It has been nearly two years since millions of students were first driven out of local schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, many have wondered if online learning is slowing academic progress, and if so, by how much.
That question has proven difficult to answer, as in light of the virus, California skipped its statewide assessments for the 2019-20 school year. Last month, however, the California Department of Education released the 2020-21 results, giving educators across the state their first real look at statewide COVID-19 learning. .
Data shows that academic progress has slowed in all areas in the 2020-21 school year compared to 2018-2019, with younger students in particular experiencing a wider academic gap.
Chronic absenteeism is also on the rise. Fourteen percent of California students missed 10% or more days of school last year (a 2% increase).
San Diego single mom Jessica McClure used to travel often for work before the pandemic, but found herself working from home in 2020. She shared that space with her 7-year-old son, who was also forced to stay home as a student at the Unified School in Poway. District. McClure noticed early on that her son, who is dyslexic, struggled to learn online.
“It really opened my eyes because I don’t think I realized how much he was struggling until it was me in front of him,” McClure said.
With the guidance of her son’s teachers, she began doing one-on-one interactive lessons with her son. McClure said she noticed a big change for the better. A question still lingered in her mind: “Was her son late?
“You know I struggle with that thought,” McClure said. “Because obviously all the parents talk about it on a regular basis. Do we have a gap now? Is there something we were missing because of the way things went?”
Mercedes Lovie, associate superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District, told NBC 7, “It changed everything in education.”
Oceanside Unified tests students internally three times a year, including the year the state skipped testing. The district said it found students had fallen behind in math but remained relatively on track in language arts. Lovie said it’s easier for students to build their language skills outside of the classroom.
“I think there are more opportunities for reading in the natural environment,” Lovie said.
In response to lower math test scores, the district said it was redesigning its curriculum, providing professional training for teachers and reviewing new textbooks. In addition to these efforts, the district allows high school students to make up credits to help them stay on track to graduate. Oceanside also offered on-demand virtual assistance and employed intervention teachers.
Teachers told NBC 7 that the pandemic is having other surprising effects as well. Virtual education has allowed teachers to see inside their students’ home environments, often for the first time.
“These little windows into their lives that you wouldn’t see in a classroom have led to a lot of things,” said Oceanside Teachers Association President Tiffany Cooper-Ortega.
Cooper-Ortega said not all children have a proper learning/working space at home, complete with desks, pencils and pens. Some students worked on couches in their living room, on coffee tables, or even on the floor. Educators did not realize that some students needed school supplies. They also realized a need for emotional support resources and education. Oceanside now has a full-time mental health counselor in every elementary school in its district and offers a social-emotional learning program for all students.
“Teachers have always worried about the students,” Cooper-Ortega said. “They always lost sleep at night, worrying about whether the students would pass their grades, whether they would pass their studies. What was different was not that we felt it and it was new, it was that we all felt it at the same time. It was a universal feeling. Everyone worried about what the students were learning.
In addition to academic efforts to get students back on track, Oceanside Unified recently opened four “community schools” for its most-at-risk students. These schools provide food, health, and other resource clinics to students’ families.
“But what we’ve also seen is that children are incredibly resilient,” Lovie said.