Educators, students worry COVID-19 creates a lost generation

Eufemia Didonato

Alex Burbidge is typically on the school honor roll, often with straight A’s. But after months in online classes during the pandemic, he now questions his future.

“The six month break really has me, I guess, concerned for college,” said the Olathe South High School senior, who plans to major in architecture at the University of Nebraska. “I mean, that’s a relentless grind, architecture. You have to be really good in physics and math. And I feel like I won’t be adequately prepared for my freshman year of college going into it if I keep going at this pace online and with the stuff that I’ve missed.”

Education experts say school closures, extended online-only classes and the interruption of extracurricular activities because of COVID-19 could turn the trajectory of some students’ futures into a nosedive.

“I can tell you 100% … this is a major national problem,” said Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell, who has been discussing the issue regularly with other school leaders from districts large and small across the country.

“There is a real and present danger that the public-health crisis will create a COVID generation who loses out on schooling and whose opportunities are permanently damaged,” the World Economic Forum said in a report on the long-term economic impact of the virus.

Students in the Kansas City area have been learning online, off and on, since the pandemic hit in March, and many more will return to online-only classes after the Thanksgiving break.

The result for some is what school leaders have dubbed the “COVID slide” — an educational loss students may never recover from. While it’s too early for data to support the thought, others warn that the diminished education, coupled with health and financial troubles, will lead to a lost generation.

“A learning reversal of this magnitude could hobble an entire generation unless state leaders quickly work to reverse the slide,” a New York Times editorial predicted in April.

Several recent reports by educational researchers compare it to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when students in New Orleans took nearly two full years to make up for lost instructional time. But this time the impact is global.

Heather Mayfield has already seen some of the effects firsthand, both as a teacher at Trailridge Middle School, working to keep students on track, and as a parent of a high schooler in the Shawnee Mission district. After months of disrupted learning, she warns that schools need to make seismic shifts in how this generation is taught for years to come.

“At some point our systems are going to have to adjust to the fact that these kids were educated during the pandemic,” Mayfield said. “It’s not just going to be two rough years in education. We’ll continue to see the effects of this until this year’s kindergartners graduate from high school.”

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Alex Burbidge, a senior at Olathe South High School, worries about the impact of months of online classes. “I feel like I won’t be adequately prepared for my freshman year of college going into it if I keep going at this pace online and with the stuff that I’ve missed,” he said. Jill Toyoshiba [email protected]

Online impact

Teachers and administrators agree that students learn less online than in a classroom — at suburban and urban, public and private schools alike.

Students know it too.

After learning that he would be forced to return to online classes once again after Thanksgiving — thanks to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and teacher shortages — Burbidge, editor of the online student newspaper The Eyrie, wrote an opinion article spelling out the consequences.

“This year I had several grades that were much lower than I would have anticipated or expected of myself. And I think that’s due to online learning,” he said. “I need in-person learning. As selfish as it might seem, I really need it. And I know there are other people that need it too.”

A report by McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, said that “although students at the best full-time virtual schools can do as well as or better than those at traditional ones, most studies have found that full-time online learning does not deliver the academic results of in-class instruction.”

This summer in Kansas City’s more affluent suburbs, thousands of parents rallied against online-only instruction, anticipating that their kids would lose out academically, socially and emotionally. Many of the districts waited to start the school year until after Labor Day, then allowed elementary students to learn in person, while older students were allowed in classrooms part-time, taking online classes the rest of the week.

But when COVID-19 cases began to spike in the region and in schools recently, some districts, like Lee’s Summit and Park Hill, went to all grades online only. Districts in Johnson County announced that middle and high schoolers would return to online classes, after a little more than one month of in-person instruction.

And while teachers have gotten a better handle on how to teach online, some parents still worry their kids may be missing out.

That’s Erin Gregory’s fear. Her 9-year-old daughter, Darby, is in fourth grade in Lee’s Summit and on a special education plan for medical reasons that allows her certain learning accommodations to stay on track. Taking tests with paper and pencil rather than on a laptop computer is one example. “With online learning, a lot of accommodations she can’t get with remote learning,” Gregory said.

