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NYS School Boards Assoc. Director Discusses Student Learning Loss During Pandemic, School Reopening

 A screenshot of the New York State School Board Association's report
WAMC screenshot
A screenshot of the New York State School Board Association's report

New research published by the New York State School Boards Association finds remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic left the average student five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with the Association’s Executive Director Bob Schneider about the study and how schools can address the learning loss.

Schneider: Well, I think from my perspective and our perspective is we are approaching a new school year with some important challenges that we have to face as a school community. But we also have to look at it as a great opportunity. The two major issues that we focused in on in this research report were addressing the learning loss and student wellbeing. And as far as the learning loss, as you know, we said this before in our conversations, nothing replaces the in-classroom experience for a student. And it's the learning side of it. And it's the relationship side of it. As far as their peers, teachers, other adults in that school that they can relate to. Learning loss was pretty heavy as far as the past year because of all the online virtual classroom experiences versus being in the classroom. We saw significant decreases in math and English. And there has now been an effort over the summer to try to close that learning loss gap. In addition to that gap, there were disadvantaged students throughout this state that really lost a lot more in the educational realm. They didn't have the resources, they didn't have the access. And our school districts have been addressing that over the summer with certain summer school learning programs and activity programs, to bring these students together for academic catch up if you will, and also social and emotional redevelopment so they can get back and be social with people. And that's going to be a big challenge. Imagine what students went through this past year and a half regarding the pandemic. I as an adult had many moments during that time of uncertainty and fear at times. You can imagine a child with a developing brain what was going through their head. Now prior to this pandemic, the New York State Council of School Superintendents identified mental health issues as one of their biggest issues, they saw more and more children entering those school building doors, with mental health issues. Add a global pandemic, where the students have seen job insecurity with their parents or guardians, they've seen death with COVID, and all the other things that they can experience going to school, say as a safe haven where they can get together with their friends and peers and other people. So you put that on top of it and we've got an issue. We've got students coming back and we have to make sure a student's wellbeing has to be focused in on before they can truly learn at an optimal rate. So that's an important thing as the school doors open this year, we need to take a look at all these students, make assessments and make sure they can learn at the right level and their wellbeing is intact. And that's a hard thing to do. It's not only educational, like I said, it's also the wellbeing of each student walking through that door.

Levulis: And in the report, tutoring within the K through 12 system was identified as a primary way to address this learning loss. And this figure stood out to me, tutoring should be three to five times a week totaling about 60 to 70 hours of instruction per school year. As it pertains to New York schools, are there enough teachers and staff to accomplish that and do they have the time?

Schneider: Well, high dosage tutoring is really the term versus lesser tutoring throughout the year. The best way to do high dosage tutoring is have it baked into the academic year having teachers and paraprofessionals being the point people on that delivering that to those students. Remember, we received Foundation Aid this year. We received the first third if you will, the first installment payment on a three-year plan. That gave school districts additional money that was due them to focus on certain academic areas and one of those areas will be obviously the mental health side of it which includes, don't forget the tutoring. The tutoring will help those students with that learning loss gap. Get back up to speed but it has to be high dosage it has to be in the school. And it has to be consistent for that the 60-70 hours it's recommended in the report. The funding is there. Finding the teachers and the paraprofessionals and baking it into the daily routine has to be done by the local school districts. But I think they are up for the charge because they recognize this is so important, not only getting them caught up on the learning loss but don't forget about that second issue, student wellbeing. High dosage tutoring creates relationships between an adult and a student. And that could make a big impact on a student who has trauma in their life not outside of the school building and coming into that building. That's something that can really fortify a student and really get them to focus in on the education. A student has basic needs to learn: food, shelter…wellbeing is one of them. It's hard for a student to learn, you know, with certain things going on in their mind, mental health issues. That high dosage tutoring might help that out. That's a relational situation between that instructor and that student on a one-to one-basis. And that could be very helpful.

Levulis: And a number of school districts still plan to offer some fully virtual learning for students and teachers who aren't returning to the classrooms for health reasons. Are you concerned at all that that will exacerbate the learning loss and the student wellbeing issues detailed in this report?

Schneider: Well, I know at least I've seen the Capital Region BOCES. It seems like the BOCES around the state are the ones that are the ones behind this, which makes sense. There are certain criteria that a parent or a guardian will request a student be educated, virtually. It could be health, it could be social, emotional, something like that. But the BOCES are the center point, putting this program together. Each local district will set that criteria of where a student will fit in and can do the virtual training. Some students do thrive in that virtual environment. But the majority of the students really need to get back into that school district and do the live instruction.

Levulis: You mentioned some students there do thrive in the virtual environment. We were talking about tutoring earlier, bridging the gaps that have been created. In your mind could tutoring be conducted virtually to bridge that gap? If it's, you know, one-on-one, small group sessions, that sort of thing?

Schneider: Absolutely. I think that would help once again, with the students that meet that local school district criteria. And the BOCES has created that situation where they have found teachers that will teach virtually, and the classrooms are manageable. 20 to 25 students in the classroom. I think high dosage tutoring, not the typical tutoring, you think about, you know, go home and a volunteer comes in and helps you I think the high dosage is the key ingredient to this, where you have a teacher or a paraprofessional, delivering that high dosage tutoring throughout the year. And yes, it can work in the virtual environment for those students. And maybe it can also be a complement to what's happening in the classroom during the day with the students that are in the classroom.

