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Learning Curve is WKSU’s reporting initiative examining the past, present and future of K-12 public education in Ohio.

School Districts Consider Ways to Help Students Recover from Pandemic Losses

a photo of a student in a classroom on a computer
Jenny Hamel
Computer science teacher Shanti Coaston goes over network devices with a group of Shaw High School juniors. Most students have been back to school in person, as part of a hybrid model, since January.

Public schools in Ohio have until April 1 to submit a plan to the state for dealing with “learning loss” caused by the pandemic.

The pandemic’s influence on K-12 academic progress has been substantive, especially for districts in lower-income communities that have had to stay remote for nearly a year under the threat of the coronavirus. 

East Cleveland City Schools CEO Dr. Henry Pettiegrew made the difficult decision to bring many of the students back into the classroom as part of a hybrid model in January because he was worried about students falling too far off-track. Students performing to certain academic standards had the option to stay fully remote. 

Pettiegrew said since last spring, when the district first went fully remote under Gov. Mike DeWine’s orders, “it’s been tough, just to find kids, and make sure they’re OK.”

“You’ll see a student that’s on fire in a classroom and then they’ll disappear, and then they’ll come back in a couple of weeks because things at home changed or they had to make some adjustments,” Pettiegrew said.

And for some of East Cleveland’s upperclassmen, Pettiegrew said school was competing with another big distraction.

“Work is one of those things where now students know, especially high school, ‘I'm remote, so I can go to work and my boss can give me all those hours they couldn’t give me when I was in school,’” Pettiegrew said.  “So, then you're competing against a paycheck as well, trying to educate students. It’s tough.”

Pandemic compounds problems
Such pandemic-related issues are compounding the ones the school district already had before the virus. East Cleveland is one of the poorest cities in the country, with an average household income of roughly $20,000 dollars, according to U.S. Census figures. And the school district, deemed ‘academically distressed,’ is under state control. A survey conducted by the school system last spring found more than six out of 10 students had no internet access at home. 

Jenny Hamel
Building relationships with students is a lot easier teaching in-person, according to computer science teacher Shanti Coaston.

“In my district, where students are beginning at the lowest levels of proficiency, the pandemic made it just even worse to dig them deeper and deeper into that hole,” Pettiegrew said. “So we are already trying to plan ways to—how many children do we have to help pull out of this pit of the pandemic?”

Computer science teacher Shanti Coaston said that although she had some safety concerns about students and staff returning to in-person learning, shifting to a hybrid learning model was a better option than staying fully remote.

“It was very difficult, especially building relationships with students you did not know,” Coaston said. “The students that I've had in previous years, it was very easy. They knew how the system worked. But the biggest thing was, you know, finding those kids, getting them logged on and being ready to go and learning the system. And so it was a lot of individual reaching out, contacting parents.”

During one Friday afternoon class, Coaston went over what Ethernet cables and other network devices are with a small group of high school juniors. Coaston put an infographic on a screen so the students could connect what she’s describing with a visual.

One student, 17-year-old Tavareon Sanders, like most kids at Shaw High School, has been going to school in-person two days a week as part of a hybrid model since mid-January. Sanders said being fully remote since last spring was tough for him.

“When we were in school, my grades were good. And then when the pandemic came, I was struggling with all the work and stuff,” Sanders said. “It was harder for me to stay focused in front of a monitor for so many hours. I can't do that. I've got to be, like, in person. So, I can get help from the teachers and stuff like that.”

The Biden administration has ordered states to administer standardized tests without penalizing any districts and currently, Ohio legislators are working out exactly what that will look like for Ohio’s students.

Pettiegrew said “some sort of” testing will help gauge where students are academically, adding that the district is considering “extending the school year and going into a summer session” in order to help students “make up for academic loss.” 

What tests reveal
When DeWine announced the April 1 deadline for districts to submit a plan for dealing with learning loss, he pointed to the results of standardized tests taken in the fall. Results from the most recent Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, taken in the fall, showed that nearly half of Ohio’s kindergartners were not on track academically.

Jenny Hamel
Shaw High School junior Tavareon Sanders said when the district was fully remote, “it was harder for me to stay focused in front of a monitor for so many hours.”       

Political science professor Vladimir Kogan and a team at Ohio State University analyzed all the results of the English Language Arts test taken by third graders in the fall. The team found that about 20,000 fewer children in Ohio had taken the test compared to the previous year, and that the pandemic’s disruption to learning is already having substantial impacts.

“On average, Ohio students in the third grade this year are performing about a third of a year behind students at the same time last year in third grade,” Kogan said.

What’s even more concerning, according to Kogan, is that Black students suffered even steeper declines, with test results showing they are, on average, half a year behind – illustrating another way the pandemic has hit minorities hardest.

“And so this is just exacerbating many of those inequalities and will probably continue exacerbating them because the impacts on student learning today will affect these students’ futures tomorrow, their ability to go to college, their ability to get jobs,” Kogan said. “So in the long run, consequences could be really serious, which is why I think it’s so important to really focus on how do we make up lost ground. What are the remediation steps we’re going to take, as a state, to really try to address this?”

But Kogan, like many educators, takes issue with the term ‘learning loss,” because of its implication that students are responsible for what hasn’t been learned during an incredibly chaotic time.

“I don't think education loss is the way I would phrase it. I would phrase it as the impact of these COVID disruptions on student learning,” Kogan said.
Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream.

Learning Curve is a statewide media collaborative focusing on the challenges and opportunities facing K-12 public education in Ohio.

Our partners include WCPN, WOSU, WVXU, WYSO and The Devil Strip.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”