Pandemic Academics: How SWFL students are performing one year later

Reporter: Sara Girard Writer: Derrick Shaw

Whether online or in-person, learning looks different in the age of COVID-19, and parents in Southwest Florida are worried about their kids’ education.

How have our kids been coping with the pandemic and performing in school? And what does it mean for their futures?

WINK News surveyed parents in our area to gauge what the impact has been to their child’s education, comparing pre-pandemic to current academic performance. Out of 36 responses, 19 parents said their kid was excelling in school before the pandemic, now only 13 parents say so. And no parents said their kids were failing in school before the pandemic, compared to now when four parents say their child is failing.

“I don’t know what I can see into the future, and see how that’ll affect him long term. But I definitely think it does affect him,” said April Miller, who has one son in the Gateway area.

As Miller works from home, her son Ethan learns from home. And it’s proven interesting.

“One time, I was actually on a Zoom call with a client, and [Ethan] knows my personal Zoom ID,” Miller said. “And, and I looked up in the right-hand corner, and he was trying to join my meeting.”

She says he has coped better than she thought. Remote learning has grown her fourth grader’s curiosity, work ethic, and appreciation for pre-pandemic life. She hopes some good will come out of these experiences.

But watching Ethan miss out on typical fourth-grade fun while trying to solve multi-step math problems hasn’t been easy.

“It’s really been hard for him,” Miller said. “He’s had a lot of changes with teachers in his fourth-grade math. And that has been troubling. And that’s no fault of his and it’s no fault of the teachers either per se, but it’s hard enough to try to learn remotely and not being in that face to face.”

And research shows that some of the ways we’ve had to adapt have hurt kids’ education.

A study from a non-profit that assesses student growth, NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association), found that average scores for third to eighth-grade math were five to ten percentile points lower this school year than last year.

“We see that kids are making gains. And in reading, those are pretty similar with what we see in the more typical year. But it’s in math, where we really see the learning has slowed down,” said researcher Karyn Lewis.

Still, kids are doing better than their original projections. Lewis emphasized the heroic efforts of teachers and students in managing to continue to educate and learn during such unprecedented times and still see gains.

“The results we’re seeing this fall are not consistent with those most drastic and bad news scenarios,” Lewis said.

However, their research did find some kids have fallen through the cracks.

“One of the concerning findings in our report was that a larger proportion of students have gone missing this fall from our assessment data. And it’s not a random sample. These are students that are more likely to be Black or Latinx,” Lewis said. “They tend to come from schools that serve a higher proportion of students experiencing poverty, they tend to be lower achievers in the past.”

Francesca Devito, a mom of four in Naples, says a lack of resources during the pandemic is setting her kids back and she feels out of control.

“I don’t know if they will actually ever recover,” Devito said. “I’m scared for their future to be very blunt. I’m scared.”

She has a 13-year-old son with autism and an 8-year-old daughter with dyslexia. When she saw their learning slip going to school online, she sent them back in person despite her medical issues.

“I’m willing to risk that, my life, for them to have an education that’s going to give them the opportunity to flourish,” Devito said.

But even back in school, she says Mason and Havana feel the pandemic’s impact from issues and delays to their special education services.

“My son’s speech has regressed, he’s slurring his words. And we’ve worked so hard in speech therapy for years,” Devito said.

But while moms like Devito and Miller are doing everything they can to protect their kids, Lewis says we need to do more research to figure out exactly why kids are falling behind and how to fix it.

“I think we shouldn’t let a good crisis go to waste,” Lewis said. “And if this is something that can spur us to think more innovatively about how we teach kids, how we assess kids, how we support those, I think this is the time for that to happen.”

Data from the school districts also show the impacts on kids’ education.

In Collier County, when comparing Quarter 2 grades from last school year to this school year, the number of kids with one or more failing grades went up:

SY21 Quarter 2-Number and Percentage of Students (Grades 3-12) with one or more failing grades in Core Courses by level:

  • Elementary: 98 (1%)
  • Middle: 2151 (21.9%)
  • High: 4124 (31.2%)
  • Total: 6373 (19.7%)

SY20 Quarter 2-Number and Percentage of Students (Grades 3-12) with one or more failing grades in Core Courses by level:

  • Elementary: 57 (0.6%)
  • Middle: 1419 (13.8%)
  • High: 2966 (22%)
  • Total: 4442 (13.2%)

WINK News requested similar data from the School District of Lee County, but we have not received the information yet.

Many of the parents we spoke to and surveyed also expressed concerns about the lack of social interaction due to COVID-19, and what impact this might have on their kids’ social-emotional learning and mental health, which is directly tied to their learning and development. Both Lee and Collier school districts told WINK News they are prepared and are addressing these concerns, although it is more difficult when kids are not attending in person.

Statement from Collier County Public Schools spokesperson Jennifer Kupiec:

“CCPS closely monitors student data inclusive of grades, local assessments, attendance, and other variables. Professional learning for teachers and school leaders includes progress monitoring, student progress, and interventions among other topics. CCPS has a strong commitment to social, emotional, and mental health supports inclusive of resources tailored to the incredible circumstances beginning in March 2020.

“Also, you may want to check out the following web page which includes the Second Semester Parent Guide focused on physical, social, emotional, and mental health supports: Student Checklists for Success, which were distributed at the start of the second semester, are also included on the page.

“CCPS has a steadfast commitment to meeting the needs of all learners, including students with disabilities. Dedicated staff, including teachers in the role of case managers and ESE Program Specialists, provide support at each school. CCPS has been proactive in providing services both on campus and in a virtual format. In fact, we’ve been asked to share strategies on a state and national level with other educators. Parents with concerns should contact their school principal with immediacy so any issues may be addressed.”

Statement from School District of Lee County spokesperson Rob Spicker:

“We started tracking student performance with the first set of tests six weeks into the school year. We saw then there was a segment of students with a D or F in at least one class or simply not even engaged. We encouraged those students in Lee Home Connect to return to campus for the second quarter, and for Lee Virtual School students, opened a window for them to return as well rather than wait for the semester to finish. We had more than 10,000 students return to campus for the second quarter.

“In December, based on the Governor’s executive order, not only did we again reach out to thousands of students not performing well in Lee Home Connect, but we invited them back to school January 4th or 11th (depending on the school) instead of waiting for the second semester to start February 1. Families who did not with to return had to sign a form confirming they knew their child was not performing adequately but wished for them to stay in the LHC model. We did the same for Lee Virtual students, with the same acknowledgement, but had them come back February 1. Another 8,000 students returned to campus so we currently have about 77% of our students learning in person.

“Schools are progress monitoring student performance literally every day. The pandemic opened up new ways to communicate with parents and we use those frequently and other strategies to help students succeed. One new effort in particular is a graduation tracker for high school students to keep them on schedule. Every high school is using it, and has several teams and plans in place to support students who are or are in danger of falling behind.

“The daily progress monitoring is not new. We teach to the state standards, so every assignment, quiz or test demonstrates if a student is mastering the material. If they are not, we can offer support systems and interventions to help the student master the required concepts. This is much easier when the student is on campus, so that’s why we’ve encouraged so many to come back. Through FOCUS accounts, parents can see their child’s grades so there should be no surprise if a student is struggling.

“We also take a “whole child” approach to student learning, so to benefit their social and emotional learning, that can mean making sure they have enough food to eat, clothes to wear, a place to sleep and so on. We have school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, licensed mental health professionals and intervention specialists on staff to connect students and families to the services they may need.”

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