Pandemic Academics: The 'COVID slide' and what the shutdown means for students' progress

May 21, 2020

In the last two days, we've heard from local students, parents, teachers, and administrators about how they are coping with distance learning since schools closed nine weeks ago to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Today, in the third part of the WXXI News series, "Pandemic Academics: Education During the Coronavirus Crisis,"  we look at the effect that all this time away from the classroom could have on students' academic progress.

Maya Seltzer-Clinton, a freshman at Brighton High School, works at her desk at home.
Credit provided photo

Maya Seltzer-Clinton is watching a video recording of her ninth-grade biology teacher Christopher Law's lesson on how certain animals evolved to have darker fur or feathers to protect them from predators.

"And he has, like, the worksheet on the screen and then he explains to us how to do it," said Maya, who attends Brighton High School. "That's been very helpful to me, and I wish all my teachers were doing that."

She said it's easier for her to learn this way than to navigate new material by herself.

"Some of the geometry stuff," she said, "it's just hard to learn on your own." 

Teachers agree: School at home in no way resembles the dynamics of learning in a classroom full of students.

"We're doing the very best we can in a very difficult situation. It's not ideal, and it's not what any of us would choose," said Brighton High School social studies teacher Jennifer Pacatte.

She said it's clear that students are not getting the same education now as they would be if schools were open.

"I've heard it referred to as 'COVID slide,' exacerbated gaps in skills and knowledge and there's no doubt that that will be true," she said.

Researchers say the same. The nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association, which measures student performance, estimates that students will lose roughly 30% of their learning gains in reading compared to a typical academic year.

Projections for lost progress in math look even worse.  The association said students will likely lose about half of their expected gains. 

Pacatte believes the greatest impacts will be felt by those who were already struggling academically and by younger students "who were developing the foundation of those important skills of reading and writing and mathematics, that those will require a lot more remediation when they come back to school."

The pandemic will also likely amplify the learning challenges for students whose families face food and economic insecurity, unemployment, or homelessness.

At School 45 in Rochester, principal Robert Snyder said broken social connections are another concern.  He said his students rely on relationships, and if they don't trust an adult, it makes learning more difficult.

"We could go maybe nine months or longer without having those face-to-face interactions, those encounters," he said. "I even see it, as an administrator of a building, there's always something lacking, even through a Zoom call, right? You can only get so much out of one of those calls. They don't hit home quite the same way as a face-to-face conversation or a lesson does."

Snyder said achievement gaps get wider between third and fourth grade. He worries that those students will be even further behind. 

When schools reopen, he said it will be important to assess where students stand.

Brighton High School freshman Maya Seltzer-Clinton at her desk at home.
Credit provided photo

"We're going to have to test them in reading, writing, math, figure out the skills they're lacking, and we'll have to close those gaps as fast as possible," said Snyder. "You're going to see rigorous teaching and learning taking place, and we're going to have to continue our model of high expectations and high supports for our kids."

Geneva High School math teacher Renee Williams agrees that more than a quick review of lessons will be necessary in the next school year.

She said teachers will need to be more thoughtful in the way they plan their lessons, and have patience.

"You're not going to cram another three months of learning into one academic year," Williams said. "That's not going to happen."

Penn Yan Elementary School principal Edward Foote is concerned about the long-term impacts of remote learning on his students. He said many of them struggle to meet proficiency rates in a normal school year.

Foote said it's too early to know all the answers, but one approach he already relies on is a specialized instructional plan for students who need it.

"This does force you to look through that lens even closer than we ever have so that could be an answer as we move forward in how do we close those gaps," he explained.

Educators are eager to move forward. But what will it take for schools to reopen? We'll examine some of the challenges in the final part of our series tomorrow.