Research shows US students falling months behind during coronavirus disruptions

Seven-year-old Hamza Haqqani uses a computer to participate in an e-learning class in Illinois on May 1, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - While a nation of burned-out, involuntary home-schoolers slogs to the finish line of a disrupted academic year, a picture is emerging of the extent of the learning loss among children in America and the size of the gaps schools will be asked to fill when they reopen.

It is not pretty.

New research suggests that by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school year's worth of academic gains.

Racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps will most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections and direct instruction from teachers.

And the crisis is far from over. The harm to students could grow if schools continue to teach fully or partly online in the fall, or if they reopen with significant budget cuts because of the economic downturn.

High school dropout rates could increase, researchers say, while younger children could miss out on foundational concepts in phonics and fractions that prepare them for a lifetime of learning and working.

In south Los Angeles, Danielle Gandy has spent countless difficult hours guiding her energetic six-year-old, Cadynce, through online meetings and assignments provided by her charter school. Still, Gandy is under no illusion that Cadynce has completed the normal kindergarten curriculum and is especially concerned about her progress in math.

"Looking at the work the teacher has done, I applaud her," Gandy said, "but it's maybe a fraction of what they would be learning if they were in an actual school setting. If they are transitioning into first grade, will there be time to catch up and get them up to par?"

Teachers across the country share such worries. In Aurora, Colorado, outside Denver, Clint Silva, a seventh grade social studies teacher, was planning to spend the spring working with his students on research skills. For one remote assignment, he asked them to create a primary source about the pandemic that future historians could consult.

But a majority of his students have not consistently engaged with remote assignments. They are not receiving traditional grades, and some have parents who are working outside the home or who are not tech-savvy, and are unable to assist with online schooling.

"We know this isn't a good way to teach," Silva said. "We want to hold kids accountable. We want to see their progress, be in the classroom with them and see them struggle and overcome that. Instead, we are logging in for an hour a day, and kids are turning their cameras off and staying quiet and not talking to us."

Research can now estimate the size of the learning loss students have experienced under such conditions. Because regular standardised testing has been suspended, some of the research uses past disruptions to learning - such as natural disasters or even summer break - to project the potential effect of the current crisis. Other studies look at schools that used online learning software before the coronavirus shutdown and check to see how students performed using the same programs from home.

The average student could begin the next school year having lost as much as a third of the expected progress from the previous year in reading and half of the expected progress in math, according to a working paper from NWEA, a nonprofit organisation, and scholars at Brown University and the University of Virginia.

A separate analysis of 800,000 students from researchers at Brown and Harvard looked at how Zearn, an online math programme, was used both before and after schools closed in March. It found that through late April, student progress in math decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes and not at all in classrooms in high-income ZIP codes.

When all of the effects are taken into account, the average student could fall seven months behind academically, while black and Hispanic students could experience even greater learning losses, equivalent to 10 months for black children and nine months for Latinos, according to an analysis from McKinsey & Co., the consulting group.

There are several reasons low-income, black and Hispanic students appear to be suffering the most through the crisis. The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank, will release an analysis next week of the pandemic learning policies of 477 school districts. It found that only a fifth have required live teaching over video and that wealthy school districts were twice as likely to provide such teaching as low-income districts.

Rural students have been especially cut off from their teachers. Only 27 per cent of their districts required any instruction while schools were closed, according to the centre.

While almost every school has provided assignments for students to complete independently, that does not necessarily mean that teachers conducted remote lessons. Schools with many poor students sometimes chose to relax instructional expectations on teachers because they knew families did not have reliable access to home computers or internet connections able to stream video.

The disparities in educational progress do not appear to be caused by any lack of effort on the part of families. The poorest parents spent about the same amount of time during school closures assisting their children with learning - 13 hours per week - as those making more than $200,000 per year, according to a May Census Bureau survey of households with children.

Administrators and teachers know they will need to catch students up in the fall, perhaps through reviewing skills and content that would have normally been covered this school year. But they face major hurdles and competing priorities. Preparing school buildings to meet new state and federal health guidelines - including smaller class sizes; temperature checks; and increased access to sinks, soap, personal protective equipment and disinfectants - requires money and careful planning.

It is just as important to improve the quality of remote learning, given the likelihood that schools in many parts of the country will face continued intermittent closures to contain the virus and that some parents will simply choose not to send their children to classrooms before a vaccine is available.

For protesters flooding the nation's streets in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man killed while Minneapolis police officers arrested him, the idea that school budgets could face greater cuts than police budgets as cities deal with the economic effect of the pandemic has emerged as a major concern and yet more evidence of racial inequality.

Already, New York City, the nation's largest school district, has said it would slow the expansion of its universal pre-K programme to three-year-olds. California's urban schools have warned that budget cuts proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom could make it impossible for them to reopen safely while simultaneously helping students catch up academically.

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