Experts look for solutions addressing pandemic-induced learning loss for students

Education

Experts emphasize holistic support for kids eventually reentering education institutions

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — When you stay home from school from being sick, it can be a challenge to catch up on the lessons you missed. But how best can students “make up” for lost learning when the entire world is getting over a sickness all at the same time?

School districts across Oregon adjusted rapidly to providing distance learning in the face of the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic when the state required to largely shut down in-person operations at public academic institutions in April, something Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero called this generation’s “Apollo 13 Moment.”

Still, there are concerns that remain locally and abroad that a lengthy pandemic induced absence will cause students to lose significant academic ground. And with dozens of PPS teacher positions being considered for elimination amid a $12 million budget shortfall next year, the obstacles are plentiful.

An Estacada teacher teaches a virtual class during the coronavirus pandemic, March 19, 2020 (KOIN)

Just ask any single parent family home or family of essential workers how they manage to juggle their kids’ at-home learning while still trying to do all that they can to provide and put food on the table. That the scenario is “challenging” would be an understatement.

This week marked the end of the school year for many Oregon students as well as an announcement from Oregon Department of Education on guidelines for schools for the upcoming school year, called “Ready Schools, Safe Learners,” and made with close collaboration from Oregon Health Authority.

Those guidelines take into account the uncertainty of the future, acknowledging that some schools may still be utilizing distance learning, while others may return to in-class instruction, with social distancing in place, or some may be a hybrid of both, depending on the severity and longevity of the current pandemic.

Preparing for ‘coronavirus slide’

Each year, a well-documented phenomenon known as “summer slide” typically occurs, in which students lose some ground academically over the summer break. Prolonged closures due to COVID-19 could have a similar effect.

Analyses by the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association suggest that not only will COVID-19 school closures likely impact student academic achievement, but those learning losses may also widen already dramatic achievement gaps within classrooms.

KOIN 6 News reached out to educators, academics, and education officials to ask how students, educators and parents can best prepare for this potential “coronavirus slide.”

Wendy Fresh gives instruction before students complete a “math maze” activity in her precalculus class at Portland Community College. January 29 2020 (KOIN/Danny Peterson).

Their overall message? While making up for lost learning is important, overly burdening students with the pressure of doing an increased volume of academic work as the sole focus upon their return to school would be a mistake. Students are already dealing with a worrisome time due to the pandemic and parents and educators should focus on supporting the whole child to maximize overall success, they said.

Though KOIN 6 News reached out to these sources before ODE’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidelines, their opinions aligned remarkably well with those principles, which had these main goals: ensure safety and wellness, cultivate connection and relationship, center equity and innovation.

It will still be up to each individual school how they come up with a blueprint for reentry, within the guidelines, which also lays out technical information on social distancing conventions and face covering requirements. Each schools’ plan must keep in mind the essential elements of public health protocols, equity, instruction, and family and community engagement.

Connecting with your child

KairosPDX is a public charter grade school and non-profit organization of Portland Public Schools that focuses on closing the achievement gap for historically under served children, such as kids of color and those from low income families. They do this in part through culturally specific education, hiring high quality educators and research based teaching methods. For instance, the school addresses the “summer slide” phenomenon by holding classes year-round with multiple, smaller breaks throughout the year.

Though the school is still relatively new, having first opened for kindergarten and first grade enrollment in August 2014, the school’s black students have so far outperformed the average of the district. KairosPDX now serves over 170 students and have implemented a robust virtual learning environment amid the pandemic closure.

Emily Kinney (right) leads a ‘community building circle’ in which students share their thoughts and feelings with their peers in order to strengthen their relationships with each other to better thrive as students. It’s what’s known as a ‘restorative justice practice’ October 10, 2019 (KOIN/Danny Peterson).

The school’s education director and co-founder, Zalika Gardner, emphasized that it won’t be particularly useful to create an idea for students that they are somehow less than or “behind.” Rather, parents, in particular, can use the opportunity of spending more time with their children during this prolonged isolation period to better understand what their children are curious about, how they think and what makes them laugh.

