What Colorado students lost to COVID-19: Learning and social interaction

Before March 2020, the word “quarantine” wasn’t a regular part of Arlo Martin’s vocabulary. But now, it’s a mainstay for the 13-year-old from Centennial and when he says it, the word carries the weight of an entire year shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

ONE YEAR OF COVID

“Quarantine” reflects a time when Arlo’s grades suffered, as he struggled to stay engaged with online school and connect with his teachers virtually. It harkens back to the baseball and lacrosse seasons he missed out on playing. It reminds him of all the high-fives and hugs he couldn’t share with friends and classmates for fear of spreading a deadly virus.

These little luxuries play a big role in Arlo’s life, but he didn’t realize that until the pandemic interrupted his seventh-grade year and took them away.

“I think I took my being able to learn in those social situations for granted,” he said. “That connection piece, without it, learning started becoming harder and harder.”

In the year since COVID-19 shuttered Colorado schools, students have had to adapt to the new and ever-evolving demands of education during a global pandemic, and it’s often come at a price. Inconsistencies in learning format, whether because of quarantines due to possible virus exposure or because of district decisions, have cost kids valuable instructional time with their teachers. And many say their mental health is suffering because of isolation from their peers.

As districts work to address learning gaps caused by the pandemic, parents say the biggest thing their kids lost to the pandemic were the social relationships they typically build while in school. Though the long-term impacts of the pandemic on students’ academic and mental well-being are yet to be understood, neither is going to be a quick fix.

“You can’t just sit a student down and say we’re going to catch you all up in the next two weeks and all of the sudden everything as it happened is gone,” said Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner. “It really will be a methodical recovery plan that will span multiple months and into future years.”

Addressing academic slides

Schools are just beginning to roll out summer plans to help students catch up academically. At Westminster Public Schools, for example, students have the option of 12 extra days to work with educators on individual goals.

But to know how best to serve student needs, schools need to know where they’ve fallen behind. Education advocates argue that’s why it’s crucial to host Colorado Measures Academic Success, or CMAS, standardized testing this year. However, a bill in the Colorado legislature aims to limit CMAS to one subject per grade.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, is among those against standardized testing. Like many districts, Aurora administers formative exams three times a year, which give teachers better insight into individual students’ strengths and areas for improvement in real-time. According to that data, Aurora’s roughly 38,000 kids are holding ground in reading and losing ground in math, Munn said.

“The biggest challenges we see are in the transition grades. So whenever you see students transition — typically from fifth to sixth and eighth to ninth — those are where we are seeing across multiple measurements really the largest impacts,” he said. “Typically, you think of second to third grade as an academic transition, even though you’re not changing schools, because of the change in reading to learn versus learning to read. We’re certainly seeing challenges there.”

In Denver Public Schools, a quarter of students in kindergarten through third grade are reading significantly below grade level, mid-year literacy assessments found, up from 22% at the beginning of the school year.

Similarly, Jeffco Public Schools students in third through seventh grade experienced lower median growth in reading between the fall and winter compared to the previous year, according to formative testing results. Performance gaps were more pronounced among English language learners in most grades.

During a Feb. 23 board meeting, Chief Academic Officer Matt Flores attributed those results to kids having fewer opportunities to read aloud and with their teachers in a classroom during the fall.

Summer programming must account for not only academics, but also students’ social-emotional needs, Munn said.

“That could include everything from summer school opportunities to extended tutoring,” he said. “We’re also thinking about some of the executive functioning supports they may need. You have kids who have perhaps spent a year looking at a screen and not talking to other kids. All those things are on the table.”

In an effort to offer students more flexibility, Denver Public Schools issued “incomplete” grades this year in lieu of failing grades at the secondary level. As of Feb. 2, 29% of seniors and 32% of juniors in the district had received at least one incomplete grade.

That not only gives kids more time to meet the demands of their courses, but also ensures staff focus on helping students learn critical content, said Tamara Acevedo, deputy superintendent of academics. DPS is considering the policy change for future years because of the benefits, she added.

Challenging learning formats

For parents like Nathan and Melissa Kimball, the only way to catch their students up was to get them back in school.

