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MILWAUKEE – Ruby Rodriguez remembers the days when English class meant walking to her desk, talking to friends and checking the board.
Now class begins when her classmates' names appear online. She sits alone at the dining room table, barefoot and petting the family dog. It's her freshman year at St. Anthony High School, a private Catholic school in Milwaukee. She doesn't know what her classmates look like, because nobody ever turns on their cameras.
After schools in Milwaukee went remote last March, Ruby and her friends in eighth grade at St. Anthony's middle school missed their graduation ceremonies and parties. Her close friends attended different high schools, mostly other private schools that offered in-person instruction. St. Anthony, like many schools in urban areas, including Milwaukee Public Schools, started the fall semester online amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Virtual learning might be keeping Ruby, 14, and her family safer during a public health crisis. But it has made it exponentially harder for her to stay motivated and learn. Her online classes are lecture-heavy, repetitive and devoid of student conversation. Her grades have dropped from A's and B's to D's and F's. She stays up too late. She sleeps a lot. She misses her friends.
Like millions of students attending school virtually this year, Ruby is floundering academically, socially and emotionally. And as the pandemic heaves into a winter surge, a slew of new reports show alarming numbers of kids falling behind, failing classes or not showing up at all.
For months, experts hoped a return to classrooms would allow teachers to address the lapses in children's academic and social needs. For many students, that hasn't happened.
The goalposts are constantly shifting on a return to in-person learning, and about half of U.S. students are attending virtual-only schools. It's becoming increasingly clear that districts and states need to improve remote instruction and find a way to give individual kids special help online.
At the moment, plans to help students catch up are largely evolving, thin or nonexistent.
The consequences are most dire for low-income and minority children, who are more likely to be learning remotely and less likely to have appropriate technology and home environments for independent study compared with their wealthier peers. Children with disabilities and those learning English have particularly struggled in the absence of in-class instruction. Many of those students were already lagging academically before the pandemic. Now, they're even further behind – with time running out to meet key academic benchmarks.
In high-poverty schools, 1 in 3 teachers report their students are significantly less prepared for grade-level work this year compared with last year, according to a report by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution. Class failure rates have skyrocketed in school systems from Fairfax County, Virginia, to Greenville, South Carolina. Fewer kindergarteners met early literacy targets in Washington, D.C., this fall. And math achievement has dropped nationwide, according to a report that examined scores from 4.4 million elementary and middle school students.
"This is not going to be a problem that goes away as soon as the pandemic is over," said Jimmy Sarakatsannis, leader of education practice at consulting firm McKinsey and Company. He co-wrote a report that estimated the average student could lose five to nine months of learning by June, with students of color losing more than that.
Beyond that, tens of thousands of children are unaccounted for altogether. Hillsborough County, Florida, started the year missing more than 7,000 students. Los Angeles saw kindergarten enrollment drop by about 6,000. There's scant data about missing students' progress, of course, but few presume they're charging ahead academically.
"We almost need a disaster plan for education," said Sonya Thomas, executive director of Nashville Propel, a community group that works with many Black parents in Tennessee.
The Nashville school system offered some in-person learning in October and November before reverting to all-virtual instruction after Thanksgiving, as COVID-19 cases surged. Some parents say their children are failing every single subject, Thomas said.
Others say they still don't have digital devices or high-speed internet, or that their children's special-education learning plans aren't being followed. One father said his middle school child struggles so much online that he walks out of the house and doesn't come back until nighttime, Thomas said.
"Our parents are afraid their kids are falling behind, and they don't know what the solution is," Thomas said. "They're looking for leadership. They're looking for help."
How much has learning slowed this year?
Nine months after COVID-19 shuttered schools and prompted the country's largest experiment with virtual learning, the extent of academic regression is still a guessing game. And it looks different from student to student.
Johnny Murphy, 15, struggled for a month this fall to learn how to unmute himself during live video lessons with his class at Vaughn High School in Chicago. Murphy has autism and an intellectual disability.
His mother, Barbara Murphy, knows her son likely will never read beyond a third-grade level. But he's backtracking on educational goals such as engaging with his peers and on life goals like leaving the house safely and using money, she said.
"It's been like summer break all year."
For Lily McCollum, 15, classes move more slowly online than they did in person. She's a sophomore at Southridge High School in Kennewick, Washington, where she has been learning remotely all year.
"We're probably the farthest behind in English and math," she said. "It's really hard to stay focused, especially if I don't have my camera on."
