Are The Kids All Right?
A year ago, many educators and parents wondered what imprint the dramatic shift in delivering educational content brought about by COVID-19 would leave on their children. Cut off from face-to-face interaction with friends and teachers for months at a time, would the Pandemic Generation ultimately be the most resourceful in American history or spend years catching up to what had been lost to distance learning, mask mandates and fear?
Now, nearly two years since the COVID-19 reached Arkansas, education experts are beginning to get some answers to these essential questions.
“We do have test results from last spring, and of course those test results are reflective of a school year with a lot of disruption, where a lot of students were either full-time virtual students or virtual for a period of time based on circumstances,” says Ivy Pfeffer, deputy commission of the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education with the Arkansas Department of Education. “We did see declines in test scores. The largest were in the lower grades, and that’s understandable because you had some of the students who had been out for quite some time and did not have that regular interaction with their teachers.”
Arkansas isn’t alone in this category; when schools worldwide shut down or went virtual in 2020, the general assumption was it would have some negative effect. Test scores in the U.S. have borne this out, with what education advocates are calling the “COVID slide,” an enhanced version of the summer slide where children forget a percentage of coursework during summer break.
As one education nonprofit has noted, that’s exactly what has happened. Through its MAP Growth adaptive assessment, Portland, Oregon-based NWEA compiled results from 5.5 million students in grades 3 through 8 who took the assessment in math and reading during the 2020-21 school year. They recently reported average reading scores were down 3 to 6 percentage points and math scores down 8 to 12 percentage points, compared to pre-pandemic levels.
In state after state, news headlines carry the same sobering message: On average, K-12 students lost ground during virtual learning, returned to schools at a steeper knowledge deficit and are suffering smaller gains in learning as they’ve returned. Even private schools, which generally market themselves on higher academic achievement, couldn’t escape the drag virtual classes had on overall learning.
“This generation of kids has shown resiliency in a way that none of their forebearers had to. Their resiliency came through in unique and trying circumstances, and it is an absolute fact that this generation of kids value greatly their education,” says Steve Straessle, principal of Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock. “But with that realization came some complications.
“Students have the world at their fingertips at any moment during class with the use of Chromebooks or other personal devices, but even the kids have realized the importance of in-person education and the importance of just old-fashioned being present. The [digital] alternative was a good option for the times, but in no way was it the full-throttle, fast-moving, all-encompassing education that it could have been.”
It should be noted that many schools in Arkansas are staging a comeback after having been derailed by the challenges of the pandemic. Statistics from the Department of Education’s Schools on the Move campaign show many are bucking the national trend, improving their index scores related to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which measures schools on several components. These include weighted achievement, growth, school quality, student success, progress to English language proficiency and graduation rate.
Parkview Elementary School in the Van Buren School District and the Academic Center for Excellence in the Cabot School District each improved their ESSA score by more than 10 points during the 2020-21 school year. Five other elementary schools, in the Ozark, Rogers, Greenwood, Poyen and Harrisburg school districts, increased their ESSA score between 5 and 6.5 points. Overall, 125 schools in Arkansas improved on the ESSA scale. What’s more, graduation rates have remained steady statewide, compared to some states where the number of new graduates fell by thousands of students.
Still, while noting many schools are moving in the right direction, Pfeffer admits the challenges of educating Arkansas’ youth, pandemic or not, are as steep as ever.
“I think the very first thing we have to continue to do is keep that focus on foundational literacy. We cannot let our foot off the gas when it comes to that,” she says. “That is absolutely the key to all of the successes that students are going to realize. When we think about foundational literacy, that extends even beyond 12th grade and ensuring that students all the way through their post-secondary education and into their careers are continuing to get those supports and opportunities that they need to take that next step.”
COVID ILLUMINATES CHALLENGES
While it’s a squeamish feeling to think of COVID-19 as a catalyst for positive change, that’s exactly the case. Simply put, cracks throughout the foundation of the American education system — from technology disparity to teacher burnout to student mental health — were only marginally talked about until the pandemic shoved them into the spotlight.
Technology inequities were a particularly difficult hurdle for most school districts and highlighted the gap between communities — sometimes between adjoining neighborhoods — when it came to access to devices and connectivity. Overnight, news reports became commonplace about students doing term papers on smartphones or families camping out at the local McDonald’s to use the free Wi-Fi in order to complete homework.
Jessica Duff, executive director of communications for the Pulaski County Special School District, says seeing these issues up close continues to impact the district’s efforts to serve all children.
“I think the biggest thing in terms of what it’s taught us and where we stand now is understanding that not all of our students and families are as successful as we assumed they were,” she says. “We understand now we have what we call the donut of Central Arkansas; several families that are more rural and have less access to readily available internet or reliable internet.