“We’ll get faster progress if families are really connected and understanding how special their mind is because we’re going to need to partner with families when we think about that and getting kids to … [feel they are] strong and capable,” she said.

Gardner said the number one thing parents should focus on is connecting with their children. That means spending at least 30 minutes a day and “just connect with whatever they’re interest in and get excited about it.”

“The point is that you validated their thinking and their feeling and express an excitement about something.”

Reading a lot with your child is also important, as well as taking the time to notice how it is they learn and giving positive, process-based feed back, Gardner said.

Emphasizing growth over time

There may be necessary a complete paradigm shift in how we envision schools to operate as well, noted KairosPDX Executive Director and Co-Founder Kali Thorne Ladd. One example would be a move away from point-in-time learning assessments as the sole indicator of learning outcomes.

“Going through an event like this, you can’t really make many valid inferences off of them. So I think we’re going to see increase of more formative assessments and then formative assessments that measure growth,” Thorne Ladd said.

Kali Thorne Ladd, KairosPDX

As an indication that a shift in thinking about point-in-time assessments may already be taking place nationally, the University of California decided in late May to drop SAT and ACT tests as admission requirements through 2024 and eliminate them entirely for California residents after that.

A growth over time assessment by Northwest Evaluation Association is the one KairosPDX uses from kindergarten through fifth grade, explained Gardner. She said while point-in-time test scores are also important, she considers them more of a byproduct of good education, rather than the main point.

“Our goal has always been to continue growth past the typical, so we’re hoping to see more than typical growth in a year for each student,” Gardner said.

Relationship-based education model

Another paradigm shift education institutions may have to make when faced with the challenge of children returning from a prolonged pandemic-induced absence is to shift the central focus of a school day from mere compliance–getting kids to do what you want them to do and when you want them to do it–to having teachers form a meaningful relationship with the student and their family.

“We’re asking kids to really show up then we’re engaging in co-creating a situation where they’re learning because they’re actually engaged and care about their learning,” Gardner said.

kairospdx 08282018_1535482685402.jpg.jpg
KairosPDX is a public charter school located in North Portland aimed at closing the academic achievement gap for under served students.

“Compliance is often about control and when think of the spaces where people are being controlled and the feeling of those spaces, it’s very different than it feels when you’re just loved and the sense of belonging is very different,” added Thorne Ladd.

Thorne Ladd said that neuroscience back up the idea that learning occurs more easily in environments where children feel love and belonging.

“The neural connections are able to be made in the brain, the feeling of safety, that enables the pre-frontal cortex. It’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for a lot of important things in learning, like decision making and impulse control.”

Risk and resilience

KOIN 6 News spoke with child psychologist Dr. Julianna Sapianza for the Coronavirus Podcast. She said research about risk and resilience suggests kids can recover from natural disasters like war and earthquakes through fairly ordinary means.

“It really depends on a relatively short list of really common adaptive systems that kids have in their life: having a good, consistent caregiver, having other relationships with important adults in their life, having strong relationships with friends,” she said.

In addition, Sapianza said that reentering normal life after the pandemic will also take some adjusting.

“I think one of the biggest things to realize is that even though it’s a really positive change, any time we have a change, there’s some adjusting that may happen. And so even though they’re really excited about it, it may also be a time when you’re seeing a lot more emotion,” she said.

Don’t forget about recess

An international group of researchers recently published a statement for the newly formed interdisciplinary group, Global Recess Alliance, in which they urge schools to maintain recess is built into the schedule, as it is a crucial time for kids to engage in physical activity as well as practice their social and emotional regulation skills.