LaTricea Adams, founder of Black Millennials 4 Flint in Michigan, figures local children are at least a year behind in their studies, based on what she has heard from families and educators. Even before the pandemic, less than 30% of Flint's third-grade students were proficient in English, according to the latest state test scores.
"Some of these kids really need one-on-one sessions, but that's almost impossible for them to get in a virtual setting," Adams said.
Quantifying the extent of learning loss is difficult.
American students in third through eighth grade have held steady in reading but have fallen behind in math since last fall, according to a report this month by nonprofit testing organization NWEA. The group examined academic progress in reading and math for 4.4 million students at 8,000 schools, with a big caveat: The students most likely to be tested were those attending classes in person, or attending schools with enough resources to test their remote learners.
In other words, the study makes the state of American education look better than it actually is, disproportionately reflecting the progress of students at higher-income schools who tend to score better on tests anyway.
'Kids are going feral'
A team of researchers at Stanford University crunched NWEA test scores for students in 17 states and the District of Columbia and reached a more dire conclusion this fall. The average student had lost a third of a year to a full year's worth of learning in reading, and about three-quarters of a year to more than a year in math since schools closed in March, the report estimated.
"Kids are going feral," said Macke Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. "Thousands of them are unaccounted for, with no contact since schools have closed."
The predictions are only estimates, and they're built on the assumption that students didn't learn much at all between March and the start of this school year.
In any case, despite detailed findings for each school, some leaders in participating states have all but ignored the report.
Louisiana State Superintendent Cade Brumley said the report confirms what his department already suspected about learning loss. He said he has asked Louisiana school leaders to do their own diagnostic testing, but it's not mandatory.
Brumley supports additional tutoring for students, but he's wary of adopting flashy new programs. Teachers, he said, will do what they've always done to help students learn: deliver high-quality instruction with a high-quality curriculum.
In Arizona, one of the other participating states, education department officials said they were not familiar with the report.
Tennessee posted the largest learning losses in reading, according to the report's estimates.
Results varied within each state. For example, students at Tennessee's wealthier schools didn't lose much in reading achievement, or they pulled ahead of where researchers estimated they'd be. But students at the most impoverished schools fell behind – way behind, according to the estimates.
Penny Schwinn, Tennessee's commissioner of education, said her team is concerned about those estimates.
Some children are doing fine, Schwinn said. But teachers tell her that low-income students and English learners are tracking behind where they would normally be this time of year.
Tennessee has aimed to jump-start a recovery by creating an online parent platform with additional resources and by expanding online tutoring.
But in Memphis and Nashville, where many schools have been operating online all year, several parents said their kids need more than that to catch up.
During a Zoom call in October hosted by Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, only four out of 11 parents said they had heard directly from their child's teacher this year.
Now the group is pushing state lawmakers to back the idea of personalized academic recovery plans for children who are falling behind.
Dionne Howell, a parent of a seventh-grader and ninth-grader in Memphis, Tennessee, supports the idea. From March until this fall, instruction was pretty much nonexistent, she said.
"I know my children have not progressed as much as they should have."
Boring lessons, disengaged students
It's 12 minutes into Ruby Rodriguez' hour-long English class, and the teacher is still welcoming students online and urging them to complete a "do now." That's a quick warm-up exercise to signal who's present and thinking.
Students have read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech as well as his essay "Letter from Birmingham Jail." The warm-up is to explain which they prefer.
Ruby hasn't written anything. She says she doesn't even know her teacher's name.
"We've been working on these same things for a week," she shrugged.
The teacher coaxes the class to consider why King wrote each piece the way he did, what rhetorical devices he used to make his argument. There's no student conversation. Those who do respond send their messages privately to the teacher, rather than putting them in the group chat for all to see.
The teacher uses those private responses to type out some sentences for the class, and Ruby copies and pastes them into her own document. She'll have to write an essay comparing these two literary works. At that point, she figures, it's just a matter of weaving in her own sentences around what the teacher has written.
Ruby's parents, Lauro and Alma, are worried. Lauro, who works at a local manufacturing plant, has contacted the assistant principal with his concerns. Alma, a certified nursing assistant who works second shift, has a hard time helping her daughter.
"This is the first time I've felt helpless," Lauro said.
Huge losses for some students, not others
Some motivated learners haven't slipped at all in this new era. Some prefer online learning. Others have progressed by attending classes in person.
Gabriella Staykova, a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky, learns remotely on a four-day schedule through a magnet program within her school. Five of her nine classes require her to engage online with her peers, and the other four are "self-guided," she said.
