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Kansas Educators Worry What Five Months Away From Classrooms Will Do To Schoolkids

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
A first-grader practices spelling at Broken Arrow Elementary during a small-group phonics lesson in 2018.

WICHITA, Kansas — The summer slide. That’s the annual learning loss that happens when students spend three months away from school.

Now researchers warn about a “COVID slide.”

Students will have spent five months out of the classroom, shuttered because of the pandemic, when they return in August.

Clunky remote learning replaced longer hours and more rigorous instruction for the students still trying — and many have checked out for the year. Add the stress of an imploding economy that might have tossed Mom or Dad out of work plus limits on the emotional support schools often offer kids, and teachers will likely see already struggling students slip further behind.

“There will definitely be loss and there is a potential for even greater loss when they come back if schools don’t carefully understand how traumatic experiences impact learning,” said Alison Wishard Guerra, an associate professor at the University of California-San Diego’s department of education studies.

COVID slide

Researchers debate how much of an impact summer vacation has on student learning. While some say it costs students a full month, others say the “summer slide” is more of a summer slowdown, more a halt than a retreat.

But researchers at NWEA, a nonprofit that works on education assessments, used summer learning loss to model a “COVID slide.” Under the worst-case scenario, students would come back in the fall with roughly 70 percent of the learning gains they would have received during a full school year.

Math had the worst results, with some grades losing nearly a full year of learning. Compared to other subjects like reading, math gets much less attention outside of school.

“That’s not what we typically imagine when we think of the really, you know, wonderful parent-child bonding time,” Megan Kuhfeld said, a researcher at NWEA. “It’s not usually over math workbooks.”

That worst-case scenario, however, assumes no teaching happens between the March shutdown and when schools reopen.

Kansas schools hope to avoid that with remote learning, but what that looks like differs from district to district.

Wichita requires no assignments or attendance. The district locked in student grades, though high schoolers sweating their GPA or short of their graduation requirements can do extra work to boost their GPA.

The Barnes Hanover Linn school district, about an hour north of Manhattan, requires students to keep doing their work. Each day about 75% to 85% of the district’s kids log in for online learning, but that’s short of the district’s 97% attendance average from last year. Most student grades have held steady since the shutdown, though that’s with teachers focusing more on reviewing old material than teaching new material.

“We’ve backed off on the rigor,” said John Whetzal, superintendent of Barnes Hanover Linn. “But we do keep records of when kids are logging on, when kids are actually completing the work.”

That fits with Kansas' top line in the state’s recommendations for schools — “less is more.” The state suggests middle and high school students spend no more than three hours a day learning. Fifth and fourth grade should max out at 90 minutes and the time drops below that for the lower levels.

Despite the shrunken learning time, educators say this is far from a lost learning semester. Between days off, spring break and field trips, Buhler Unified School Districts says it’s only losing about 13 days worth of classroom time.

“I don’t feel like we are going to be missing too much content at all,” said Cindy Couchman, assistant superintendent at Buhler. “We have really secured our students to be successful in school next year.”

COVID stress

Credit Stephan Bisaha / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
Wichita teacher Lan Huynh instructs her third grade students over a video call.

Learning loss will not affect all students equally. While some high-achieving students might bristle against online learning, the gap between them and students that were already struggling will likely widen even more.

Some research blames the summer slide for causing low-income students to fall further behind their peers. They expect a COVID slide to do the same. Lack of internet or computers at home makes summer and remote learning more difficult.

Kansas schools have tried to address those achievement gaps in recent years by focusing on student’s emotional and social needs. The philosophy goes that if schools take care of students' mental health, they’ll be better able to focus on learning.

But educators worry that the opposite is true — coronavirus related stress could be a barrier to student’s catching back up in the fall. That stress could come from a parent losing a job, or when a child doesn’t have school as a sanctuary from abuse in the home.

“For students to learn, we have to take care of any trauma they’re experiencing before that can happen.” said Brent Yeager, assistant superintendent at Olathe Public Schools. “A lot of that will be magnified when students come back to school in the fall.”

Olathe wants to hire more psychologists, social workers and counselors. Wichita Public Schools says it’s continuing to train teachers to address students’ emotional needs. Some of that work is still happening remotely, with social and emotional check-ins taking over some time from teaching.

Lan Huynh, a teacher at Christa McAuliffe Academy in Wichita, says she starts her weekly video meeting asking how her third graders are doing. So many students want to speak at the same time that she has to mute them when the lesson eventually begins. Even the shy kids speak up.

“They just love to talk,” Huynh said. “They haven’t seen their friends in a while.”

Huynh also calls students without internet access. But she says when she talks with her teacher friends they cry together. They wonder if they’re doing enough or even too much for their students.

“I hope people know that emotionally it is very difficult for us teachers, too,” Huynh said. “Looking at the screen, seeing their faces, it’s just not the same.”

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.