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The Bottom Line Staggering Learning Loss

Many K-12 public schools across the nation remain closed completely or multiple days per week. Students as young as five are left to navigate their learning from home with a device provided by their school district. No assessment was deployed to determine if these students were candidates for successful online learning, which requires skills of reading proficiency, self-efficacy, and autonomous learning. Nor was there adequate curriculum preparation for online delivery. Equally important, robust teacher training to effectively utilize the necessary technology components for online learning was largely non-existent.

Adult Needs take Priority over Student Needs

The decision to keep schools closed, partially or entirely, seems to be centered on what’s best for adults, not students. For example, in an interview last week, Dr. Clint Satterfield, Director of Schools at Trousdale County Schools in Tennessee, discussed his district’s decision to provide hybrid learning (a combination of on-campus and online learning days each week) this fall. Satterfield admitted that the decision not to reopen the district’s schools fully was designed to protect the adults on his payroll from the coronavirus. He acknowledged that students are not high carriers nor easily susceptible to the infection.

In outlining the decision to reopen the schools only partially through a hybrid format, Satterfield further clarified that this was not based on any difficulty providing the necessary physical space for student social distancing, which was achievable. Instead, the motive centered on a separate issue the district faces — a shortage of back-up staff. Specifically, the district has no substitute bus drivers, no substitute food service workers, and only six substitute teachers with a district student population of 1,300 students. Satterfield believes the hybrid format will keep staff healthier.

The bottom line is that instead of tackling the existing problem of back-up staff shortages, the district’s chief leader implemented limited in-person schooling — to the detriment of students. The failure to provide full-time in-person schooling will result in significantly less learning, which will have a lasting negative effect in the future — a problem that will be much more extensive and complex to resolve than addressing the back-up staff shortage.

Two Plus Two Does Not Equal Five

There’s an additional problem here. Students fortunate enough to have their school move toward a hybrid learning model rather than remaining closed may begin to return to campus two days per week. However, many districts implementing a hybrid learning format are only allocating four days a week to some form of student learning. Why?

The rationale given repeatedly by school district leaders is that students are divided into two groups: each assigned two days on campus and two days of at-home learning weekly. For the remaining day each week, district leaders are quick to explain that it would be too difficult for parents to plan if the day alternated each week between which group of students was on-campus versus online. On the contrary, parents can prepare just as easily for one day each week alternating as they can plan for the four-days-a-week schedule entailing two on-campus days and two online days. The insistence on this schedule places a severe hardship on parents, who are forced to provide additional supervision and academic support for their children during times they’d normally be in school. As a result, jobs are forfeited, and young children are left unsupervised. Worst of all, learning is lost.

Favoring teachers at the expense of students goes further. Satterfield noted the need to keep students in smaller groups to minimize cross-contamination if the virus infiltrates a school means teachers must now supervise students during lunchtime. This is outside the norm in Tennessee and requires the district to file for a waiver to the 30-minute break. Yet only half of their students are present for lunch — the other half remain at home each day. To compensate, the district has opted to eliminate providing instruction to students one full day each week to allow teachers a student-free day weekly (roughly six and a half to seven hours) for planning and professional development. Again, this is because teachers need to eat lunch in their classroom with roughly 11-13 students (the other half of the students are at home). As Satterfield reflects, “It has gone over really well with our teachers.”

What about the students? How well is this new four-day hybrid model serving their development and fostering learning? And what about the parents? Did they agree to the 20 percent reduction in schooling simply because the two days a week their child is allowed to attend school on-campus now involves eating in the classroom with their teacher instead of the cafeteria with an alternative staff member supervising? Are there no other creative solutions for lunch supervision than reducing school by one day each week?

Staggering Learning Loss

The amount of learning loss from school shutdowns starting last March and remaining in effect, in full or part, is staggering. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes examined data from 19 states and published a report on October 1 that estimated the learning loss in reading and math. The results vary greatly by state but, on average, are as follows.

Student Learning Loss Based on a 180-Day School Year:

  • Reading: 57 to 183 days
  • Math: 136 to 232 days

In other words, the average student lost a third to a full year in reading learning and three-quarters to significantly over a full year in math! Educators should be the first to recognize that this unacceptable result demands schools reopen fully and quickly.

These numbers should have parents fuming. Like adults, students do not retain all newly learning information for extended durations when the content is not readdressed, utilized, and connected to additional learning. As a substitute for in-person instruction, the makeshift online school has not provided even close to the same quantity of learning as previous face-to-face on-campus learning.

Factors leading to the steep learning loss have included a reduced length of the school day, fewer student collaboration learning opportunities, curriculum not delivered effectively, teacher disengagement, student disengagement, lack of reliable internet access, and a lack of consistent online learning attendance for some students. Additionally, other students were behind academically before the school shutdowns, which exacerbated their situation, resulting in lower levels of motivation, confidence, and performance.

Students need additional hands-on academic support and encouragement, yet the limited face-to-face time with their teachers is a barrier to their success. It is imperative school districts reopen their campuses and provide the essential work of educating students — in-person, five days a week!