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Group of elementary school kids running at school, back view
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The Bottom Line Making Up for Lost Learning

According to data from the National Parents Union, 76 percent of students are not back on campus full-time but instead are attending (or at least they are supposed to be attending) school fully or partially remotely. Parents are worried about the learning loss they see in their children. But they’re not the only stakeholders to recognize students are not learning adequately due to the long lapse of five-day-a-week in-person schooling. Education Week’s research data reveals that 80 percent of educators acknowledge that students are not learning language arts and math to the degree they should be through online instruction.

A Plan is Needed

It’s no secret that the Coronavirus school closures have led to student learning loss. What is the plan to combat that loss?

Quickly reopening schools and returning to five-day-a-week in-person instruction is foundational to recovering from the loss as schools are essential in several ways. First, schools provide age and developmentally appropriate learning avenues for students to prepare for life and the workforce. Second, schools allow students to receive care and support from adults and, for some, two meals each weekday — both of which students might not receive otherwise. Third, the structure and supervision given to students during the day allow parents to maintain daytime jobs to provide for their families. Fourth, school social networks help students develop interpersonal skills, friendships, communication proficiencies, and more, all of which aid in positively shaping a student.

Time is of the essence. Students are falling further behind academically and developmentally with each passing week. Additionally, dating back to last March, when the school shutdowns began, students have not received the same number of instruction hours per week remotely that they would have received from in-person learning.

Regaining Lost Time

Reopening only prevents further damage to the students. We also need a plan to make up for that lost learning. There is no magic educational strategy, nor new instructional tactic that will combat the significant learning loss facing our nation’s children and teens. Painstaking hard work, on both the part of the school and the student, will be required. What could this entail?

Assessing students should be the first step yet standardized testing is controversial with parents. Some are even advocating a one-year break from testing due to COVID-19 induced stress. However, how will educators at the classroom, school, district, and state levels effectively evaluate their students’ understanding of grade-level content without employing assessment tools? A baseline snapshot of the current situation is needed to strategically plan a remedy.

Once individual students are assessed, an aligned plan can effectively take shape. Step two should involve grouping students based on their current understanding rather than their traditional grade level and calendar month of the school year. For example, say a school reopens in January — not all students will be on grade level for the mid-year point of their given grade. A few may be ahead of schedule, but most will be behind at differing degrees.

For example, students in grade four, but reading only at the early third grade level, will need instruction corresponding to the previous grade. The same tactic should be employed with math based on individual student proficiency rather than scheduled grade level. More learning will likely be necessary to make up for the lost time. Though it won’t be popular, this may involve extending student learning into holiday breaks and the summer to give students an opportunity to gain the needed learning skills — which will aid in their confidence, motivation, and performance.

Other ideas to compensate for lost learning include smaller student-teacher ratios, employing trained paraeducators or volunteers to supplement teachers (either during the school day, or before and after school), and revamping before and aftercare programs into reading camps, math clubs, and science labs. 

The adverse effects of not compensating for lost learning time could be severe, as students face the prospect of advancing grade levels unprepared academically. Lacking the foundational learning proficiencies needed, they will experience increased defeat as the content rigor advances. This, in turn, will lead to a path of self-esteem downturn, student disengagement, and increased dropout rates, all of which pre-pandemic were already far too common.

Utilizing the Deployed Devices

Another issue to consider is what will happen to the millions of electronic devices distributed to students during the school lockdown. Will those devices primarily lay on shelves within classrooms or remain at home for student gaming and YouTube video watching? What would happen if schools maximized the power of technology for individual instruction with adaptive learning tools? Or now that all students have a device with internet connectivity, could flipped classrooms be maximized, with school day time not used to lecture the material but instead to answer questions, provide academic support, and for students to engage in collaborative learning activities and discussions? Technology tools employed within the K-12 classroom for more than substitution for print material learning activities open the door for augmentation, modification, and redefinition of learning, known as the SMAR Model. These effective education avenues, thanks to technology, cannot be left out of the equation in making up for lost learning.

Recasting the Vision to Stakeholders

Regaining lost time will not be popular at the onset. However, educational leaders can and must recast the vision for why education matters and why it matters for each individual student. Stakeholders will only support the education system if they are convinced that it is advancing the education goal to equip students with the skills and knowledge necessary for a quality adult life and enjoyable career options. We must educate parents and students alike about the value of education and the hardships in life that will entail without it.

It is vital to the future of our students and our communities that we confront and begin making up for lost learning without delay. We need to do whatever it takes — whether that entails summer school, grade realignment, or enlisting more hands on deck to work with students in smaller groups — our students can’t afford anything less.