Much conversation has centered around students’ loss of instructional time. What may be overlooked is that many gained independence and intrinsic motivation during COVID. Resuming normal life is the first—and most important—step to helping them build on those strengths and recover lost ground.
Educators across the country are formulating plans to address so-called “learning loss.” As a teacher in Washington, DC, I see every day the losses that students, families, and teachers face due to Covid-19. But I also see how resilient our communities are—and how harmful it is to focus solely on “learning loss” when addressing the myriad challenges facing them.
When the pandemic began, my fellow teachers and I had to copy learning materials and deliver books to students’ homes until our students could get online. The fourth- and fifth-graders I teach lost almost an entire month while I secured outside funding for laptops. Once online, students experienced every kind of distraction. During learning time even now, some are babysitting, pet sitting, and sharing rooms and wi-fi with siblings.
Students are also suffering from having limited connection to their friends and teachers. While learning remotely, they have been cut off from normal learning routines that help them focus and from rigorous instruction. Among other losses, in remote learning students couldn’t:
- See their teacher’s facial expressions
- Borrow books from the library
- Get extra enrichment from summer school in 2020
- Take field trips
- Participate in hands-on learning activities that help students physically experience the concepts they study and “own” what they learn
Every day I see how students are learning to value education. They’re gaining the intrinsic motivation for learning that research says is crucial to long-term success.
In spite of this, students have shown unusual determination. They have learned to do tasks independently and use previously unavailable technology to do research (and even type their assignments). This year, my students have lived Black history and become activists, writing to policymakers about social unrest in their own backyard. The unrest at the Capitol affected their vision of the nation, but they didn’t want this be a reflection on the city where they live or on them. Instead of simply watching, they took action and communicated with officials about what they feel needs to happen. Their optimism and drive are powerful forces that teachers can harness. Every day I see how students are learning to value education. They’re gaining the intrinsic motivation for learning that research says is crucial to long-term success.
Identifying these gains can help reassure parents that their children won’t be part of a “lost generation” of learners. Parents are stressed out enough from all they have had to do to over the past year—they don’t need to feel like their students are lost.
Many of the parents in my community are concerned about academic progress and are worried that students are losing ground, but their biggest concern is for the safety of their kids. Families were given the option to send their children back to school through a hybrid learning model, but nearly half of the families in our community decided to have their children remain at home and continue virtual learning. Although the adjustment to virtual learning was challenging for students at the beginning of the pandemic, many students were eventually able to find success. Virtual learning allowed me to remain connected to each student, and gave me the opportunity to provide individual instruction to students when necessary. Families were also able to see some of the benefits of virtual instruction. For instance, this year we were able to conduct parent-teacher conferences at the parents’ convenience rather than having them come to school at inopportune times.
Families were also able to see some of the benefits of virtual instruction. For instance, this year we were able to conduct parent-teacher conferences at the parents’ convenience rather than having them come to school at inopportune times.
Recovering from the Pandemic
To be sure, my students have lost instructional hours. My school and schools around the country plan to address learning loss through in-person and virtual instruction during the summer and fall for students who fell furthest behind. In my city, some students will receive one-on-one or small group tutoring and the district will revise its learning program to integrate social and emotional learning along with academic study.
These changes are sensible, particularly if they can serve all students who need them and if social and emotional learning focus is paramount. School districts and communities can do four things to ensure that students make up lost ground:
- Help students return to normal life
- Implement social and emotional learning programs and no-cost professional development tools for teachers and school staff
- Recognize that teachers can’t do it alone
- Give students role models who are from the same backgrounds as themselves
Help students return to normal life. With all the urgency to close learning gaps, schools must ease students back into instruction. Students need an opportunity to spend time with other students, experience a regular schedule where they wake up at 7:00 a.m., have math and reading, and join their friends at recess and lunch. Summer school can help restore normalcy; it’s an opportunity for children to repair their lost connections with peers and school routines that will help them make up lost ground and prepare them to learn in the fall. According to a recent article from the Hechinger Report at Teachers College, Columbia University, research on summer school indicates that academic gains are not a sure thing, and experts place emphasis on the importance of social-emotional skills and relationships (including activities that are relevant and of interest to students (such as engagement in social justice issues) along with tutoring to help re-engage students in learning. Recreating a “regular” school environment is less important.
Implement social and emotional learning programs and no-cost professional development tools for teachers and school staff. There are many outstanding social and emotional learning programs, and some have the seal of approval from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). For example, Harmony SEL, a CASEL SELect program, is available—with complete lessons and implementation training—at no cost to schools, districts, and organizations. Harmony helps students in grades pre-K–6 learn about inclusion and develop empathy, critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and peer relationships. It provides schools and teachers with age-appropriate practices and activities that encourage communication, connection, and mutual respect among students. For teachers who want to develop an inspirational and SEL-informed teaching practice, Inspire Teaching & Learning, based at National University System, offers 70 free, on-demand, professional development courses, webinars, and additional resources. I use Harmony and Inspire to support students and grow as an educator.
Recognize that teachers can’t do it alone. In making up for lost ground, we need to provide comprehensive support for young people, beyond what teachers can do. Outside tutors, counselors and therapists, academic coaches, teachers, administrators, and parents working together can help students get on grade level and prepare for the next level.
Give students role models who are from the same backgrounds as themselves. Research shows that Black students who have Black teachers in grades three to five are nearly 40 percent less likely to drop out of high school and nearly 30 percent more likely to go to college. As a Black/Latino boy, I didn’t have a teacher who shared my identity until I reached middle school. This teacher not only shared my background but took special interest in me and made sure that I went to college. I was fortunate to receive these benefits. Racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half of the U.S. student population, but teachers of color represent less than 20 percent of our work force. Even more alarming, nearly 40 percent of our nation’s public schools lack a single teacher of color. We need to ensure that the teaching force is more fully representative of the student population.
Every day, my students inspire me by learning new and different things despite the fallout from the pandemic. Focusing on their academic, social, and emotional development—and providing them with more Black and Latino role models—will give our students a better chance to thrive in a post-pandemic world. If you give them this chance, our students will show you that they are anything but lost.
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