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LESSONS LEARNED | Students may experience 'COVID slide'

This week's Lessons Learned looks at how summer learning loss may help forecast academic declines from the coronavirus pandemic.

TYLER, Texas — 1 in 10 Texas students did not finish school or connect with their teachers during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a statewide preliminary report from the Texas Education Agency

What does that mean for those students and what about the millions of other Texas students forced to learn from a distance? This week, in Lessons Learned, we take those questions to researchers who looked at summer learning loss and how they may give us a better idea of academic declines from schools closing due to the coronavirus.

When August arrives, we're talking close to six months without learning for some students and almost half a year since any student stepped into a classroom. As you can imagine, leaders in education are concerned with the academic backslide students may experience. Researchers suspect the "COVID slide" will be much more of an impact than the "summer slide" that you may be familiar with each year. CBS19 spoke with a researcher at the NWEA Collaborative for Student Growth on their forecast.

Think about the slide at the playground. There's the slow and steady slide and the one with a steep, sometimes slippery slope. That's a little bit like the summer slide vs. the COVID slide.

"We know that kids learn throughout the school year followed by a summer slide or summer melt, so kids slightly decline over the summer months," according to Beth Tarasawa, PhD, Executive VP of Research at NWEA.

Dr. Beth Tarasawa, Executive VP of Research at NWEA — a non-profit with a collaborative approach to improving teaching and learning, said "we looked at about five million kids who took our MAP Growth Assessment in 2017-2018 and looked at their trajectory on a normal school year to get an idea of how they normally perform." She and her colleagues quickly got to work to see what the academic impact of schools closing would be on students. While the projections are concerning, they wanted to provide the research to schools and parents, so they will be prepared in the fall.

"So, what we found is kids would come back in the fall with 70% of typical learning gains in reading and closer to 50% of the learning gains in math than under normal conditions," Dr. Tarasawa said. The research indicates some students may be nearly a year behind in math after COVID. 

"There's a bunch of literature in why we are seeing differences in math vs. reading," she said. "A lot of people believe that reading enrichment is a lot easier for parents and I can speak from my own experience that going to the library for resources to read or we have family book time can be a lot easier than structured math and making sure you are getting math support in those summer months."

Dr. Tarasawa holds a PhD, but she is also a mom who sympathizes with parents, who overnight, became teachers in a sense. "Our younger son, I have a PhD, but I cannot teach him how to divide the way he is supposed to divide anymore. They don't borrow anymore. I can get the answer, but that sausage making is really important to the scaffolding approach they are trying to teach our kids," Dr. Tarasawa said.  

But for some, the struggle to learn extends further. They're dealing with additional trauma, parents losing their jobs and students losing their opportunity to learn.

"It's going to take some time, probably more than a year, for these kids to rebound from the losses we are seeing for an extended closure and kids like those historically marginalized populations, do not have the same access to digital resources... do not have the same access to connectivity... maybe struggling to get meals. So, there's just a lot when it comes to these greater inequalities in our society. It's not just schools and educators who are called here, it's a communal effort to rally behind these kids," Dr. Tarasawa said.  

For months, we've been talking with East Texas school leaders about the COVID slide and their plans to address it. Dr. Christopher Moran and his staff at Whitehouse ISD are preparing for it.

"The loss of learning is real," Dr. Moran said. "And we know that when students return, they're going to need an assessment to figure out where they are and what gaps we have to fill. I know our instructional team is working as we speak to plan for spiraling in some of those things they missed in the spring, so we can bring them up to speed. This is not going to be a one year process. I think this will trickle into next summer and the 2021-2022 school year." 

Mineola ISD Superintendent Cody Mize agrees. "I think the slump, that's a very real thing. We see that over the summer. We are going to have to do a really good job of identifying those kids and get to work," Mize said.

So, what can we do to help our children? NWEA researchers want to use evidence to empower improvement. "Think about how do we access our libraries in new ways? What are we doing in summer enrichment programs? How do we use open resources like, Khan Academy during not only the school closure time, but also when we're back in session? What that looks like, we don't know, but this idea that we really need to be thinking about long term solutions and not just academic, but also the social-emotional needs of our families," Dr. Tarasawa explained. 

But the coronavirus also brought to light some other valid questions, according to Dr. Tarasawa. "Larger questions about the school calendar. Are summer breaks as needed as they were in the past? Do we need to think about different models?"

Creativity, as you'd expect from educators, is blossoming, even in these uncertain times. "You're also seeing some really innovative approaches, like Tennessee, they've done a lot with one-to-one tutoring. Also, think about out-of-school college students who may not be able to enter the labor market. How can we leverage a thousand of those students to do one-on-one tutoring for kids who may need additional support," Dr. Tarasawa said.

Local school leaders say parents can encourage their kids now so the transition back to school won't be as tough, whether students are in class or online. "One of the things we really need to promote is 20-30 minutes of reading every single day," Mize said. "That's critical. If you want to work on a skill, set aside that time. Have somebody read to you or read to yourself." 

"All the reading I've done has shown to hit the ground running at grade level and assess where the holes are in skills and spiral those in, so that we are still not losing ground for the end of next year," said Sarah Cumming, Head of the Promise School. 

"We are realistic about the fact that some loss of learning may never be recovered," Dr. Moran said.

At the end of the day, children, whether they're young or teenagers, just need to know we support them. "We work with superintendents across the country and in Texas, social and emotional needs are the number one thing we hear about concerns of resources and making sure that the adults in the system, as well as the kids are cared for," Dr. Tarasawa said.

"To have this gap in the process, we will continue. The academic piece is certainly a concern. The social and emotional interactions are just as valuable than just the accountability for academic performance, so that really does concern me," TISD Superintendent, Dr. Marty Crawford, said.

Dr. Tararsawa's work is not done. She and her colleagues feel a sense of urgency like never before to get evidence into educators hands quickly to stop the COVID slide and help students in East Texas and across the country.

If you have an education question, send it to Dana at education@cbs19.tv.

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