In two weeks, Megan Szczesny’s 8-year-old daughter will be starting third grade in Madison public schools. She hasn’t attended traditional all-day, five-day-a-week classes without wearing a mask since she was in first grade and being diagnosed with dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
“When COVID first hit in March 2020 the schools closed and we panicked,” remembered Szczesny. “Our services were cut by 85 percent, so we had to seek outside help.”
Even in a normal classroom setting, with one-on-one support and special education, Szczesny’s daughter struggled.
But without most of that support, at-home remote education was a disaster.
“When it was fully remote we were just relying on the tutor,” Szczesny said. “Even this past year, if my daughter was not in-person she was not learning … For a child with any sort of disability they are not going to learn this way. There were days where we said forget it, you’re done, just log off.”
The learning experience may have been worse for children with learning disabilities, but other children were also significantly affected.
According to Bonnie Dombrowski, the mother of a middle-school-aged daughter in East Lyme, the experience of virtual learning was extraordinarily taxing.
“My daughter is super studious, super committed to school, she loves school,” Dombrowski said. “But when it was zoom classes all day, my daughter was falling apart. She had to take a couple classes each day and sit out. It was concerning. It was hard to know what to say to her anymore, there are only so many encouraging words.”
Dombrowski said watching her school-loving daughter become anxious and struggle with remote education made her feel completely helpless.
“It’s concerning for me that if my child, who is incredibly self-motivated, is struggling, there are a lot of people who are struggling,” she said.
Every parent CT Examiner spoke with acknowledged that remote education was not the equivalent of classroom learning.
In East Lyme, Dombrowski said, children designated for special education – who have a 504 for learning accommodations or an Individualized Learning Plan – were allowed to attend school four days each week while other students could only attend twice. The program was called Viking 4.
“Parents were doing everything they could, to get their child into Viking 4,” she said. “People were starting to have their doctor writing notes to have their kid in the program.”.
In some cases, special education students may have actually benefited from the new instructional model.
Dombrowski said her two sons, both in the East Lyme special education program, greatly benefited from the slower pace.
“It gave my kids time to reinforce the learning. It was a little bit slowed down and it gave them a second look at material each week,” she said.
Because other students would meet in the classroom just twice a week, Dombrowski’s sons had the opportunity to see the material, with the chance to really master it, rather than struggling to keep pace.
“At least for my kids it was very helpful,” Dombrowski said.
For Connecticut, the loss is unknown
With fewer school days and with remote instruction in most districts across the state, educators are expecting a dip in achievement compared to prior years.
“Broadly speaking there are going to be a large number of students not meeting the grade level requirements that are typically used for promotion requirements,” said Shane Jimerson, professor and department chair of counseling, clinical, and school psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
A March 2021 McKinsey & Company survey of teachers nationally found that nearly 60 percent rated the effectiveness of remote learning at between one and three on a scale of ten.
In Connecticut, the results of the annual Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, given to third through eighth graders, have yet to be released — scores that normally come out each year in early August. Those results will be delayed until the end of August or September, according to the state Department of Education.
The state’s SAT scores — used to assess high school students — are also unavailable.
According to Jimerson, there is little reason to hold students back, when the expected loss in learning is so widespread that the grade level will simply decrease.
“Grade level is often determined by an average…maybe there will just be a new average. Maybe students aren’t learning at the same rate, maybe the fiftieth percentile will just be less than usual this year,” he said. “It doesn’t shift anything, we are not going to use measurements from five years ago for the children learning at different rates and different leves today.”
In Connecticut, there is no state benchmark for promotion from grade to grade — unlike Florida or Texas, for example. Local boards of education are required simply to have a set of standards for high school graduation.
But for Jeffrey Forte, a Connecticut-based lawyer with a focus on special education, simply lowering the standard of a neurotypical child is not appropriate.
“It’s not appropriate and not the way to go at all,” Forte said. “Even if they don’t have an IEP or 504 plan, children should remain on their trajectory.”
Keeping each child on their learning trajectory was the entire point of implementing the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. But with no student assessments in 2020, the predictions are a year behind.
Efforts to make up for the learning loss
To address the expected learning gap, 20 percent of federal American Rescue Plan elementary and secondary school funds are earmarked for educational recovery. In many districts that has meant a more robust summer education program.
“We’re also dedicating a portion of our state funds set-aside to learning acceleration over the summer,” said Peter Yazbak, former spokesperson for the state Department of Education. “For example, we awarded grants to 235 programs around the state for summer enrichment programs to expand capacity.”
One of these programs in Norwalk is specifically targeted at students between kindergarten and third grade who have fallen behind in science and need additional help before being promoted to the next grade.
Many schools are also hoping to use the federal aid to hire additional teachers and staff to offer students more support.
“Retain or not to retain is a waste of time and energy,” Jimerson said. “Schools need to have better classroom instruction and multi-tiered systems of support this year.”
But finding the people to fill these roles is a challenge.
“I’ve been hearing from schools that we are going to have a staffing shortage,” Forte said. “They won’t have the service hours to provide for IEPs”
But every school in the state, as of now, will be returning to full-day, five-day-a-week classroom instruction for every public school student.
“And I hope they never go back,” Szczesny said.