“My biggest concern is the reality that even though teachers are doing a great job, virtual instruction and teaching is mostly inferior,” she said. “There is a big difference in watching a video on how to make a volcano when the dog is barking and you tune out for a minute and miss something, and watching your teacher do it in the classroom where students can really engage. I wonder how much is she actually learning and retaining?”

Still, Gregory said she feels certain that in the long run, “Darby will be fine. I realize I speak from a place of privilege. But if I feel like Darby has missed out on science, maybe we can pay to send her to space camp next summer.” She worries about families who don’t have the same financial means.

The pandemic has exacerbated well-documented opportunity gaps that put low-income students at a disadvantage relative to their better-off peers,” said researchers from the Economic Policy Institute. “As a consequence, many of the children who struggle the hardest to learn effectively and thrive in school under normal circumstances are now finding it difficult, even impossible in some cases, to receive effective instruction.”

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Mike English, executive director of Turn the Page KC, says people should be concerned about the educational losses students face during the pandemic. Turn the Page KC

Mike English, executive director of Turn the Page KC, which works to raise the reading proficiency of third-graders, is worried about that vulnerable population.

“This is a cycle of brutality, particularly for students who come from low-income families,” English said. “Students who don’t have a home learning environment that is conducive to learning, what I am hearing from teachers and principals is how this is going to increase the achievement gap among students.”

Holly Jukes, a middle school teacher in Kansas City, Kansas, is frustrated that her students — many of whom have special needs or do not speak English as a first language — have learned online only this school year. Miles away in Johnson County, students returned to classrooms at least part time this fall.

“One-third of my kids just don’t attend classes, so they’re getting zeroes. And out of the two-thirds that do attend, one-third aren’t passing. That leaves only a couple of students who are getting an A or B,” Jukes said. “It’s bad. It’s not good. And this is not just me.”

Of the kids who do log in every day, she said, many do not turn on their cameras or participate in Zoom lessons.

Across the metro area, school districts scrambled and spent millions of dollars to make sure students had computers and hot spots to access internet. But districts quickly found out that in many areas, broadband access was limited and parents had to resort to creativity — heading to the parking lots outside school, the library and McDonald’s so their children could have Wi-Fi. Not a sustainable situation.

“These kids I’m teaching, many don’t have internet,” Jukes said. “We didn’t even have a classroom set of computers last year. My kids don’t know how to write an email or check graded work. Some just don’t know how to use a computer well enough to turn in assignments.”

Even in Shawnee Mission, though, where the district made it a mission before the pandemic to equip every student with a computer or iPad, Mayfield said more of her students are failing than in a typical year. She’s had to reduce the workload and expectations for online classes, worried that students were overloaded with too many assignments.

The McKinsey & Co. report also predicts high-school dropout rates will climb. “The virus is disrupting many of the supports that can help vulnerable kids stay in school: academic engagement and achievement, strong relationships with caring adults, and supportive home environments,” the report said. “We estimate that an additional 2 to 9 percent of high-school students could drop out as a result of the coronavirus — 232,000 ninth-to-11th graders (in the mildest scenario) to 1.1 million (in the worst one).”

Andrew Rexroat, a fifth-grade teacher at Foreign Language Academy, one of the top performing schools in the Kansas City district, said he is worried about some of his students. “A pretty high number of my kids work very hard,” he said. But he believes about six kids in every class of 23 students still miss chunks of what’s happening during remote learning, no matter how hard the teacher tries to make sure everyone is engaged.

“Students have to hit certain benchmarks at certain times,” he said. And if they are missed, “it could set them back years. So yes, I am concerned about what that is going to look like five years down the road” when his students are in high school.

Even standardized tests can’t accurately tell how great the loss is, Bedell said. “It’s hard to validate the assessments because there are some kids that didn’t score well that normally score very well and some who don’t normally score well but scored extremely well. How do I know whether someone is helping them with answers or whether the conditions some kids may have at home where they are taking these tests are a distraction? We don’t know.”

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Mark Bedell, Kansas City Public Schools superintendent, is concerned that educational losses because of the coronavirus pandemic may have hurt students’ emotional health. File photo by David Pulliam The Kansas City Star

Cracks in their knowledge

More immediate, Bedell said, is the emotional toll.

“Kids are depressed,” Bedell said. “I see it firsthand. My daughter just graduated, and for her to have lost her whole track season, her prom and a traditional graduation. … I’m sitting in the kitchen watching this girl cry. I look at my son who is a senior this year and now people are talking about how basketball may be in jeopardy.

