COLUMBUS, Ohio — K-12 public schools in Ohio are addressing learning gaps from the pandemic’s disruption to education, hopeful that opportunities for more normal in-person instruction will help students who’ve fallen behind get back on track.
Students who have been learning virtually since the pandemic began experienced greater learning loss than those who were able to learn in classrooms for most of the last school year, according to school officials.
Fairfield Senior High School Principal William Rice said he is most concerned about the group of students who opted for the virtual option for most of the year. At the peak, about 700 of the school’s 2,400 students were learning virtually.
“We have seen an exponential increase in failures for courses for the students that never stepped foot in our building last year, just because of the challenges of online,” he said. “There's a distinct gap between those who we never saw last year, versus those we had in person.”
According to Rice, the challenge with addressing learning gaps next school year will be to continue to move forward with the curriculum while trying to remediate credit gaps from the previous year.
For instance, it’s hard to address issues in geometry while also trying to get a student through Algebra 2 per the state’s requirement, he said.
Rice said here are no free passes in high school. Students who have fallen behind have to make up the credit in order to advance toward graduation.
“You can't just say, ‘Oh, well, you didn't pass American Government, so that's OK.’ You still have to figure out a way to pass American Government,” he said.
With the pandemic waning, Rice said the high school is reaching some of its virtual learners who are behind with summer school classes, which it was able to offer at no cost to students this year thanks to stimulus dollars.
Public schools were tasked with creating “continuity of service” plans by June 24 as a requisite to receiving American Rescue Plan funds. The plans, which are now available, show that many Ohio schools are using federal relief funds for schools toward addressing learning gaps, including enhanced summer school options and tutoring.
A team at Miami University is working with the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Mental Health on a student assistance initiative to better identify young people in Ohio who are struggling with mental health, said Sharon Custer, one of six co-leads on the Ohio Wellness Initiative.
Students suffering from mental health issues related to the pandemic’s impact on schooling need to be provided with support to help get their academics back on track and their emotional wellbeing in better shape, she said.
“The COVID pandemic has certainly created trauma for a lot of families in a new sense,” Custer said.
Custer stressed that the learning loss in Ohio is disproportionately high among low-income students and minority students.
“For a lot of students, they were taking care of their siblings. We had a lot of high school students who had to go into the workforce to help support their families when parents lost their jobs, and for some, online learning is just not a way for students to feel connected and to grasp learning and if they start to fizzle and not do well, they just give up,” Custer said.
Throughout the pandemic, urban districts had the least access to in-person learning in Ohio. In late spring, the state’s tracker of schools’ learning models shows 87.5% of white students had access to full-time in-person learning at their school, while only 53.5% for Black students were in schools that had returned to five days of in-person learning.
Many of the Ohio Wellness Initiative’s partner schools are trying to help students recover from pandemic setbacks by offering more tutoring options, providing group programming for anxiety and grief, reducing student-teacher ratios in some classrooms and providing meals and internet access to students.
Ohio is also partnered with a project at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, focused on attendance, Proving Ground Director Dave Hersh explained.
“Ohio is extremely focused on attendance. They've sort of really adopted the argument that if the kids aren't actually going to school, it doesn't really matter what else you do,” he said.
The Harvard team uses data to understand the impact of attendance interventions in Ohio to identify what’s working and what isn’t. Hersh said he works with a couple dozen schools in the state.
Due to wonky data that’s a result of schools tracking attendance very differently during the pandemic, Hersh said it’s hard to quantify exactly how much attendance worsened in Ohio during the pandemic.
Still, most schools reported increases in absenteeism despite generally having more flexible attendance policies, which indicates that the increase was quite significant.
“The threshold to meet to be marked as present for a given day was lower, and so if you're looking at higher absenteeism with a lower threshold, that's even more concerning,” he said.
Urban schools were impacted somewhat more and attendance among younger students declined more than it did for older students, he said.
Concerningly, the number of chronically absent students also shot up due to the pandemic.
“There are a much larger number of students with whom schools had no contact whatsoever this year than we would normally see in the past,” he said. “Schools are all facing this big challenge of how do we re-engage these students, how do we connect to these students?”
Rice agreed that attendance data is complicated this year. Some of his students were gaming the system, briefly logging on to get a checkmark, but not actually doing any work.
The school is hiring tutors, bringing on additional staff to create more opportunities for credit recovery and preparing to conduct assessments to identify the areas where students have fallen behind the most.
“Think of what it's like being a teenager, and now you're a teenager at home where your parents are working to provide for the family. So you are responsible for waking up every day and getting online every day and working very independently every day. That’s just not a recipe for success, so we have some huge gaps that we are working to identify and overcome with this upcoming school year,” he said.