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Education, Interrupted

Teachers who specialize in working with students who have gaps in their education are sounding the alarm about the difficulties posed by traumatic pauses in learning.

While school district leaders scramble to establish some type of distance learning to blunt the impact of the months-long closures, educators brace for what half a year of unstructured, patchwork instruction – and for some children, little to no education at all – will mean when they return to classrooms in the fall.

"We're pretty nervous overall about the impact on our students, especially our English language learners and low-income students who aren't really able to get the support they need right now," Renée Nabors, a kindergarten and first grade teacher at a bilingual public charter school in Denver, says. "We know the long-term impact of being behind grade-level in reading instruction in these early grades is pretty significant in the long-term."
Along with the rest of the teachers in the 92,000-student Denver Public Schools system, Nabors began hosting online classes for her students Monday and is expected to provide four hours of instructional material to students each day. As part of that distance learning model, she created a YouTube channel where her students, 95% of whom are still learning English, can watch her reading bedtime stories.
"Right now is the time of year, particularly in first grade, we're teaching foundations, reading skills," she says. "They're growing from being able to just sound out individual words to being able to read early readers that have four or five sentences per page. What it takes to get over that jump and become readers is a lot of individualized feedback on their reading – a lot of listening to them read, a lot of listening to adults read and just a lot of practice."
"It's been pretty frustrating to have all of these different apps and platforms, and we're feeling very overwhelmed with so many resources that don't feel very useful for our students who need them the most," she says. "An app can't really give feedback on a child reading out loud."
Some teachers who specialize in educating students with major gaps in their education, often from a year-long travel to the U.S. as a refugee or asylum-seeker – known as students with interrupted formal education, or SIFE students – are sounding the alarm for how much more difficult it is to teach students with such traumatic pauses to their education.
"It's very, very different," Coral Zayas, fifth grade teacher at T.A. Brown Elementary in Austin, Texas, says about teaching students whose education has been interrupted. "I've been a bilingual teacher since 2013, and this is the first year when I've had majority SIFE, majority newcomers in my class, and nothing I have done in seven years prepared me for this at all. None of my training prepared me for it."
"I can't even imagine what it is going to be like when all teachers are having to deal with that," she says. "We need to be proactive now for how we're going to deal with that next year."
"We need to think about using all the intervention strategies we have to close gaps faster and help get kids to where they need to be," Zayas says. "Additional tutoring and things like that, those are going to be things that school districts are going to have to think about doing in August – not from October, not from next January, from August."
Educators like Nabors and Zayas are on high alert, already acutely aware of how the so-called summer slide – the learning that's lost during three-month summer breaks – disproportionately impacts poor students and contributes to widening achievement gaps in math and reading.
"It will have some pretty significant long-term impacts," says Nabors. "We know that our English learners and our low-income students already experience a lot more summer slide than other communities, and this is particularly intense."
Because there's never been such a wide scale closure of schools over such a long period of time, it's unclear exactly what type of immediate and delayed impact it will have.
A limited body of research borne out by similarly long closures, compiled and assessed by Chalkbeat, shows that longer closures will likely have harmful consequences, including declines in student test scores and potentially even result in less earnings when students enter the workforce.
Despite the unprecedented situation, a new Gallup poll shows that only 15% of parents are "very concerned" about the pandemic's negative impact on their child's education, while 27% are moderately concerned, 33% say they are not too concerned and 26% are not concerned at all.
The rate of concern, however, is much higher among black and Hispanic parents, which the survey combined and characterized as nonwhite parents, 52% of whom say they are concerned compared to 36% of white parents.
Several education policy experts have called for states and school districts to operate some type of summer school, underscoring that a second wave of the virus, which health care experts are forecasting, will likely cause similar closures once school begins again in August and September.
But the Gallup poll showed that most parents do not favor extending the school year into the summer, with just 27% saying the school year should be extended. Meanwhile, 48% say students who complete a formal distance learning program should be able to advance to the next grade in the fall and 22% think students should advance regardless of what schoolwork they complete.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has promised to give states and school districts maximum flexibility for how they finish out the year by waiving certain federal mandates, like annual testing, while at the same time demanding that learning continues and urging districts to be creative in getting students instructional materials.
While a handful of districts were quick to establish distance learning through online classes, most did not have the infrastructure in place to do so. As of last week, most of the country's big city school districts were not providing any instruction whatsoever. And for those that are, access to the internet, which an estimated 12 million children lack at home, introduces major complications, not to mention the lack of online instruction tailored for English learners and students with disabilities.
Nabors is already running into that problem.
"What we're seeing is a lot of resources that serve communities whose parents already work with their kids," she says. "I don't want to say my parents dont work with their kids, they all care. But 95% of the resources I've seen are only available in English. And if they happen to be offered in another language then it's only Spanish, and that doesn't serve the needs of the community that I work with whose parents might only speak Spanish or who might speak other languages."
She continues: "There is the technology barrier – and it's not just whether or not you have a Chromebook in your house. Our district responded by ordering tens of thousands of Chromebooks, which is great, but a lot of my families don't know what to do with them. A lot of my families are immigrant families, and they don't feel comfortable using technology this way."
For those districts with the biggest hurdles to distance learning, including lots of students without internet access, some help from the federal government is on the way.
DeVos announced Monday the process through which states and school districts can tap into the $30 billion for K-12 and higher education that's included in the economic relief package Congress recently passed to create comprehensive distance learning programs and train teachers. The announcement came after pressure from the National Governors Association and others to release the funding as quickly as possible with maximum flexibility for how the funding is used.
In addition to more than $13 billion earmarked specifically for elementary and secondary education, the relief package includes language that allows schools to repurpose existing funds for technology infrastructure and teacher training.
"By extending additional funding flexibility to schools, we are helping to ensure student learning continues and supporting teachers as they transition to virtual classrooms," DeVos said in a statement Monday. "Local leaders have asked for the ability to steer more resources to local needs, and these new tools will help them do just that."
Even still, teachers like Nabors and Zayas say much more needs to be done, and they are thinking about this moment in education instead as a time to identify major structural changes that need to happen to make education work for all students. Placing buses outfitted with WiFi in low-income neighborhoods and rural school districts, for example, is a helpful quick fix, not a long-term solution.
"We really have to think about the systems that are currently in place – are those going to keep working," Zayas asks. "Honestly, they don't work now."
"A lot of people are really worried about this and they see it as a negative thing," she says about the virus interrupting education. "For me, I see it as a way to be innovative and make shifts that have needed to happen. Now that we're not living normally, what part of normal do you want to return to? What's working and what's not? We have an opportunity to make shifts now."
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