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Lost education of COVID generation of students

How far are students falling behind as a result of the ongoing pandemic and how will they ever catch up?

For years, as the editorial page editor, I have met with the leaders of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education to discuss issues of educational policy. Trying to narrow the gap between the educational opportunities available to students in the state’s urban centers as compared to its more affluent suburbs, and figuring out how to pay for increasing special-education services without detracting from other programs, have been perennial topics.

Unfortunately, there has not been much progress in meeting those challenges over those years. Now, layered upon those existing problems, is the COVID-19 crisis. The CABE officials the editorial board met with last week — virtually, of course — conceded they still don’t know how this will all play out, never mind how all the lost learning time can be made up.

For much of last year public schools largely shutdown as students moved to remote learning and school administrations and teachers figured out on the fly how to do it. This year many schools are using a hybrid model — students in school some days, learning from home others — while a few have managed to remain fully open for in-school instruction.

At various times, however, many schools have had to go fully remote for periods, either because of an increased COVID threat exposure or for a lack of available teachers and substitutes.

Teaching and learning cannot be easy under such circumstances. How well will elementary school students be prepared for the leap to middle school, or for middle schoolers to step up to the demands of high school? How will high schoolers apply for and function at the university level? How many high schoolers will drop out because they feel so overwhelmed when they return to regular classes?

The consequences are most severe for low-income and minority children, who were less likely to have the necessary computer technology when remote learning began. While many school systems have made great efforts to distribute the needed equipment, access to high-speed internet to make it work can also be a big problem for low-income families.

Adding to the challenge for some of these students is that, living in a household where English is a second language, they were already struggling with language and remote learning worsens the problem. In households where parents can’t work at home, supervision to assure learning is getting done can be an issue.

How far might some students be falling behind? Researchers at Stanford University evaluated standardized test scores across the country after last year’s lost school year and concluded the average student had lost a third of a year to a full year's worth of learning in reading, about three-quarters of a year to more than a year in math.

Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel at CABE, suspects that the differences in lost learning from student to student will be dramatic, with some having been able to keep up on their studies and others having effectively missed a year of instruction — and counting.

Ideally, students will have to be assessed individually and plans developed to bring them back to grade level, McCarthy said. The school systems with the most needs are the ones that can least afford to provide such remedial instruction, meaning it will take an infusion of federal and state dollars.

Summer school, in some cases for all students, could be required, but would also create its own set of problems. Some schools are not air conditioned, particularly in poorer communities, and finding staffing and covering the costs would not be easy.

Certainly, after the elderly, getting teachers and older students vaccinated should be a high priority. In addition to detracting from education, remote learning effects the ability of many parents to retain jobs or find them.

What happens to the COVID generation of students will be one of the stories that will continue to play out from the pandemic of 2020-2021.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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