Levulis: And Bob just wanted to shift gears here away from the study. Since the last time we talked, there's a new governor in New York. Have you had a chance to speak with either Governor Kathy Hochul or a member of her team regarding the reopening of schools?

Schneider: Well, we had a meeting with the other educational stakeholders in the state – superintendents, teachers, principals, PTA. And Governor Hochul wanted to hear our concerns about opening from the DOH [Dept. of Health] side of the equation. So we all met with her for a while and gave our thoughts on that and organizations that had positions on masking, as an example, gave their positions on that as far as her decision to do the universal masking mandate inside schools. We do not have a position on that. Our membership has not instructed us to either say yes on mass or no on masks. But we do always take the lead from the medical community when we're talking about health issues like a global pandemic.

Levulis: And to that point, Governor Hochul is also looking to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for school employees or require weekly testing for those not vaccinated. What's been the response among your members to that approach?

Schneider: Well, I think you know, one, the testing if somebody is not vaccinated, obviously that testing is the next option. Our reaction is we want students in the classroom. And by doing this, this either having somebody vaccinated or giving into those, if you will, weekly tests, that's going to create more safety. Remember, during the whole pandemic, a lot of our school districts, most of them answered the bell, if you will. We had a lot of districts in the state that were doing the hybrid approach where you had virtual teaching but you also had students coming into the school building and the transmission rates were very low. So all these protocols that the DOH, CDC and SED worked on, the State Education Department worked on, that all worked out. So I'm very positive that this is going to work out. And that's the way to do it – either vaccinated teachers or the ones that aren't vaccinated, they'd have to be tested because obviously we can, you know, start the required protocols if somebody test positive, either a student or a teacher, and then they can go forth and try to keep the school building open for everybody else.

Levulis: Are you hearing at all that some teachers and staff would rather quit than follow some of these mandates?

Schneider: I have not heard that directly. We did see a large number of retirements. Just more recently than early on. Now we've seen that nationally, I think it's called what the great resignation or great retirement. A lot of teachers had decided to retire. I'm not sure if they did it for safety. And maybe some of them did, because their health and they didn't want to be exposed in the classroom and the other ones might have just decided it's time to retire, time to resign because this was quite a time to go through and to see, you know, the death that happened with COVID. And they probably had concerns about maybe retiring a little earlier than they had expected. So I don't have the data on that. But that's my sense of it, it was kind of twofold safety from COVID and also deciding to retire early.

Levulis: Now, under Governor Andrew Cuomo, the State Health Department said it didn't have the authority to issue reopening school guidance. At the time, the State Education Department criticized that stance and issued reopening recommendations of its own utilizing CDC suggestions. Now with a new governor, Kathy Hochul, and a differing approach has this back and forth proven difficult for school boards to parse out the requirements and communicate them to staff, students and parents?

Schneider: Well, there was an issue with the first communication out to the field on Friday as far as physical distancing, and the six-foot versus the three-foot rule. But we cleared that up over the weekend working with the governor's office, our organization, other educational stakeholders, superintendent, school attorneys. So there was a little confusion and there has been confusion in the past. So this is no blame on Governor Hochul. This is new, and our only concern is that we didn't get this until two weeks out of opening schools. So there was confusion and uncertainty and we thank Commissioner Betty Rosa and the Board of Regents for pushing that and trying to get more definitive answers from the DOH. Governor Kathy Hochul stepped in and she made sure that was done in her first week. So I think the concern was we weren't getting it soon enough. But as I said earlier, during the entire pandemic, the school district community, superintendents, school boards, teachers, administrators, bus drivers, janitors, everybody involved in that ecosystem, counselors, we got through it. And we did a good job in an unprecedented time. I know we can do it again. And I look forward to working with Governor Hochul. She's taken the reins and we're happy that she made that decision and, and put that out on Friday for the health and safety of our children. But the whole reason we're happy is because this is the best plan to get the students back in the classroom where that is the most important place they need to be right now.

Levulis: Finally, Bob, you've been with the School Boards Association for more than two decades. And obviously most conversations involving children in education are often tense, you can point to a number of topics, you know such as Common Core. But as it pertains maybe nationally to masks and protocols surrounding COVID-19, have you seen or experienced anything in your career as polarizing as this as it pertains to schools?

Schneider: No, I have not the closest thing you're right in my career was the Common Core. We've got the culture wars going on in this country and you're seeing it spill over into school board meetings during the public comment period. And I understand that, you know some of our communities, some of our members want that local control because their transmission rates are low, and they don't want to do the masking but at least there’s clarification from the health side of the equation, DOH, that masks are required for now. Eventually I'm sure will that will go away when certain criteria or certain thresholds are hit. But I’ve never seen it this way. There's been, you know, discussions on masks vaccinations, CRT, DEI. We're trying to support our school board members and superintendents by giving them guidance and recommendations on how to handle the public comment period. So school boards can listen to the community. These are people that care, that are shouting. They have children in the district, and as school board members and superintendents, we have to listen to them. But at the end of the day, the superintendent, the school board, they have to make tough decisions and sometimes the community are not happy with that decision.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org