Op Ed By: Dr. Chuck Williams
As schools across the country rightly focus on getting students, teachers and staff back to school safely in the midst of the pandemic, a larger question looms across the classrooms of America – how do we address the profound academic losses that will inevitably spring from the prolonged time away from the classroom?
We can look to the education literature for warnings about how much ground students are likely losing during the COVID pandemic. The so called “summer slide” is a recognized phenomena in schools across the country. Every summer break it is estimated that students lose around two months of reading skills and up to three months of math skills. Ask any teacher and he/she will affirm that the first four to six weeks of every fall semester is focused on re-learning forgotten knowledge from the previous spring.
Even more concerning is that this effect seems to be amplified in lower socioeconomic groups. While not tied to race or gender, this loss of progress actually grows summer after summer which leads to a snowball effect with a much wider gap by the time students reach high school.
Data from Hurricane Katrina offers an even more sobering lesson for educators. The storm that devastated New Orleans in 2005 resulted in a four to twelve month absence from school for thousands of students. Combined with the emotional trauma of the storm and family displacement this event led to profound academic loss.
Some children came back from Katrina on average more than two years below grade level with the most dramatic losses again in math. We must anticipate that our outcomes could mirror the Katrina experience – particularly in light of the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on everyone.
How do we address what will be an unprecedented loss of academic learning?
There are four broad areas we should focus on:
- Proper class placement students. We will have assess, assess, and assess some more. Students will be behind academically when they come back to school and some will be significantly further behind than others. This will be a challenge for our teachers because it will require an ongoing, longitudinal process throughout the school year. We’ll have to be creative when we place children in their classes – we may need to base placement on readiness levels as opposed to the natural grade for age in some cases.
- Not advancing students if they don’t know the material. Our system has slowly moved toward a competency based learning model the last several years. This evaluation style would actually be valuable in the situation in which we find ourselves. Instead of focusing on set periods of time to achieve a desired grade, students who show mastery of a subject can move ahead while others may need remediation.
- Summer and after school enrichment. The system needs to begin thinking now about the summer of 2021. What “outside the box” programming can we initiate in an effort to catch up students. Are there after school opportunities we could begin next spring? How do we target the student population that needs the most help and get them plugged in to the right opportunity? How do we fund this and who leads the effort? Is there an opportunity for the business community to partner with us on this?
- Change the school calendar. COVID has turned the world upside down and education is no different. With most students coming out of a five to sixth month “summer break” in 2020 now is the time to re-evaluate how we structure our school calendar and everything should be on the table to re-consider. Should we re-examine a year round or modified year round model for some of our grades? Should we push the legislature to end the “school can’t start before August 26” law in order to get kids back earlier for the fall semester and better align our high schools with the community college schedule? Is the length of the school day adequate? Should we look at starting elementary schools earlier and high schools later to match up the times of day these students learn the best?
Though it’s hard to imagine right now, the pandemic will one day end as the number of cases decline to a manageable level. We need to start thinking now about what we want our schools to look like when the current crisis ends and most importantly protect the students who have already lost so much unredeemable time in the classroom.
Chuck Williams, MD is a family physician with Horizon Family Medicine of Clayton and father of three high school students. Dr. Williams is the co-founder of Project Access, a medical non-profit dedicated to providing healthcare for the uninsured of Johnston County. He is a candidate for the Johnston County Board of Education this fall.