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Kristen Amundson column: Parents fear kids aren’t learning. They’re right.
Education Perspectives

Kristen Amundson column: Parents fear kids aren’t learning. They’re right.

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A new poll from Christopher Newport University found that 75% of Virginia parents are worried their children are falling behind in school because of disruptions caused by COVID-19. More than half (53%) are “very worried.”

They’re right.

Nine months after the pandemic led to school closures, we have data on how well students are learning. The answer: Not well.

This past month, Fairfax County Public Schools reported an 83% increase in the number of middle and high school students receiving an “F” in two or more classes. Unsurprisingly, students with disabilities, English learners and economically disadvantaged students did even worse, with jumps of more than 350%.

The nonprofit testing organization NWEA reported in November that students’ math scores dropped five to 10 percentage points from this past year. While reading scores roughly held constant, even students who are making some progress show smaller gains than in the past, “resulting in more students falling behind relative to their prior standing,” NWEA says.

Yet even in the face of compelling evidence that online learning is not working for too many students, Fairfax, Loudoun and Fauquier counties all have returned to fully virtual classes. One big reason: Teachers understandably are unwilling to put their health at risk when cases seem to be spiking.

We have to protect teachers, and help kids and families. Here’s how we do both.

First, move teachers to the front of the vaccine line. (By “teachers” I mean “everyone who has direct daily contact with kids in school.”)

Virginia’s first tranche of vaccines, which came this past week, must go to health care workers and first responders. But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for Phase II allow some flexibility to protect “essential workers.”

I’d argue that right now, no workers are more “essential” than educators. Kids aren’t learning. Families are struggling. The economy is faltering. In September alone, four times as many women as men dropped out of the nation’s workforce. “The impact on short-term work productivity and engagement appeared to be borne entirely on the backs of mothers of school-age children,” says Misty L. Heggeness, an economist at the U.S. Census Bureau.

So make it possible for schools to reopen safely. But then reopen safely. There are responsible ways to get children back in classrooms. That’s particularly true for elementary school children, who are at the greatest risk for learning loss and the least risk for contracting COVID-19. Children under age 10 rarely contract the disease, and rarely spread it. So start there.

It will require a guarantee of personal protective equipment like masks for everyone in the school (and a requirement that everyone wear one). It will mean frequent school cleanings. Even so, some parents might keep students home. But we cannot go another full semester with kids learning (or not) on their couch.

Third, give parents a clear sense of their children’s academic progress. Hint: It’s not going to be good news. Many students were behind this past March. More have fallen behind since then.

Even if you think the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests will be administered this year (I have my doubts), results won’t be available for months. However, parents who want a quick spot-check can consult a free resource developed by Learning Heroes. Also consult free online family guides from the nonprofit organizations Seek Common Ground and Student Achievement Partners, outlining key content in literacy and math for each grade.

Fourth, develop a personalized academic recovery plan for every child. Research shows us that 1-on-1 tutoring by trained tutors can close learning gaps. (I’m involved with EduTutorVA, a new nonprofit already providing free tutoring in three Northern Virginia school divisions.)

Summer school might be a requirement for some students. We might need an extended school day. Let’s face it — kids are coming off what has felt like a full year of summer vacation. If resources are limited (when aren’t they?), prioritize the schools and students with the greatest need.

Parents who have spent most of the past year helping their children learn know what’s happening and they’re worried. We need to respond to them so our children don’t lose another year.

Kristen Amundson is the former chair of the Fairfax County School Board and a former member of the Virginia General Assembly. Her book “81 Questions for Parents: Helping Your Kids Succeed in School” will be published this spring. Contact her at: kjamundson@cox.net

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