Researchers Examine Long-Term Effects Of Students Being Out Of School

May 15, 2020
Originally published on May 18, 2020 12:17 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

U.S. officials are publicly debating whether and how to open schools this fall. The testimony of Dr. Anthony Fauci is to be careful. Conditions around September will be far from ideal.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far.

INSKEEP: Which leaves this leading voice on the coronavirus task force warning that testing and social distancing are the best weapons available. Fauci's word of caution was contradicted by the president...

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: To me, it's not an acceptable answer.

INSKEEP: ...Who said this week that states should push ahead.

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TRUMP: I think you should absolutely open the schools. Our country's got to get back, and it's got to get back as soon as possible. And I don't consider our country coming back if the schools are closed.

INSKEEP: Now, late yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control put out a checklist to help schools decide whether to reopen. Now, whenever they do that, will students be ready after months at home? David Greene learned that this question is very much on the minds of their teachers.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: I want to introduce you to Ashley Bason (ph). She teaches 11th grade English at Dunbar High, a public school in Baltimore, Md. She was really worried that remote learning just wouldn't work for all of her students. Some weren't logging into class from home.

ASHLEY BASON: Knowing the inequities present within our education system and knowing that all of my students did not have devices at home that they could use, I just felt as if there was going to be that slide.

GREENE: Now, her school did jump into action. It got laptops to students who needed them. But still, she knows it's going to be tough when she's finally back in the classroom.

BASON: There will be students who, you know, are at all different places. So we will have to do a lot of work just to make sure that everyone is learning at a pace that is appropriate for them but that also does not increase the achievement gap between them and their peers.

GREENE: So this isn't entirely new, right? Teachers expect a drop-off in academic performance every summer - the so-called summer slide. But this pandemic will mean months more out of the classroom. Some researchers are calling this the COVID-19 slide, and we'll talk to one of them in a few minutes.

But first, one more personal take because this is something confronting so many teachers at all levels. Robin Nelson (ph) teaches first grade in Florida. She's been trying to keep a routine. She starts each day with her first grade students on a screen at 8:30.

ROBIN NELSON: A lot of them are, you know, getting up in the morning, and, you know, we get the sleepy-headed hair and the, you know, jammies and (laughter)...

GREENE: The students hear a recording of the morning announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, and then she sends them off for a day of remote learning. Robin Nelson's school, Ortega Elementary in Jacksonville, serves a good number of families who struggle to get by.

NELSON: I work at a Title 1 school, so we have a lot of kids that are socioeconomically challenged. In some ways, the parents - this has been plopped in their lap. If they're out of work, then they're probably more involved than they may have been before with their job. The ones that are juggling a job and kids and possibly multiple kids and - I don't know which is harder - the stress of being unemployed and trying to make do or being employed and trying to juggle everything on top of that.

GREENE: Now, Nelson has stayed optimistic so far. She thinks most of her students, maybe 80%, have kept up. Her biggest concern right now is her students who speak Spanish at home. English is their second language, and their parents may have trouble supporting them.

NELSON: I speak a little Spanish, you know, enough to get me in trouble, and the kids are OK with my level of Spanish. But for me to communicate sufficiently with the parents to help the kids, it's kind of a, you know, it's definitely a blockade. We're going to have a summer school for our kids that are learning English, but I don't know if we're going to have the support like we do now. So I think it's the kids that are trying to learn English on top of everything else they're trying to do in school that may have the biggest struggle.

GREENE: And I just think about if we're talking about kids who are in first grade, you know, months away from consistently using English in the classroom, I mean, how much might they be set back?

NELSON: This - it's going to be a challenge. We've got the resources out there, but I would not be surprised if there was a bigger slide with them. I think it's hard, on my end, to - I was hoping that we would have the end of the year testing. And, yes, it wouldn't be ideal, but it would give me at least a gauge of how much this child independently knows, and - but we're not having that because it cannot be a perfect testing environment. So I think that the beginning of the year testing that we'll do next year, hopefully in the classroom, will give us a, you know, a launching point to where we need to meet them to bring them to where they need to be.

GREENE: So you might - I mean, assuming you get back into the classroom in the fall, you might be coming in and only then figuring out where some of the problems might be and get a sense for how significant this was.

NELSON: Yeah. And, you know, we kind of brace ourselves every year for that anyway because of the summer loss. A lot of kids don't pick up a book over the summer, don't deal with numbers over the summer. So we'll get to see a truer picture on how badly this has affected the kids once we get back into the classroom.