“It’s really opened up our eyes to improving communication for the students and for the families, and as a result, I think right now we’re probably more connected to our families than we would have been had we not inherited this obstacle that made us reassess where we were with those communication processes.”
Duff says the district also reinforced connections with community resources, either created or strengthened to help the effort of providing for students’ needs.
“When COVID first hit, we immediately made contact with churches and community groups to open up their doors,” she says. “We provided hotspots in their lobbies, and they would open up to families to have a healthy, safe space to do their learning.
“When we did our meal programs, we again used those churches and those groups to help us with distributing the meals. If mom and dad were working and the kids couldn’t find a way to come and pick up their meals, they helped us facilitate getting it to them.”
The increased stress of the pandemic also highlighted the need for schools to be particularly vigilant for signs of mental health issues among the student body.
Straessle says, “Starting the school year last year, at our opening faculty meeting one thing that we absolutely agreed on — teachers, staff members, front office, maintenance, everybody — was that when it comes to the kids, we were going to employ the important cultural aspects of the words ‘I see you. I. See. You.’
“We committed ourselves to enhancing our already good grasp of where kids come from, who they are, their names, their interests and joys and so forth. But we were going to augment that even further by making sure that whether they are a square on a screen or sitting in a classroom 6 feet apart from everyone else with a mask on their face, they would know that we still see them and are actively seeking engagement in a variety of ways.”
When it came to the pandemic, Little Rock Christian Academy was about as stalwart for safely maintaining the status quo as one could find. When an online option was offered, a mere 7 percent of families took that route, a percentage that dropped by more than half the following semester. This fall, the doors opened to a campus that takes all requisite safety precautions while being fully in-person. It’s a blow struck for routine in a period that’s anything but, and it’s working, as the long wait list to attend here attests.
“We knew things wouldn’t be normal, but we knew we could ‘do school,’” says Dr. Gary Arnold, president and head of school. “There was this deep appreciation among students for being allowed to do it, and it wasn’t because now they could study more or take tests more. It was because they could be back in a social environment and have the interaction and engagement and stimulation of being in community learning processes that are three-dimensional and not two-dimensional.
“We had that advantage of presence and participation, which are self-perpetuating in school life. We struck gold on that note.”
Such is not to say that Little Rock Christian doesn’t have its own pandemic-related challenges. For one thing, the sputtering economy has put many families in a tenuous position as far as affording a private education.
“During the official COVID pandemic season, we were especially sensitive to this and sought special gifts for tuition assistance we called Families Helping Families,” Arnold says. “There were some people who wanted to donate to help people who had lost their businesses or lost their job or needed to relieve themselves of their job to be with their children.
“Now, we’re in the year of recovery, and we’re finding that demand for our education is up. And while we kept the tuition increase at a minimum during the COVID maelstrom, now we’re going to have to figure out the balance of how to not lose a step in inflationary times, and how do we not add extra burden onto families who are still under pressure. It’s that formula between tuition and tuition assistance that we’re grappling with right now.”
One thing all school systems in Arkansas appear to be facing, public or private, is a dearth of teachers. Not unlike front-line health care workers who are leaving their jobs in droves over burnout, job stress and other factors, a similar trend is afoot among teachers.
“What’s happened in the health care sector is happening in education, where teachers were considered superheroes, and that has waned this year,” Duff says. “Morale is lower because teachers are still going through the same hardships that they had before, but they don’t have as much of that support. In the mindset of some parents, and I’m not speaking for every parent, but for some it’s, ‘Last year was crazy, but now we’re in another year.’ However, COVID is still impacting the way these teachers do their instruction and work with these students.
“As a result, we are seeing that burnout. It’s evidenced in this teacher shortage that we’re seeing across the country. It’s evidenced in the substitute teacher shortage that we have. We have, on a daily basis, a handful of teachers who would have taken the day off because they need that mental health day, they need that break, but we don’t have the substitutes to fill for whatever reason.”
To help reverse this trend, the Arkansas Department of Education is rolling out a new teacher residency program, says Pfeffer, set to go live with the fall 2022 term.
“The teacher residency is a model for the future,” she says. “It’s a new way to provide teacher preparation in that it brings together our higher education partners with our school districts. Much like in the medical field where a physician would complete a residency, thus getting on-the-job, hands-on experience, it would be the same type of model for teachers.”
The program allows some coursework to begin in high school, where students can be credentialed as certified teaching assistants and then continues as they work on their education while also getting to work in a public school. Over time, the number of hours and level of responsibility would gradually increase, in the hopes of making first-year teachers’ transition to full-time in the classroom smoother than it is now.
“I think, from a foundational aspect, what we are working to define is a Day One-ready teacher,” Pfeffer says. “What we hope is that the residency program is going to create a framework within schools where they are generating their own pipeline through their teachers in training. We hope to provide the basic foundational pieces that a person needs in order to be a successful teacher.”