“To have the virus take that away, take away school plays, clubs, band, music. These are things that help to develop the whole child. Couple that with educational loss and think about what that would do to all these kids.”

The COVID slide “is serious, but addressable,” said Brian Galvin, director of Varsity Tutors, a California-based company tapped by schools and parents to help students who fall behind.

“A summer slide we understand, and we know how to address that,” Galvin said. But this fall, districts are seeing something more.

In the spring, because schools had to pivot quickly to online only, “learning was shaky,” he said. So this school year, teachers had to abandon their normal learning calendar and spend more time in review.

“The skills that worry me most are those critical pathway skills, the skills that the next year builds on. One example is division and fractions in the fourth- and fifth-grade levels, because those skills are foundational for algebra.

“That’s where we start to get the potential for generational setback.”

With classes online, there’s greater risk that teachers might not notice a couple cracks in a student’s knowledge foundation. Teachers are good at walking the aisles, peeking at a student’s paper. Or watching their body language and noticing they are confused or don’t understand.

His fear, he said, is that the further a student moves up in grades away from where the first crack appeared, the harder it is for teachers to pinpoint where the problem started.

After Hurricane Katrina, Galvin said, researchers found “these long periods being out of school have potential for kids being left pretty far behind. Some never catch up.”

On an individual basis, parents can advocate for their children, get them extra help, but on an aggregate scale, “this will have a lasting impact,” Galvin said.

“Unfortunately the handful of solutions that can help make up for the learning loss,” Galvin said, “disproportionately favors the more affluent.”

Part of the problem for public schools, Rexroat said, is that they are expected to be “the catchall for so many of our social problems. It’s impossible to import much of what schools do to a virtual space. And so when school is not there we have kids at risk.”

That is compounded, he said, because the pandemic has added students to the at-risk list. “We have lots of kids whose mom and dad are struggling now. Lots of lost jobs, lost housing. More kids are food insecure. I notice the signs.”

And everyone should care about this, English said. If more students drop out and fewer are prepared for college, “that creates a smaller pipeline for some of our industries that are even now struggling to broaden their potential worker pipeline.”

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After the Olathe school district announced a return to remote learning, Alex Burbidge, editor-in-chief of the Olathe South High School student news site The Eyrie, wrote an opinion piece saying students will suffer. Jill Toyoshiba [email protected]

There’s hope

Detra Price-Dennis, associate professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, said that because we’re still in the thick of the pandemic, the data isn’t in on progress or loss. But she is optimistic.

“There is no doubt children are not experiencing the same kind of K-12 education they were before COVID-19, and some consider that a loss. For others it’s not,” Price-Dennis said. While some students may struggle learning online and miss socializing, other students, Price-Dennis says, can really concentrate on their learning because there’s “no bullying in the bathroom, no criminalizing of behavior or over-policing in schools,” among other hardships.

And some educators, like Mayfield, believe the pandemic has shone a brighter light on inequities within the school system. She hopes the lessons learned will transform teaching for the next generation, giving each student a better chance at succeeding.

“Kindergartners are not getting that foundational experience for education. That’s going to have a ripple effect. So instead of getting bogged down and pushing kids harder, we have to realize things aren’t going to go back quickly,” Mayfield said. “I would love for this to result in changes to how we measure what kids know. And I would love for schools to continue offering flexibility for students who need it. That’d be a real gift.”

Yvette Hayes teaches fifth grade in the Hickman Mills district and sees another benefit to online education. “Students work at their own pace and they are learning organizational skills and how to be an independent worker. I see my students connecting with me and really adapting,” she said.

Price-Dennis said she is hopeful that educators have the tools to help students get and stay on track. “But it is not going to be easy, not for the teachers, the students (or) the parents.”

What she is worried about is that some may use COVID-19 as an opportunity to say that kids are lost and hope is gone. “I think that we have learned a lot about meeting the needs of our kids. Kids haven’t stopped learning, they haven’t stopped being curious. I am always of the mind that the glass is half full.

“The truth is we just don’t know yet. But whatever does not work, we learn from it and we can fix it. We don’t ever give up on kids.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.

Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.

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