GREENE: What have you been telling parents, in terms of even bare minimum? Even if they're say, in essential jobs and going to work every day and don't have a ton of time but, like, bare minimum, what they can do to, you know, to help their kids keep up?

NELSON: The general rule of thumb is to make sure that they are reading 20, 30 minutes every day. You know, I've gotten resources out to my kids so that if they just read to their parents every day, if they get to go grocery shopping or cooking or something that has to deal with numbers - and it's really that. Just keep them in contact with education.

GREENE: I have to imagine you got into this profession because you love being around kids...

NELSON: True (laughter).

GREENE: ...And seeing their faces, and you've got to miss your students right now.

NELSON: I do. We just had teacher appreciation, and my school got the kids to participate in a little video recording. And, oh, my goodness, that was - that was really, really tough because you got to see their feelings. It wasn't about schoolwork. It was about their connection with you. And that was very, very sweet - best, you know, weirdest, best teacher appreciation gift you could have gotten.

GREENE: So that was Robin Nelson. She teaches first grade in Jacksonville, Fla. Let's zoom out now and hear from someone who has taken a broad look at this.

Megan Kuhfeld is a research scientist in NWEA, an organization that measures academic progress. She's co-authored a report called "The COVID-19 Slide." She used what we already know about the annual summer learning loss to project what might be happening now.

MEGAN KUHFELD: This is very much an unprecedented event with schools closed all over the country. So we really wanted to know how bad this could look in terms of learning losses, especially early on, when the schools were really trying to meet basic needs - so providing food, providing devices. There wasn't as much instruction going on during those first couple weeks. And given we had research already on summer slide, we decided to produce a series of projections to try to understand - if schools closed in March and potentially didn't reopen again in September, we're looking at, essentially, a six-month period where students were out of school. And what we found was pretty alarming.

We found that if students are losing ground at the rate we would expect during the summer, that students could return to school in the fall having only made about 70% of their gains that they'd be expected to be making in reading and approximately only about 50% of the gains that they would be expected to make in math. And that's due to kind of two factors. The first is losing ground but also missing out on that instruction that they would have been receiving throughout the end of the school year. So instead of continuing to make gains, students may be actually starting to forget what they had been exposed to, which leads to these big gaps.

GREENE: So we're talking about so significant that, you know, someone at a reading level in eighth, ninth grade, if they had been going on the way things were going, I mean, they might be, like, a half-year behind if they're starting to forget things and lose ground. It could be that significant.

KUHFELD: Yeah. I mean, we don't expect these losses for everyone. We know some families have devices, have quiet places for children to learn. They maybe have a parent who's working from home who can support learning. But we know there are plenty of other students out there whose families are struggling to meet basic needs, who don't have the Internet, who don't have computers. And given the kind of structural inequalities in our country, we know that these losses are not going to be evenly distributed across the country. There's some students who are much more vulnerable for being a half-year behind, and those are the students we're really worried about.

GREENE: Is there a trauma from this pandemic, from the chaos and the emotional toll that could really affect students and how they're using their minds and what they're able to do through all this?

KUHFELD: We definitely expect that many families and students are facing trauma during this time. It's been an extremely disruptive time for everyone across the board. We know that - from Hurricane Katrina and other big natural disasters, that there are many students who went through those disasters and then had trouble focusing afterwards or had trouble with depression. This is not just going to be an academic loss. There is going to also be mental health consequences to this event that we really have to be aware of and prepare schools for this immediate need that students will have, come fall - to have not only supportive adults in their life but someone who can help look out for signs of trauma, signs of abuse and help the students who are in need.

GREENE: You know, Megan, I could imagine parents listening to this and having different reactions - for one, feeling like, thank goodness, someone is actually looking into this and trying to understand it, but also hearing it and getting even more freaked out about the position that their student could be in. I mean, what, overall, would you tell parents right now?

KUHFELD: Yeah, I mean, I think, to the degree possible, we know that, you know, continuing to read during the summer, continuing to find ways to bring math into kind of everyday life, whether it's through cooking, whether it's through coding games, the more kids engage with academic materials, they're less likely to forget and to show summer slide. So we know it is a very stressful time for parents. So you know, the academics are really important, but taking care of each other and taking care of the social, emotional needs is also probably the key thing, I would say - the baseline for everything that follows.

GREENE: We've been talking to Megan Kuhfeld. She's a research scientist at NWEA, talking to us about a report she co-authored on learning loss due to all the shutdowns from COVID-19. Thanks so much.

KUHFELD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.