers leaving the profession, those who are left say standards have to be relaxed. That means lowered expectations.

Brenna Gustafson, who teachers 4th and 5th grades, says, “I'm having to talk to these students a lot like how I talk to my own kindergartner. Like, we're gonna talk through everything we're doing. Why it's happening. Why it might be changing. We share a lot of dialogue, especially if something is changing and how we understand this might be hard.” All the extra explanation now necessary because their understanding isn’t the only thing lacking. Their focus is as well. Remote learning led to an unprecedented amount of screen time which, teachers and parents note, took a big bite out of already-eroding attention spans.

The importance of concrete learning

Also lost: the all-important years of tactile learning. “The basics that would be taught to these now 5th graders was taught in first and second grade when their education was massively interrupted,” according to elementary school teacher Maya Novak. “Numeration, bundling, the core to math, is taught using physical objects, to make a conceptual idea more concrete. So learning that those 10 ones are equal to 1 ten is much easier to understand when you’re physically manipulating objects. That couldn’t be taught over zoom.”

This is why the youngest students have felt the impact of remote learning the hardest. They’re the ones forming the social skills and learning how to learn. Psychologists believe there are ideal times for certain types of intellectual growth. Interrupting that process, and expecting children to just “catch up” when they return to normalcy two years later—an eternity for young minds—can lead to frustration and struggle. As one New York Times editorial expressed it, “Parents Don’t Understand How Far Behind Their Kids Are in School.”

An advantage for some?

Older students, on the other hand, seem to have had less trouble catching up, though gaps are still observable. And for certain types of students, the disruption may have actually been a blessing in disguise. 

Some parents we spoke to— a minority, but still a substantial number—say their kids preferred remote learning to what they see as a rigid traditional classroom setting. For many children who have trouble “fitting in” with their peers or classroom rituals, solo learning allowed them to focus in their own unique ways. 

In the next part, we will look deeper into who these students are, and how unconventional education has worked for them.   

John Grabowski is a San Francisco Bay Area writer specializing in tech—specifically AI and chatbots, real estate and real estate tech. He has worked in PR, television news and advertising. He is also the author of two novels and a collection of short fiction. His latest novel, Made in the U.S.A., will be published by Arbiter Press early this year.


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