The group, which is made up of health professionals, education leaders and researchers from the U.S., UK, Australia and Canada, said keeping recess as part of the curriculum is going to be an integral part of allowing kids to recover from the stress and potential trauma wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Police caution tape surrounds a playground in Lake Oswego, Ore., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, the day after Gov. Kate Brown issued a statewide stay-at-home order that closed many businesses, as well as all playgrounds, basketball courts and sport courts. As families across the country and the globe hunker down at home, it’s another danger, equally insidious if less immediately obvious, that has advocates deeply concerned: A potential spike in domestic violence, as victims spend day after day trapped at home with their abusers. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

William Massey, one of the authors of the statement and an assistant professor of kinesiology at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, told KOIN 6 News the importance of play in the holistic development children.

Massey said there’s a lot of data on previous pandemics that suggests children who have gone into quarantine have experienced a deterioration in both their physical and mental health as well as increased trauma rates.

“If we don’t tend to their holistic health and development, if we don’t give them opportunities to play, if we don’t promote connection, then they’re not going to be able learn,” Massey said. “I think if you keep trying to do that cognitive cram, it’s counter-productive, because now we’re adding more stress and anxiety to children who are already stressed and anxious. And ultimately that’s going to backfire in terms of learning goals.”

“Recess is the one time of the day that children have, that’s unstructured, that allows them to meet their developmental needs–on a physical level, on a social level, on an emotional level, on a cognitive level. And I would argue that we should be looking for ways to increase that, rather than decrease it,” he added.

Going beyond ‘filling gaps’

Oregon Department of Education’s Director of Standards and Instructional Support Alexa Pearson told KOIN 6 News that though students will likely have learning gaps due to school closures, it’s important academic decisions move beyond filling gaps.

“Rather than being gap-driven, our educators and families should focus on connecting as a community of learners, building off the strengths of students, and shifting to a student driven mindset,” Pearson said. “It is time to center in deep learning, problem solving, and relevant learning experiences.”

Pearson suggests for families to continue exposing children to new learning experiences at home, online, or in your neighborhood. In addition, keeping a routine–but remaining flexible–is also important. ODE has a wide variety of high-quality learning resources online at Oregon Open Learning Hub, which has everything from math lessons to virtual field trips.

Year 6 teacher Jane Cooper uses a 2 meter length of ruler and pipe to check seat spacings in her classroom as measures are taken to prevent the transmission of coronavirus before the possible reopening of Lostock Hall Primary school in Poynton near Manchester, England, Wednesday May 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

Reading with your child as often as possible is also important, Pearson said, and there’s even a Library of Congress Read program that has a wide range of classic and contemporary books available.

It’s also important for families to stay in touch with their child’s school, Pearson said.

More tips are available in this Johns Hopkins School of Education article.

In terms of what schools should do to address students who may have fallen behind, there is useful a Learning Acceleration Guide from the non-profit education organization The New Teacher Project (TNTP).

“Rather than falling into a cycle of diagnostic testing and remediation, schools should be grounded in deep learning and focus on accelerating learning,” Pearson said.

The accelerating learning model, founded in research conducted by TNTP, is the model best situated to meet students’ needs, she said.

“Approaches that are based on remediation may perpetuate disparities,” Pearson said.

She added TNPT’s The Opporunity Myth provides important context for the challenges presented with aggressively increasing the speed of learning.

Math is part of the equation

Pearson offered these tips for keeping students engaged in math until they are able reenter school:

  • Research demonstrates that mathematics skills should be practiced. Ask your child to solve math problems that might be helpful at home or in your community
  • Strengthen attitudes about math by connecting math to a child’s interest and keeping it fun. As a parent, provide a positive message about math.
  • Engage your child in family acvies that use math such as figuring a way to divide up porons
    evenly at meal me, working with money and home budgets, measuring while working on building projects, or figuring out how much pong soil you need. Talking math during these activities is very helpful.
  • Older children might show interest in math related to a parent’s job, societal issues, or games.
    Rather than focusing on a correct answer, ask them to explain their thinking.
  • If you find an online instructional resource or a math book that interests your child, stick with the one resource since it likely has a built in progression of learning. Jumping between multiple resources can cause confusion.

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