The upheavals from the coronavirus pandemic have caused unprecedented disruptions in educating our children. The need to move instruction from the classroom to the computer screen for extended periods means that some students fell behind in their studies.
Badly behind. As life slowly returns to normal, our schools face a daunting challenge in filling the learning gaps that happened during the far-from-normal learning environment during the pandemic.
It’s vital that we solve this problem so that children who struggled during the pandemic can catch up.
Research shows that, nationally, absences doubled during the pandemic. Before, an average of 5% of students were absent on a typical day, rising to 10% once the coronavirus wave struck.
The digital divide exacerbated the problem for disadvantaged students. Studies found that 18% of Minnesota students were without a digital device and 28% lacked high-speed internet service.
The setback has been called “the COVID slide,” reminiscent of the “summer slide” learning loss that happens when students go on vacation. Educators estimate the summer break sets students’ academic progress back about one month.
The learning loss is especially acute in skills that require memorization, such as math, and less in other areas, including reading.
In the spring of 2020, researchers predicted that students were apt to return in the fall of 2020 with about 63% to 68% of learning gains in reading compared to a typical school year — and only 37% to 50% of the learning gains in math.
Undoubtedly, many students were able to adapt very well to remote learning arrangements. Anecdotally, some flourished and even seemed to prefer it.
But for others the isolation and the difficulties in learning outside the supportive environment of the classroom were obstacles they weren’t able to fully overcome — especially for those lacking adequate internet access.
Fortunately, both Minnesota and North Dakota will be addressing this problem with federal COVID-19 relief dollars.
Gov. Tim Walz is rolling out a $75 million summer learning initiative that targets money for preschool learning programs, mental health supports, expanded access to tutoring.
Under Minnesota’s plan, public schools will receive money to create partnerships with organizations, including community groups and businesses, for all kinds of learning settings, including tutoring, field trips and learning acceleration as well as college readiness.
Funding will be apportioned to schools based on a state formula, and district or charter officials can apply for additional grants based on what they hoped to achieve locally.
North Dakota also has a plan to fill the learning gaps. Legislators passed a bill making all K-12 students eligible for summer school. Pre-pandemic, only remedial math and reading students in grades K-4 were eligible for summer school state aid.
The estimated cost is $1.3 million over two years — an amount that’s proportional to Minnesota’s financial commitment, given Minnesota’s much larger population. North Dakota education officials estimate the pandemic will result in a 5% summer school participation rate, so the cost could reach $2.6 million if 10% of students participate.
The challenge of filling the learning gaps will be steep, for students, parents and educators. But we’ve proven during this pandemic that we can adapt to extraordinary circumstances. Whatever the cost, it’s a vital investment in our children and the future of Minnesota and North Dakota.