Learning Loss, Learning Opportunity

By Theresa Kelly Gegen
COVID slide. Learning loss. Unfin­ished learning. Learning disruption. Whatever you call it, it presents questions: How much has been lost? Compared to what, and whom? How can we address it? Who decides?
There is both the fear, and the hope, that public education will never be the same. The fear is that we have lost a generation of stu­dents. The hope is in the opportu­nity to innovate and make changes to the system.
Anticipation of the 2021-2022 school year, and beyond, raises questions about loss and oppor­tunity, identifying needs and supporting students, and funding it all. “COVID slide” essentially refers to academic learning loss experienced by students as class­rooms closed, teaching and learn­ing moved out of the classroom, and later, for most, came back in some form.
Educators at the national, state, and local levels are seeking opportunity in the recovery, by identifying not only how the K-12 community can overcome the uni­versal setbacks of the pandemic, but also how the lessons learned might change the conversation and create opportunity to address disparities and inequities.
Opportunity. Reframe. Reset. Leapfrog. Seize the moment. Whatever you call it, the chal­lenge locally is in discovering the answers and solutions for students. “The pandemic reality is that it was challenging, and we’re still in it,” said U.S. Secretary of Educa­tion Miguel Cardona, speaking to a meeting of the Education Writ­ers Association in early May. “It’s also a tremendous opportunity to hit the reset button on things that we know needed fixing way before the pandemic, so I’m eager to do that.
“My biggest fear is that we go back to practices that were comfortable, before the pandemic, but led to the disparities and out­comes that we are experiencing as a country.”
Disparities have long existed. The COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that impacted every communi­ty and every student, brought disparities into focus. Recovery presents extraordinary challenges and opportunities, with questions addressing unprecedented prob­lems on a national scale, while at the same time keeping individual student needs paramount in local decision-making.
“As educators, we have known about summer slide or learning loss for years,” said Diane Wolf, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at Bloomington SD 87. “But now that it is a common denominator for all students, regardless of economic level, we will hear about this for years to come. I think we need to quickly change this narrative so that our students begin to realize what they have endured and over­come instead of possible things they may (or may not) have lost.”
According to data collected mid-pandemic and made avail­able by Emma Dorn of McKinsey & Company, students had, on average, learned about 87% of the reading as they would in a normal year, and about 67% of the math. Concern is heightened due to large disparities in pandemic-era achievement between majori­ty-white schools and schools that have majority students of color. This reflects both opportunity gaps in technology availability and access to in-person learning. Projec­tions from the same studies indicat­ed that without addressing learning loss, overall students would be about 10 months behind, with stu­dents of color potentially being 12 to 16 months behind.
Can the slide be “solved” by learning more, faster? Or does that put those already behind, further behind? These questions arise as school districts address learning loss, not only academi­cally but socially and emotional­ly as well.
“In the early days of the pan­demic, many of us ‘hoped for the best, but expected the worst,’” said Sycamore CUSD 427 super­intendent Steve Wilder. “We began to look at this issue as ‘learning disruption’ as opposed to learning loss. Our teachers continued to teach, and our students continued to learn; it was just different. While student achievement and growth dipped a little, there is evidence that it hasn’t been as catastrophic as we thought it might be. This is a credit to teachers and students everywhere for their hard work and flexibility, and I believe one of the greatest successes this year. Despite the very challenging circumstances, we rein­vented what education looked like.”
Some students thrived on the alternative platforms that educa­tion undertook in the pandemic.
“Many students who struggled in the traditional system increased engagement with academics and learning [when the buildings were closed],” said Kankakee CUSD 111 superintendent Genevra Walters. “What we found is that students need varied experiences and opportunities, with differen­tiation in time and place and level of support. We confirmed what we always knew, ‘students learn differently.’ This experience is leading us to the challenge of cre­ating opportunities tailored to the individual needs of our students. Students who did struggle are giv­en additional support. The support was implemented early and often throughout the pandemic and will continue.”
