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Education Through the Pandemic: From California’s Disappearing Kindergarteners to Arkansas’ Push to Test and Evaluate 95% of Students, 9 Ways States Are Confronting COVID Learning Loss

By Joshua Parrish | May 11, 2021

This update on the COVID Slide collects and shares news updates from the district, state, and national levels as all stakeholders continue to work on developing safe, innovative plans to resume schooling and address learning loss. It’s an offshoot of the Collaborative for Student Success’ COVID Slide Quick Sheet newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

Schools, districts, and states appear to be facing two overarching questions as they continue to allocate and spend tens of billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds: does the federal investment allow states to significantly expand education programs and, simultaneously, will the influx of cash prevent districts and schools from slashing budgets after enrollment declines and shifts in spending priorities?

In Tennessee, for example, state lawmakers approved a modestly increased education budget that includes a 4% pay increase for teachers, bolsters pension plans, and creates a $250 million endowment focused on mental health services. Lawmakers in Indiana, similarly, announced a historic allocation of new funding to the state’s education system. Meanwhile in some other states, officials are wringing hands over anticipated budget shortfalls. Katie McNamara, superintendent of South Bay Union School District in San Diego, California, said “One-time COVID-19 funds do not remedy the ills of an ongoing structural budget deficit,” echoing sentiment felt by officials eyeing long-term deficits elsewhere, like rural Wyoming.

As Education Week recently put it: “The COVID-19 stimulus money won’t last forever. Here’s What’s Next for Schools.”

Beyond issues of short-term budget winfalls — and long-term budget fears — here are nine updates from across the country about how states and school systems are confronting the challenges posed by the coronavirus emergency and working to preserve student learning amid the pandemic:

1 NORTH CAROLINA – Districts Approve Summer Learning Programs

Public Schools of Robeson County’s board of educators members approved a summer learning program in an effort to help students recover from the past school year, which was heavily disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The program will comply with House Bill 82, also referred to as the Summer Learning Choice for NC Families. The school district’s plan must be submitted at least 30 days before the end of school according to Sandra Evans, K-8 Curriculum supervisor.

2 CALIFORNIA – Kindergarteners Lead Statewide Decline in Enrollment

California schools experienced the largest decline in enrollment in decades during the COVID-19 pandemic, with new data released by the state department of education depicting a 3% drop in enrollment — a figure that translates to nearly 160,000 students. A third of the decrease stems from a trend seen nationwide as parents declined to have their youngest learners start kindergarten during pandemic school closures, fearful that virtual learning would not be appropriate for children unfamiliar with a school environment. Education officials in the Golden State say that enrollment could see a bounce back next school year if missing kindergartners begin first grade. But they acknowledge that such students would need additional support to transition into classrooms effectively without having attended kindergarten.

3 ILLINOIS – State Focuses Chunk of Stimulus Funding On Testing, Tutoring

The Illinois State Board of Education plans to set aside roughly $200 million of the $8 billion in federal school relief funding the state received to specifically bolster district assessment systems, intensive tutoring services, and “bridge programs” meant to help younger and older students transition in or out of school systems. Board members underscored the need to measure student progress in order to identify and address gaps while also ensuring substantive programs exist to address lost learning for students. Officials are additionally seeking to allocate funding to student mental health services and internet and technology access, two issues that have been among the most widespread for students during the pandemic.

4 ARKANSAS – State On Track to Receive Testing Data From 95% of Students

Arkansas education officials say the state is on track to meet a U.S. Department of Education requirement that 95% of eligible students participate in statewide, summative testing – a requirement that was largely paused this year as states were extended wide flexibility by the U.S. Department of Education due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials say there will be no penalty based on how the students perform, rather the data collected from these tests will help identify and support students in areas in which they have fallen behind. Assessment HQ author and testing expert Dale Chu applauded the state’s efforts to attempt to meet testing requirements, rather than apply for a waiver. He continued noting that these efforts will help Arkansas check the efficacy of measures taken throughout the year and put it in a better position to deploy state and federal dollars in future education recovery efforts.

5 TENNESSEE – State Seeks to Limit Virtual Learning Options After Pandemic

Looking forward to fall, the state board of education has said that students may not go back and forth from school at home and in the classroom. Instead, if schools wish to offer an online option they will have to create a dedicated online school. This past year, schools were able to create their own “Continuous learning plans” (CLPs) that allowed them to choose between teaching virtually, in-person, or a combination of the two, under the governor’s State of Emergency, but it is set to expire at the end of April. Some districts are already working to ensure they will have a virtual school option in place for the fall.

6 CONNECTICUT – Educators Fear That Student Literacy Rate Continued Decline in Pandemic

Statewide assessment data collected prior to the pandemic showed that only 55% of Connecticut third-eighth graders were meeting grade-level literacy benchmarks, depicting a decline that educators and experts say likely continued as instructional time was limited during pandemic related school closures. And while the cancellation of spring exams last year at the onset of the pandemic hindered efforts to track literacy gains or declines, educators in the state say the past year has pushed them to be more innovative in their outreach to students and families, in how they individualize their approach for each student, and how they’re using technology to drive what outcomes they can remotely.

7 VIRGINIA – Confusion Surrounds State’s Plan to Shake Up Math Progression

Virginia education officials are working to clarify their goals for restructuring the progression of high school math classes in the state after widespread misinterpretation resulted in confusion and anger at the false claim that the plans would eliminate advanced math courses for students. Superintendent James Lane said the plan would integrate additional concepts in data analysis and statistics into traditional high school math courses, which would better prepare all students to access advanced courses like calculus. But Lane said that individuals students would still be able to take advanced courses if necessary and that local schools would also be responsible for developing courses appropriate for students and aligned to state content standards. “The main thing I think the mathematics team is talking about at this time is, ‘How can we make sure that students have more skills in those mathematical areas that will help them after graduation?’ Every job in the future is going to need more focus on data,” Lane said. programs, mental health supports, and building infrastructure.

8 COLORADO – Lawmakers Propose Temporary, Statewide Expansion of Mental Health Services

Colorado lawmakers are seeking to direct a portion of the state’s federal pandemic relief funding on offering free mental health assessments and a limited number of mental health sessions with a professional to students struggling to cope with trauma experienced during extended school closures and a global pandemic. Supporters of the effort cite significant increases in reports of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts or behaviors as evidence that officials need to act to curb rising mental health needs. The bill has received bipartisan support and would be a temporary measure, expiring in June of 2022.

9 INDIANA – State Assessment Plan Focused on Studying Pandemic’s Effects

In Assessment HQ author and testing expert Dale Chu’s latest state assessment plan power ranking, Indiana received a score of 15 out of 16 points. Chu said the state “has taken a pole position on using state testing data to help drive their education recovery efforts.” From prioritizing the comparability of testing to encouraging high rates of participation, Chu says “there’s a lot to like about how Hoosiers are handling state assessments during the pandemic, but the pièce de résistance is Indiana’s learning loss study,” which will be facilitated through a state partnership with the Center for Assessment and will aim to “examine student achievement and growth, gaps among student groups (including ELL and special education students), and provide recommendations regarding interventions.”

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