Until a few months ago, Melissa Buchhop, a fourth-grade teacher in Grand Forks, never realized how important it was for her students to see her whole face – and for her to see theirs.
The ever-present face mask, which the CDC recommends to stem the spread of COVID-19, has made teaching and learning a bit more complicated, said Buchhop.
“I never realized how much of a lip-reader I was,” she said, “and at times, this year, how much I have to have students repeat things and re-ask questions. So, I wonder how much information they may be missing, because they maybe don’t always hear me correctly.”
Mask-wearing – required in Grand Forks public schools – coupled with the sudden pandemic-imposed shift to distance learning last spring and in December, has resulted in declines in some students’ academic progress. Buchhop, who has taught fourth grade at Century Elementary School for a decade, and other elementary teachers are seeing the impact of the pandemic on students’ ability to learn.
While students in grades 1-5 don’t receive A-F letter grades, their competencies are measured against set criteria or standards in what teachers call “reference reporting,” said Amy Bartsch, chief academic officer for Grand Forks Public Schools.
With the assessments, teachers watch for growth over time and compare that growth, in areas such as reading and math, to established benchmarks, Bartsch said. When teachers identify learning gaps, they enlist interventionists, reading recovery teachers or instructional paraprofessionals to work with students individually to strengthen those skills.
“I think what they’re doing is they’re looking more at the skills which may have been taught in the previous years that weren’t executed to the same extent,” Bartsch said, “and they’re doing a lot of reteaching and building up from those foundational skills so students can really have an opportunity to grow within their grade levels – so a lot of remediation.”
Assessment data, which the Herald received recently from the school district, shows declines in the percentage of students reaching benchmarks in the first two trimesters this year compared to the same time frame last year.
Comparing data from fall trimesters, the percentage of students reaching benchmark expectations in reading fell from 71% in 2019 to 55% in 2020. In mathematics, students meeting benchmark expectations fell from 76% in 2019 to 60% in 2020.
Instruction has been provided face to face, in-person in the classroom until the March 2020 onset of the pandemic forced the school district to rapidly pivot to distance learning for the remainder of that school year.
The winter trimester of 2020 saw 67% of students meeting benchmark expectations in reading, compared to 60% in winter ‘21. In mathematics, comparing those two trimesters, the percentage of students meeting benchmarks fell from 76% in 2020 to 63% this year.
The academic downturns have teachers “going above and beyond” to help students recover lost ground in academics, said Buchhop, who also serves as president of the Grand Forks Education Association. The need to shift to distance learning last spring and again in December, has been cited as a major factor in learning gaps.
“There's no question that it's been a challenging year for our students,” Jody Thompson, associate superintendent of elementary education, said. “I mean, even those that are face to face, we've had disruptions with kids coming and going and teachers being out when they've been ill. It's just been hard to get any momentum going.
“As hard as our distance-learning teachers work to make that experience a positive one, it's hard to replicate face-to-face (learning),” Thompson said. “Everybody's working really hard to make sure kids stay on track, but the reality is we know that they're likely not getting the same experience they would during a regular school year.”
For the 400 to 500 students who are distance learning, “it’s a totally different environment than what they’re accustomed to,” Thompson said. “Our teachers work to make that a great experience, but it’s not the same as being in a regular school environment.”
Buchhop agreed there is nothing like “having a person right there in front of you for those immediate questions and concerns. It makes a big difference. And I think (students) lose attention, too, staring at the computer screen.”
This school year, except for 17 instructional days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when all students switched to remote learning, students in elementary and middle school grades have been learning face-to-face in a classroom.
Teachers, at the elementary level especially, “are so thankful we got to start the school year in the building and we got to be face-to-face for a good chunk of the school year,” Buchhop said.
“You’re able to accomplish so much more when you’re face to face.”
Impact on younger students
The extent of the learning gaps caused by the pandemic varies in the elementary grades, Buchhop said. “Talking with teachers, I think it is a bigger concern at the primary level – like, our kids who are first- and second-graders this year – than maybe the upper elementary.”
She and other teachers have noticed the residual impact of the pandemic on younger students, those who were in kindergarten and first grade last year.
“In kindergarten, you are really learning those basic skills – the phonics and starting to learn how to read – and they essentially missed three months of school in the spring,” Buchhop said. “We did the best we could with teaching digitally, but it was a very quick shift, everybody was kind of in crisis mode, and those kids missed, like, the ‘light bulb’ months of the school year when things really start clicking.”
“First-grade teachers, especially, have said when school started this year you could tell that these kids had really missed a good chunk of school,” Buchhop said. “And then it doesn’t help that this year we’re all in masks – which we totally understand why we are, but so much of that beginning to learn how to read, and learning those phonics, is looking at the mouth and the mouth formation. And that’s a piece that we’re kind of missing a little bit this year since we have to have our masks on all the time.”
Students in the upper grades – fourth and fifth, especially, at Century Elementary – are, for the most part, caught up or getting caught up as evidenced by the number of students being referred for extra support, which is roughly the same as other years, Buchhop said.
The Grand Forks school system uses a tiered support system: the first tier is the support that all students receive. If a student indicates a need for a little more remediation or support, they’re moved to the second tier, Bartsch said. Tier three is the most intensive tier of intervention.
“So I think possibly the older kids are catching up faster than the younger kids,” Buchhop said, “because our older kids were building on skills, whereas the little kids are learning those foundational skills.”
The effects of the pandemic were more disruptive last October and November, Buchhop said, noting that in her classroom only one student has been out since the restart of school Jan. 4.
The pandemic “has definitely made things tougher this year, because it’s not like when a kid is sick and they miss a day and then you just kind of catch them up when they get back,” she said. “(Because of the pandemic) sometimes these kids are out for weeks.”
The extent of learning loss depends on a student’s grade level, how independent a worker the student is, and the amount of support he or she receives at home, Buchhop said. “There are so many factors that play into how disruptive it is. It’s far more disruptive for some kids versus other kids.”
Associate Superintendent Thompson said progress is being made.
“I think it’s a concern to make sure we get these kids back on track with our grade level expectations regardless of what grade they’re in,” he said, “but I think the data show that, yes, we did spend a lot of time this fall and early winter getting kids caught up, if you will, from where we made our pivot last spring.
“So it appears that teachers are making progress, it appears we’ve crossed that bridge a little bit so we can get them back on track,” he said. “Of course, over the next four months of school, we’ll see if that is correct or not, but we’ve certainly turned a corner with a lot of students that were maybe a little more at risk.”
‘Learned a lot’
Educators have learned a lot about engaging students through technology and getting creative to meet students’ needs that could be brought forward into future years, Bartsch said.
They have also started doing IEP (individual education plan) meetings remotely, resulting in increased attendance at those meetings, because “they’re more convenient to families and working parents,” Thompson said.
Teachers are also seeing just how resilient students are, Buchhop said. “They’re adapting quickly when protocols and learning styles have had to change. They are stepping up to the challenge. If anything good has come out of this, they’re getting great problem-solving skills and technical skills.”
The long-term impact on students’ academic careers is uncertain, Buchhop said. “It’s going to take a few years to really see that impact, and maybe all of our kids do catch up. It’s too early to tell.”