Small, local programs may have the greatest impact, as school dis­tricts determine how to use the funds provided. Sustainability is a huge factor — getting relief funds is vital, but the inflow won’t last. While seeking change and innovation, districts must calibrate short-term and long-term needs to identify what funding is needed to address “recovery,” and what must be adjusted for long-term goals and rebuilding.
Illinois public K-12 schools will receive an estimated $5 bil­lion of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds (see sidebar, page 10) to be distributed by the Illi­nois State Board of Education (ISBE) “to address the impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools.”
“We have an opportunity with this influx of funding to alter the educational trajectory of our most vulnerable students,” Illinois State Superintendent of Schools Carmen Ayala told educators in an April letter. “I encourage you to use this funding to increase in-person instructional time for students, especially those at risk of not being prepared for the next grade level. That could mean expanded summer school, before-or afterschool programs, high-im­pact tutoring, and an early start to the school year.”
School districts will also be required to seek broad public input and develop plans for the use of ARP ESSER funds. Among the targets: closing the digital divide, adding extended-time learning and personalized learn­ing, addressing social and emo­tional needs, and assessing not only the loss, but the outcomes of the interventions.
“We need to make sure that our school houses are prepared to meet the social and emotional needs of our learners, to make sure that we’re that students are seeing them­selves in the curriculum,” Cardona said. “We have to make sure we’re connecting families, to the learning process. Parents are the best teach­ers, and we play a supporting role. So what I want to see more of is a natural authentic engagement of families.”
School districts are deploying techniques based on experienc­es with the learning gap that opens each summer to address the longer-term COVID slide with the additional layer of opportunity gap that comes from inequities in technology and language acquisition. Summer learning programs are underway, although not without concern over fatigue among students, teachers, and communities. Technology, both where it is and where access needs to be improved, was a critical factor in the gaps, and addressing it requires both short- and long-term initiatives.
“The teachers and students have become much more profi­cient using technology to provide instruction and sending out and completing assignments,” said Eric Misener, superintendent at Seneca CCSD 170. “In the future it should be much more seamless when a student is absent for a day or two. Those new learning opportunities will continue to be utilized moving forward.”
Extended-time learning and personalized learning — help­ing each student meet their unique needs — are critical to “stop the slide.” Finding ways to deliver extra opportunities and resources is crucial, meeting students where they are in terms of technology accessibility and in-person options. School dis­tricts are encouraged to partner with community organizations to develop community part­nerships to support students through academically focused after-school programs in schools with a high concentration of low-income students.
Tutoring is proving to be a difference-maker in mitigating learning loss or slide. Research suggests that intensive tutoring may be more effective than other  types of interventions, and pro­grams across the nation are pair­ing students with tutors — in person and online — at all grade levels. Even using volunteers and social service providers, it’s an expensive commitment, especial­ly providing tutoring resources to schools and students who typ­ically haven’t been able to afford them.
Speaking of opportunity, “One of my hopes is that we have demonstrated that we used that flexibility productively at the local and state level. If we are allowed to continue doing that, we will set the stage for innovation that will benefit our students, staff, and schools for generations to come,” said Wilder.
“Technology has allowed us to reach students far beyond the classroom,” said Misener. “Collaboration has allowed us to be more effective as a team. Flexibility from the State Board of Education has been unprece­dented. In particular, one of my hopes is that we have demon­strated that we used that flexibil­ity productively at the local and state level. If we are allowed to continue doing that, we will set the stage for innovation that will benefit our students, staff, and schools for generations to come.”
Just as it is at the local and state levels, at the federal level, the bigger post-coronavirus picture is developing. Cardona offered ideas for moving forward without going back.
“I don’t want us to go back into that comfort zone,” Cardo­na said. “We grow when we’re uncomfortable. So we’re going to have to rethink education and ensure that the funds are going to students that were impacted the most. So that’s tough lead­ership, right? You’re going to have to change what people are used to with schools. I always say when the pandemic ends, it’s not going to mean it’s easier. It’s going to be different work … equally as challenging to lead through the next chapter of edu­cation in our country.”

Theresa Kelly Gegen is Editor of the Illinois School Board Journal. Resources associated with this article can be accessed via bit.ly/JA21-Jres.