The Colorado Springs couple originally enrolled their three kids in remote learning for the fall due to fears about the virus. But playing the roles of kindergarten, second- and third-grade teacher simultaneously proved too much, Melissa said.

Remotely, the kids, two of whom have ADHD, missed out on real-time feedback on classwork, which often led to frustration and fits. And because the couple’s kindergartener hadn’t spent time in school with a licensed teacher, it was difficult to tell if she was picking up skills at an appropriate pace. The kids switched back to in-person learning in October.

“It definitely took a toll on the family,” Melissa said of virtual school. “I wouldn’t call the experience a success. I don’t think our children would either.”

Online learning also proved a challenge for Angela Romero’s family, given they didn’t have internet access at their Commerce City home.

During spring and fall 2020, her three children walked or got a ride to the local Boys and Girls Club, where they could connect and receive support from the staff. Her oldest son, Mario, and daughter, Maria, thrived working independently, but when her youngest, Evan, began struggling in math, Romero started to worry.

“He asked me for a math tutor, but I told him at this point I can’t afford it,” said Romero, who has since moved to a house with an internet connection.

Evan went back in-person once Adams City Middle School reopened. In late February, he was back at home in quarantine after someone in his cohort tested positive for COVID-19.

Social isolation takes a toll

Arlo, the Centennial teenager, said he’s likely learned less than he would in a normal year, but at no fault of his teachers. With limited class time and frequent disruptions caused by COVID-19, educators have slimmed down lessons to cover the most essential content and skills.

Still, Arlo’s grateful to have switched back to hybrid in-person learning after starting the year online. One of his favorite classes is guitar because of the communal feeling he gets playing alongside his classmates.

“I love in-school guitar very much because it’s physically playing with other people, which is part of that thing I think we’re missing out on — being able to do a physical activity with other people,” he said. “Guitar has filled that gap as best it can.”

Arlo is not alone. When Aurora Public Schools recently surveyed about 10,800 students in fifth through 12th grade, 44% reported feeling more alone and 60% more stressed now compared to before the pandemic, up from 28% and 34%, respectively.

That’s one reason Sarah Martin, Arlo’s mom, would rather he spend his summer playing sports or music than attending summer school, even if he’s behind.

Erie resident Clark Burton agrees. In February, when Burton asked his son who he would choose to be his Valentine, the answer surprised him.

“Koleson, our kindergartener, said, ‘I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know anybody.’ It was heartbreaking, but so true,” Burton said. “In an elementary classroom, the interaction with classmates would be ongoing. In the online environment, the teachers can’t really allow for that because it would clog everything up.”

“Return to normal” shouldn’t be goal

While the pandemic’s long-term impacts on student well-being remain to be seen, Sona Dimidjian, professor and director of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder, believes much of it will be determined by how we address these concerns in the immediate future.

The goal should not be a “return to normal,” she said, instead suggesting schools leverage what they’ve learned about the role mental health plays in students’ ability to thrive academically and infusing social-emotional support into every school day.

“Acting as though we can fragment a young person into their capacity for cognitive learning, their emotions and their relationships is counter to everything we know and often that’s how systems are organized, in these fragmented ways,” Dimidjian said, adding it’s essential to listen to and work with students on solutions.

“We can use that learning to help create more supportive and more just systems that can help to both mitigate potential long-term effects of the pandemic, as well as build and create structures that are more supportive for what students and young people have needed all along,” she said.

Though students lost much to COVID-19, parents and educators stopped short of calling the year a wash, as kids were forced to learn new skills they may not have otherwise. Burton’s 9-year-old, Quinton, learned a lot in the way of digital citizenship communicating with teachers over email and online chats.

As a high school social studies teacher, Burton also watched students get a crash course in independent study, learning self-motivation, the importance of deadlines and other skills they might not have acquired until college when the stakes are higher.

Though the school year was dominated by connecting digitally, all parents interviewed for this story said forced time together strengthened the sibling bonds between their kids.

“We have learned new ways to connect and new ways to support each other. Our students will carry that with them,” said Anthes, the state education commissioner. “Out of challenge comes more resilience.”

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