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Sunday, September 26, 2021

How students made up for learning loss this summer

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Students in a second grade classroom at a local summer learning program spent a recent morning working on cards to give people who have helped them through the last couple of months.

It might be routine for most of them at this point, but their voices were muffled by a face mask as they excitedly shared with classmates what they were drawing.

Second graders get artistic discretion. They can deviate from form for the sake of fun. When it comes to the academic side, though, Christena Lothery, a high school intern with the Horizons program at St. Richard’s Episcopal School, said it’s clear the pandemic has put many students behind.

“I’ll ask a question, and they’ll be like, ‘I don’t know what this is,’” said Lothery, who works with second graders and is getting ready for her junior year.

Odds and evens? Don’t know. Past-tense verbs? Blank.

“You can tell they didn’t really learn anything virtually,” she said.

Researchers saw this coming more than a year ago, just after schools went virtual.

“The COVID-19 crisis is a call to action for practitioners and policy makers alike,” researchers Megan Kuhfeld and Beth Tarasawa wrote for the education nonprofit NWEA. “Once schools are back in session, we must be prepared to support students, many of whom will likely be behind academically.”

That was in April 2020. Nearly 16 months later, educators are getting a clearer look at how virtual learning affected their students.

All of the students at Horizons, part of a national summer program, are on free and reduced lunch during the school year. Horizons, which is housed at St. Richard’s but isn’t otherwise affiliated with the private school, is a tuition-free program for K-8 students to help reduce that infamous “summer slide” in academics. The program includes counseling and swim lessons.

Patrice Laura, a reading specialist at Horizons for pre-K through fourth grade, is optimistic that students have learned something about resiliency and being adaptable through all of this, but it’s the students who need one-on-one attention she’s worried about.

Some learning accommodations simply weren’t possible in an online setting, and Laura has noticed they’re struggling more now.

“I’ve seen them plateau or take a dip,” she said.

For students who just graduated from high school and want to go to college, any pandemic-related dip could have even more serious consequences. Rebecca Rahschulte, vice president of K-14 initiatives at Ivy Tech Community College, believes COVID-19 is partly to blame for why some students haven’t met college readiness benchmarks.

Ivy Tech, in partnership with the state Department of Education and Commission for Higher Education, is hosting a program called Summer Bridge for students who graduated high school this year but still need some academic improvement before going to college.

There are 397 students enrolled now, Rahschulte said. The goal is for this to be a pilot program, which is free and includes an initial evaluation and course through Ivy Tech.

Rahschulte said inconsistency in the classroom setting — going back and forth between in-person and virtual learning — and the stress that has come with living through a pandemic have made a difference for students.

“I think all of these factors definitely played a role in that college readiness aspect,” she said.

Sara DeSantis is still operating in the virtual world as a tutor. She started in January 2020 with TutorMe, where students ask a question that gets sent out to any tutors who are online.

DeSantis doesn’t video chat with every student she works with, but she can get an idea for race and gender based on profile pictures. That’s how she’s determined Black students seem to be further behind.

“But they are some of the hardest working students I work with,” she said, “because they’re given this opportunity.”

DeSantis only has a few months of pre-COVID-19 tutoring to compare against, but students got “more panicky” when the pandemic started, she said. One student, a veteran in college, had 10 minutes to submit a paper and needed help. He had just lost his home and job.

“I try to be like a friend,” DeSantis said, noting that she is absolutely not a counselor. “If they tell me these things, I definitely listen.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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