In Virginia Beach public schools, the number of young students failing to hit key literacy benchmarks has nearly doubled since the most recent data before the pandemic began, The Virginian-Pilot has learned.
The declines in literacy assessments are a sign that virtual classes and reduced instructional time have hindered the learning of many of the city’s youngest students — particularly impacting low-income students, as well as students of color.
“The bottom line is this: I am very concerned about learning loss based on the data that I’m looking at,” said Virginia Beach Superintendent Aaron Spence.
Each fall, kindergarteners and first through third graders are given a Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, known as PALS, to identify, in part, which students are at risk of becoming struggling readers. In both 2018 and 2019, 14% of students in kindergarten through 2nd grade in Virginia Beach failed to hit benchmarks and were identified as needing extra help.
But this fall, that figure nearly doubled, rising to 26% of students.
About 35% of Black students in kindergarten through the third grade failed to hit these benchmarks when tested this fall, a 16 percentage point jump from the previous year. Young white students, in comparison, saw an 11-point jump of those not hitting the benchmarks, up to 23% in 2020.
The demographic group with the highest percentage of young students failing to meet the literacy benchmarks was low-income students, at 36%, an increase of 15 points from the past year. For older age groups, different assessments show year-to-year drops that are much less severe.
The problems aren’t unique to Virginia Beach. Several national reports show that the pandemic and the shift to online learning has been particularly hard on young kids.
And though experts say young students’ ability to learn to read is being hampered by the pandemic, there are still caveats in comparing the data from this year to last, officials said. The stress that the pandemic has caused — anxiety and depression are both up, local experts have said — might also be impacting children’s ability to learn.
This fall, some students received the PALS assessment online while others were in-person. Last year, all had been conducted in-person.
Despite the differences, Danielle Colucci, Virginia Beach’s Executive Director of Elementary Teaching & Learning, said the data is still good.
Emily Solari, a professor of education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, said it’s difficult to quantify the true impact of the pandemic on student learning. But she stressed that this environment is ripe for students to fall behind.
The loss of instructional time will have a “profound impact” on learning the foundational skills of reading, said Solari, an expert in reading development.
Even for in-person learning during the pandemic, teachers wearing masks — an important mitigation strategy to avoid the spread of coronavirus in schools — doesn’t let young students see how teachers are forming a sound with their mouth, which could hinder their learning, she said.
Colucci said students who are identified as needing extra help receive an additional 2.5 hours of reading support every week.
This year, because of the spike in struggling students, the school system has funded an additional 21 positions. There is at least one reading specialist assigned to every school, and more than 100 total.
The division, she said, is collecting information every day to gauge how students are improving, how best to target resources and adapt lesson plans.
But there is still a risk of long-term impacts from the potential learning loss, Solari said. School divisions and the state should start a recovery plan for schools, deciding how best to address groups of children who have fallen behind, she said.
The potential learning loss is one reason why Spence has changed course and is now pushing for many young students to return for in-person classes starting Jan. 19, despite still climbing coronavirus cases. He called the literacy assessment data “very alarming” — though he didn’t want to directly attribute it to virtual learning.
Though some students do well virtually, Spence said he can say with some certainty that many would do better with teachers in a face-to-face environment. He said new findings — which indicate schools are not driving new coronavirus cases and that mitigation strategies work — show they can reopen safely and minimize risks.
“One of the things you have to do when you have no good decision, you have got to lean into your core beliefs as an educator,” he said. “I really believe what is in the best interest of the children is to have them in school with us.”
Peter Coutu, 757-222-5124, firstname.lastname@example.org