Uncertainty abounds in our daily lives now, and for many families the questions surrounding K-12 education loom large. Will students return to school buildings in the fall? If they do, what will social distancing in schools look like? And, how far behind academically will students be after months of remote learning?
The Northwest Evaluation Association released a report predicting severe learning losses for students, particularly in math. The organization used past testing data and research on summer learning loss to model the effects of the “COVID Slide.”
The findings indicate that when students begin the school year in the fall, they might only retain 70% of learning gains in reading compared to a normal year and less than 50% of learning gains in math. In some grades, students might lose a full year of progress in math.
Our youngest students might face the biggest challenges as they lose critical momentum in developing foundational math and literacy skills as well as social skills. Research on the effects of teacher strikes in Argentina found that elementary students who lost 80-90 days of instruction saw a long-term impact on their educational attainment and career trajectory and had lower labor market earnings as adults.
Nearly all Colorado students are likely to face challenges with remote learning, but some kids will be disproportionally impacted by school closures. Ready Colorado polled 500 Colorado parents on April 15-16 to get a snapshot of K-12 students’ experiences since schools closed in March. A whopping 35% of parents statewide said that their children had not participated in remote learning since schools shut down. This should raise serious concerns for anyone who cares about achievement gaps in education.
The hard truth is that many kids are going to see significant learning losses as a result of COVID-19, and those losses are going to be acute among the most vulnerable students. Schools and policymakers must be prepared to adapt to serve children.
It is daunting to think about the operational challenges our schools are going to face with new social distancing requirements in place in the fall. Some ideas include staggered schedules, small classes, more buses to allow for spacing. These ideas will require difficult resource allocation decisions when education budgets are likely to shrink.
Even more important will be the learning challenges. Students will need increased instructional time to make up for the lost learning this spring. This could happen by shortening or skipping school breaks, extending the school year, lengthening school days or providing Saturday instruction. Again — more ideas that require funding to be prioritized toward the students who need it the most.
Given the fiscal challenges facing the state and school districts, now more than ever we need our education system to be nimble, creative and innovative. One approach could be to increase flexibility from seat-time regulations and shift to a competency-based education model in which credits are awarded based on demonstrated mastery of knowledge and skills rather than seat time. There are many examples of innovative competency-based models that allow students to accelerate or remediate at their own pace and promote a focus on acquiring relevant skills through personalized learning.
Public-private partnerships are going to be critical. Learning does not just occur within a school day. Local partnerships can support academic enrichment through after-school programs, community service, summer programs, apprenticeships and more.
Some education experts have recommended an expansion of a “tutoring corp” model to help meet the demand that will come. Under this model, families can be easily connected with pre-vetted and trained tutors like college students who recently lost their job.
Lastly, providing educational stipends directly to families in need would give them maximal flexibility to seek academic support for their students. Colorado could choose to apply for grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education to do that.
While we can be certain that many students will be below grade level if and when school resumes in the fall, uncertainty reigns as the new norm. Now is the time for state officials to work with school leaders, parents, teacher and community groups to develop an aggressive plan to address learning loss and get our students back on track.
Left unaddressed, the lasting effects of the COVID slide could impact students and their ability to be productive members of the economy for decades to come.
Brenda Bautsch Dickhoner is an Education Fellow for Common Sense Policy Roundtable. Luke Ragland is president of Ready Colorado, a coalition fighting for better schools and more parental choice in education.