At the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), our critical work to eliminate multigenerational poverty and create a culture of achievement for African American scholars and their families living in north Minneapolis was challenged this past year by the pandemic, community violence and longstanding inequities in our educational system. To best support our scholars, families and collaboration partners, we reviewed emerging literature that has identified four detrimental impacts of COVID -19 on students’ well-being and learning. As a result, we believe bold actions are necessary to ensure a quality education for these students, going forward:
- Students are experiencing mental health declines.
In the Vanderbilt Child Health Covid-19 Poll, administered in June 2020, 25% of parents surveyed reported worsening mental health in their children, and 14% reported declining behavioral health. This deterioration was linked to an increase in food insecurity, delays in health care visits and loss of child care. Fall 2020 results from our NAZ survey of families suggest scholars have a reduced sense of safety and increased level of anxiety, caused by less social interaction with friends, difficulties adapting to distance and hybrid learning, continually changing routines, and exposure to high levels of community violence.
- Students are experiencing significant learning loss.
According to one study (Dorn, et al, 2020) which estimated learning loss based on students’ return to in-class instruction in January 2021, low-income, Black, and Hispanic students were estimated to lose 12.4, 10.3, and 9.2 months of learning, respectively, compared to white students, who were estimated to lose 6.0 months. These numbers likely underestimate actual learning loss because significant numbers of students, especially low-income students, have not been assessed since returning to class, are not attending school, or are logging in to classes inconsistently. The loss in learning is greater in math than in reading.
- Students are experiencing great variation in learning opportunities and instructional quality.
Despite major efforts by school districts and communities to provide essential technology to students and families for distance learning, the digital divide persists with stark inequities in access to high-quality online education, including high-speed internet and internet-capable devices as well as training and support for students, parents and teachers. In addition to quality, the quantity of student learning is less than a typical year with curricula reduced to accommodate pandemic-induced limitations on class time. Schools serving high numbers of children living in poverty or children of color are less likely to offer in-person instruction.
- Assessing student learning during the pandemic with reliability and validity is even more difficult than usual.
2020 regular springtime state standardized testing did not occur, so there was no uniform measure of student performance. In 2021, state standardized tests will only be administered to students attending school in-person, not the significant number of students opting for distance learning. Students in school are unlikely to be invested in taking them or may experience additional stress as a result of taking them. Some districts administered progress tests online during the fall and winter, but younger students’ lack of familiarity with online test-taking, older students’ decreased motivation for testing, and variation in home testing conditions make interpretation and use of the results concerning.
To remedy the current situation, we urge administrators and educators to take the following steps:
- Simultaneously address mental health and learning. We know now that prioritizing academic concerns led to limited success and ongoing challenges in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Prioritizing social-emotional learning and mental health in the short-term and academic learning over the long-term, with trauma-informed interventions, will help students regain social and academic footing following this disruptive year.
- Provide a system of integrated, individualized student support. A comprehensive review of each student’s strengths and needs across multiple domains (academic, health, social and emotional well-being, family) would allow schools and partners to provide students with individualized resources and support systems.
- Address the ongoing digital divide. Online instruction will become a permanent component of contemporary education. Federal, state and local governments and entities must prioritize students with the greatest digital needs, and provide teachers with the necessary supports to provide high-quality online instruction.
- Accelerate learning. Ensure age-appropriate, challenging, grade-level content as students return to learning environments. Creatively use time and opportunity – extend learning time, expand after-school and summer programming, increase subject learning time during the school day, modify instructional practices to focus on areas needing acceleration, and offer high-dosage tutoring.
- Gather “opportunity to learn” data alongside academic assessment data. Include COVID-specific data, such as student access to devices and reliable broadband and time spent in distance, hybrid and in-person learning, as well as student engagement and basic demographics. Policymakers, districts and schools can then contextualize student performance and make informed decisions about allocation of resources and best practices.
The consequences of the pandemic on students’ health and learning are profound and not yet fully understood. How long will it take for our scholars to recover and forge ahead emotionally and academically? This is a clarion call to our communities to join with our educators, parents, and policymakers to make changes in our educational system that will benefit all students, and particularly low-income scholars and students of color who are most in need. None of us should be satisfied until every child in our community has the social, academic and psychological support to reach their fullest potential.
Amy Susman-Stillman Is the director of evaluation for the Northside Achievement Zone, whose mission is to end generational poverty and build a culture of achievement in north Minneapolis where all low-income children of color graduate from high school college- and career-ready.
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