Virtual learning actually gives her more time to work on side projects like Student Voice, a national youth-led nonprofit.
"Online education is not a big barrier to my academic success, but that's not the case for the vast majority of students," she said.
A fast internet connection, a comfortable and quiet place to study, a stable home life and a history of high grades helped her to adapt this year.
The digital equity gap has long been a stumbling block in American education, but the pandemic has exacerbated the divide.
In one recent study of low-income families in Los Angeles, 1 out of 5 parents of elementary school students said their child was using a device other than a computer to access their remote studies – likely a phone, said Stephen Aguilar, the study's lead author and an education professor at the University of Southern California.
Further, 1 out of 3 families reported they never or only sometimes had a place in the home free of distractions for a child to learn and study. Half of low-income parents surveyed said they rarely used a computer themselves.
"Many are not using technology every day, and yet we’re asking them to set up a remote schoolhouse for their children," Aguilar said.
Those divides are determining how quickly children can resume academic progress.
In the RAND Corp. survey of teachers, their students' preparedness was heavily tied to income.
"When we push and say, 'Those students really need to be in person,' we think about the fact that many students in high-poverty households are at higher risk for COVID-19 transmission," said Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at RAND who led the study. "There's tension between those two things."
Remote learning can be better
Leaders of several Black parent advocacy groups say most of their families don't want to return to schools yet because of safety concerns. Many don't see education going back to the way it was, so they're pressuring schools to strengthen their virtual programs.
"Our Black children have long been failed by in-person learning, so we don't want a return to the status quo," said Lakisha Young, founder of The Oakland REACH, a parent advocacy group in Oakland, California.
"How would we design instruction differently now if we accepted we're not going to return to schools until next fall?" she said.
Since the school shutdowns in spring, Oakland REACH hired family liaisons to help parents navigate financial challenges and their children's education, Young said. It signed up children for the National Summer School Initiative, a series of recordings taught by skilled mentor teachers, who then supported local educators working with participating children.
"Parents told us their kids were getting up in the morning and wanted to get online," Young said. "They literally wanted more summer school."
The group also created a five-week online summer literacy program for children in kindergarten through second grade, which increased scores by an average of two levels on the district's reading assessment, Young said. The virtual program included small group lessons with teachers, recorded lessons, family literacy workshops, read-alouds of books featuring the experiences of Black children, and weekly community celebrations.
Creating community through screens
For younger and older learners alike, online classes can and should be restructured to focus on community and peer-to-peer connections, said Mimi Ito, who studies youth media practices at the University of California-Irvine.
At the moment, a lot of virtual classes feel like "a second-rate version of what’s done in a physical classroom," she said, which is why they're not very engaging.
Teachers can incorporate online gaming or social media into their classes, where children pursue goals or share content as part of a team or community, Ito said. She suggested games such as Minecraft and Roblox, or video platforms like TikTok and YouTube.
Steve Isaacs, a middle and high school gaming design teacher in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, addressed science and current events this fall by having students build models of the COVID-19 virus in Minecraft.
The game also allows students to build virtual museums or libraries, where they can show their knowledge of English and history standards, Isaacs said.
"I try to give kids choice in their learning pathways and activities," he said. "On Zoom, I lecture less and split kids into a lot of breakout rooms, and then I randomly pop into them."
Connections between students and teachers are easier to build when students' cameras are on, but many districts have not required that for privacy reasons.
About a dozen high school students interviewed by USA TODAY said that even with cameras off, they felt they learned more in virtual classes that featured an active group chat. Still, many could not say why the chat messages flowed readily in some classes and were silent in others.
'If we can't see the problem ...'
At John Harris High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, teachers recently compiled the grades of all students still learning to speak and write in English. Until that point, no one had noticed that every English learner was failing at least one class. Spurred to action, they reached out to a local nonprofit focused on immigrants and refugees, which rounded up community tutors to work with students once a week. Teachers carved out extra time on Fridays for one-on-one sessions.
A month later, the percentage of English learners failing courses had dropped to 75%.
The pivot demonstrates the importance of assessing and surveying students – about their academic performance, their technical needs, or even for their thoughts on how to improve remote instruction, said Angela Jerabek, the executive director of BARR Center, a school improvement nonprofit working with John Harris High School.
"We should be surging resources to the areas with the greatest need," Jerabek said. "But if we can’t see the problem, we can’t solve the problem."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID online school means students are behind, but lack tutoring plan