COVID-slide, social fallout: What educators are preparing for this school year

Debbie Laplaca
Early studies suggest that students fully remotely schooled or who rotated through partial days of hybrid learning during the pandemic, on average, could be five to nine months behind on learning today.

Learning loss, or the COVID-slide, is a concern for all involved in education. The unprecedented disruption in schooling has proven difficult for most students, and even more troublesome for students whose home learning conditions were less than adequate.

Early studies suggest that students fully remotely schooled or who rotated through partial days of hybrid learning during the pandemic, on average, could be five to nine months behind on learning today.

Further, the most vulnerable students are expected to be disproportionately affected. Students of color were projected to be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

In addition to combating learning loss, educators are also prepping this upcoming school year for the social-emotional fallout students may be experiencing from the pandemic.

“All students were affected by the pandemic to varying degrees and in different ways, including possible isolation, anxiety, and depression,” DESE spokesperson Jacqueline Reis said. “At the start of the school year in particular, schools will need to see what social and emotional supports students need. Students who chose to stay remote through the end of the ‘20-21 school year might need extra help returning to the building.”

So, what can parents and guardians expect when summer closes and schools reopen with full in-person schedules of classroom instruction?

Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS), said the goal of educators is to make the reopening as normal for students as possible, while watching for signs from children who have suffered trauma or unfinished learning during the pandemic.

“The focus is going to be a balance between academic and the social-emotional support for the kids who are readjusting to full in-person learning and relationship building with their peers,” Scott said.

Regarding the social-emotional support, Scott said, “We will be looking out for children who have been in environments where there has been neglect and abuse situations.”

School staff, he said, will be sensitive to providing as much social interaction as possible for student support.

As for the so-called COVID-slide, Scott said, “In the beginning of the year there will be a lot of diagnostic assessment of kids to determine the degree of learning loss.”

One gage of possible learning gaps will be the results from the spring administration of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment system of testing, known as MCAS, Reis said.

Education leaders and teachers have received guidance for achieving “equitable recovery” in a DESE May publication titled, “Acceleration Roadmap.”

In it, a letter from DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley says in part, “Despite the herculean efforts of educators and families, we must acknowledge that many of our students are facing unfinished learning heading into the summer and next school year. To effectively meet the needs of our students – particularly those most impacted by the pandemic – we need to focus on making sure all of our kids receive the culturally responsive support they need to be successful in their grade level.”

The roadmap focuses on acceleration rather than remediation of possible learning losses.

Remediation is based on the misconception that for students to learn new information, they must go back and master everything they missed, the roadmap says.

The primary focus of remediation is mastering concepts of the past. Acceleration, on the other hand, strategically prepares students for success in the present. Rather than concentrating on a litany of items that students have failed to master, acceleration readies students for new learning. Past concepts and skills are addressed, but in the purposeful context of future learning.

“Learning acceleration doesn’t mean racing through the curriculum, but instead ensuring that students can spend as much time as possible engaging meaningfully with grade-appropriate work,” Riley wrote. “If a student hasn’t mastered the earlier skills that are required to complete a grade-appropriate assignment, the student receives ‘just-in-time support’ — giving the student just the right amount of help to move forward, right when they need that help.”

The summer months have brought greater concerns about students’ readiness to advance to the next grade, particularly for families without the resources to enroll their children in summer camps or enrichment programs. So, while educators prep for the soon-to-be full classrooms, specialized summer programs have been getting a jump on post-pandemic student needs.

For this, the Baker-Polito Administration allocated more than $70 million in funding and resources to school districts and community organizations for summer learning and recreational programs. This bump in summer funding was designed to help students who were negatively impacted by remote and hybrid learning to catch up academically and grow socially.

With that, DESE began administering a wide range of grant-funded programs this summer, which are expected to impact more than 50,000 students statewide each year.

One such offering, Acceleration Academies, is a late August program that gives students up to 25 hours of learning in one week on one subject. Early literacy learning is the focus for children up to second grade, and math acceleration is for middle and high schoolers.

Other offerings include early literacy tutoring for grades K-2, a math challenge for elementary school-aged children, and bolstered enrichment at summer camps and programs.

For more information on summer programs available in your area, visit https://www.doe.mass.edu/asost/summer-learning.html