While school districts offered options for online classes this fall, technological gaps and the inherent limits of distance learning caused some students to fall even further behind.
The damage caused by COVID-19 can be seen every day in rising numbers of deaths and hospitalizations, but some of the harm caused by the pandemic is more insidious.
K-12 students had their schooling disrupted in the spring when classroom buildings were closed as a health precaution. Teachers and parents were left scrambling, doing their best to patch together at-home lessons but unable to truly replicate the lost learning opportunities.
The option to attend in-person classes resumed at school districts across Florida in the fall, but many parents kept their children home due to uncertainty about the risks. While districts offered options for online classes, technological gaps and the inherent limits of distance learning caused some students to fall even further behind.
While learning loss is typical when students take summer vacation or other breaks, the pandemic threatens to have a longer-lasting impact on children’s schooling. Initial research on spring school closures suggest that K-12 students returned in the fall with 63%-68% of the typical learning gains in reading and 37%-50% of the typical learning gains in mathematics.
The University of Florida’s Education Policy Research Center issued a policy paper in November about the problem and possible solutions. While there might be a temptation to put students in remedial classes, research suggests a more effective approach is keeping them in grade-level courses while providing ways to make up for learning loss, said F. Chris Curran, the center’s director and author of the paper.
“The silver lining is there’s a lot of potential to make up for it quickly,” he said.
But fulfilling that potential will be challenging. State lawmakers and education officials need to be more engaged in providing resources and other support to schools, which have been woefully lacking during the pandemic. Some possible solutions require additional funding at a time when the state budget is experiencing a massive shortfall.
Lengthening the school day or academic year would allow for students to receive additional instructional time, but would require changes to teaching contracts. Another possibility is using new distance learning technology to supplement in-person classes.
Gaps in access to high-speed internet service and laptops, however, have already prevented low-income and rural students from receiving remote instruction. Any solutions to make up for learning loss must not compound these disadvantages, particularly for minority students who already face educational disparities.
Higher-income families have been able to reduce learning losses by paying for private tutors, learning pods and other ways to improve their children’s educations. The paper proposes that the state of Florida consider providing financial resources for lower-income families to offer the same opportunities to their children.
There might be difficulties in parents accessing such funding or risks that it would waste money on ineffective programs. Perhaps a better way to make it work would be for the state to provide funding for after-school and summer programs that have been shown to achieve results, with the caveat that they provide a specified number of scholarships to lower-income students.
Elected officials need to figure out ways to pay for these kinds of programs during tough economic times. As Curran said, research shows that such an investment provides a long-term benefit in helping students stay out of trouble, graduate and get good jobs.
“Investing in education, investing in children, in the long term truly pays off,” he said.
— Gainesville Sun