By Jonna Kuskey
To say the 2020-21 school year will begin a little differently than most is an understatement. Public health experts have indicated schools may still be dealing with the effects of the pandemic in the new year, which means more remote and online learning may be on the horizon, and we need to be ready if that occurs. We also need to be ready for the COVID-19 slide, much like the typical summer slide, only steeper. A study by Kuhfeld, et al, “Projecting the Potential Impacts of COVID-19 School Closures on Academic Achievement,” projects students will begin this year with “approximately 63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year” and 37-50% in math.1
The authors make it clear that their study does not address how the COVID-19 school closures have affected students’ mental and emotional health, nor does the study examine how the closures exacerbated the already-existing inequities among students. They do, however, argue that it is “essential” for educators to understand how students were impacted in these areas during the closure. Because there is a possibility the pandemic may force us to again shift to remote learning, we need to understand all the ways in which students have been affected, so we know how to plan for future closures.
What does this mean for teachers?
It means assessing students in ways that not only allow us to measure our students’ academic strengths and weaknesses but also to assess and identify the inequities that create barriers to their learning and determine their current emotional and mental health. It means assessing why students are doing well or not well. It means assessing work sooner rather than later because we have much to do.
Where do teachers start?
We start by examining the performance of our own students during the COVID-19 closure and sharing our findings with our students’ future teachers. For instance, I found that, overall, student performance dropped significantly in my classes. I had difficulty keeping the majority of my students engaged, so I asked them what obstacles were hindering their learning. The biggest obstacles students reported were overwhelming feelings of anxiety (concerns about the virus, family unemployment), increased responsibilities (caring for younger siblings or working), no or slow internet, and lack of a dedicated electronic device (many students shared one among several family members). This information helped me get a better picture of each student’s situation and work with the school counselor, a parent, and the student to try to eliminate or reduce some of these obstacles.
Here is what I hope will happen: that teachers across the country will note what they observed about their students as they worked with them remotely during the last months of the school year, and can pass those notes on to their colleagues. Those notes ideally would include which students need to be provided with a laptop and which do not have internet access—so that I can download videos, podcasts or assignments onto a flash drive for them to take home. These notes would let me know which students have had to take on a part-time job to help cover expenses because a family member became unemployed because of the pandemic. They would let me know which students will have to carve time out of their day to babysit younger siblings and help them complete school assignments should we have to move to remote learning again. I would know which students are coping with anxiety or depression. Having this knowledge would allow me to recognize the issues that each individual student has that is affecting their ability to learn and remain engaged, whether that be in the classroom or remotely.
My next step is to speak with my new students and their parents before the year begins to ask them some questions based on information I received from their former ELA teachers and to give them the opportunity to voice concerns they may have about returning to school. The goal here is to eliminate or reduce any possible obstacles to learning before the student even walks into the classroom.
When they do return to the classroom, I will assess each student’s ELA skills, but only after they get acclimated to “doing school” again. Being back in the classroom after a five-month hiatus is going to be a challenge and expecting them to begin more formal academic assessments the first week back would be doing them a disservice. Instead, I will informally assess their academic skills and the aforementioned nonacademic (but equally important) areas by having students do some narrative, informative, and argumentative writing regarding the COVID-19 closures and the effects on students. These short writings will allow me to assess some of their ELA skills as well as their thoughts, feelings, and fears surrounding the pandemic and the return to school. Once students appear to have settled back into the school routine, I will more formally assess their ELA skills.
As teachers, we tend to see every experience as a learning experience, and the COVID-19 school closures have helped us learn that assessing our students means much more than simply assessing their academic skills. It has taught us that we need to assess the other important issues and areas in their lives that affect their ability to successfully learn.
1Kuhfeld, Megan, James Soland, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Jing Liu. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-226). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05
Jonna Kuskey is a National Board Certified Teacher at John Marshall High School in West Virginia, where she has taught English for 14 years. She writes a monthly column for the Wheeling Intelligencer, and is a 2018 winner of the Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award and the 2017 recipient of the CEE James Moffett Memorial Award for Teacher Research.