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A Shortened School Year And Different Modes Of Learning Led To Academic Gaps For Some

Michele Skalicky

As the 2020-2021 school year was winding down, Weller first grade teacher, Kendall Shores, continued working hard to make sure her students were where they needed to be to move to second grade. 

The last school year was a challenging one for teachers as well as students.  Schools shut down early in spring of 2020 as a pandemic was declared.  Many districts opted to cease learning and focus on meeting children’s immediate needs like making sure they had enough to eat.  When schools started back up last fall, the learning schedule included time online.  And some students opted to stay virtual altogether.  That’s sparked concerns that students might have fallen behind in their learning.

A study by researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education looked at the impact of the pandemic on basic reading skills in first through fourth graders nationwide.  It found that reading fluency during the last school year was 30 percent behind what’s expected in a typical year, despite teachers’ efforts to help students catch up.  

Kendall Shores paints a more optimistic picture.  She said she had to make adjustments to what she typically expects from students but at the same time she made sure they learned what they needed to.

Credit Michele Skalicky
Weller Elementary first grade teacher, Kendall Shores

“I had this group come in to me not normally where I would have a first grade group come in to me at, so we did have to scale back," she said, "but I think being willing to do that—to kind of scale back, close those gaps—you’re able to move forward, and I felt like doing that has really helped them to make the gains that they have needed to do.”

She admits it was a challenging year.  She had to focus on keeping the kids as safe as possible and make sure they wore their masks.  Routine and structure are important for children, especially those as young as her students, and they didn’t always have that.

“Their whole worlds were, you know, complete crazy," she said.  "I would just see them come in ‘what day is today? What specials do we have?’ And, normally, they’re pretty good by the first week of school.  They know ‘Mondays we have this, Tuesdays’—but their whole schedules were so inconsistent for them, so that was a challenge for sure."

And she said, missing a whole quarter, like students did in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic was declared, was a lot of education lost, especially for kindergartners.  During the last school year Shores worked hard to identify any skills gaps that her students might have and then made sure to help those kids in creative ways like intervention groups.

She stressed phonics to help her students learn how words work, and, once they got that down, she saw them transfer it to their reading.  She said, by May, they had far surpassed where they needed to be.

“So, I’m fully confident that they’re ready for second grade, and that’s been really cool,” said Shores.

Credit Michele Skalicky
A Weller first grader works on an activity

It was rewarding to see the kids learn and grow and to feel proud of themselves because of that, she said.

Dr. Nicole Holt, deputy superintendent of academics for Springfield Public Schools, said, even though kids had to learn virtually at times, the districts’ expectations for teaching and learning didn’t change.

“It was just about how we engaged kids differently because we had to adapt to whatever mode they chose but then really being able to respond with intervention as necessary, being able to have them in smaller groups and smaller settings to really target and identify the exact gap and get the right instruction to help them where they were,” said Holt.

Results of end of year assessments, both state mandated and internal, aren’t yet available.  Holt said those will be a great measure of where students are at academically. 

Dr. Tracy Hinds, deputy commissioner in the Division of Learning Services for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said, besides the MAP test data, they’ll also be looking at the mode of instruction students received.

“Just to see exactly how our students performed when they received different methods of instruction,” said Hinds.

Holt believes some students who thrived in online education will choose to continue it.  But online learning was difficult for some.  The district’s underresourced and underrepresented students struggled during the pandemic for several reasons, said Holt, including having parents who had to work and couldn’t be there to help.  And numbers show that most students still prefer to be in a classroom.

“I feel like what we know is, and as kids have registered for the fall, we’re seeing an influx of our students that opted virtual, coming back to us seated," she said, "so I think people saw this was an option to keep my student safe, but when masking requirements are lifted and when we are back to a more normal place, I want my kid in a seated building.”

Credit Michele Skalicky
A sign in Kendall Shore's first grade classroom at Weller Elementary

For some students, it might take awhile to catch up, according to Holt, and SPS will continue to provide teachers with ongoing support as they help their students make up any gaps caused by the pandemic.  Summer school, currently underway, will be vital for students who might have fallen behind because of the pandemic and will provide them with a sense of normalcy, she said.