Students’ social and emotional needs, chronic absenteeism, discipline issues, staffing shortages and high COVID infection rates make progress difficult
By Mary Niederberger —
Weeks before classes started in the Pittsburgh Public Schools last fall, school leaders embarked on intensive planning for the students’ in-person return in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic
Students had been out of the buildings, for the most part, since March 2020.
They planned meticulous safety protocols to prevent virus spread and anticipated the need for extra patience and counseling with students who had been away from classroom routines for more than a year.
They also set the stage for one of the biggest challenges they would face: Determining the extent of academic deficits – educators call it learning loss or unfinished learning – created during months of remote instruction and moving quickly to address them.
National and local assessments already showed students were months and behind in reading and math, with vulnerable students – including minority and poor students and English language learners – even further behind creating larger educational inequities than existed before the pandemic.
PPS school leaders knew things wouldn’t be the same as when students left the classrooms in March 2020, but they worked with the belief that once students were back in person, plans to address academic and social/emotional issues could be put into action.
“Everybody thought things would be fine once everybody got back,” said PPS Interim Superintendent Wayne Walters in an interview. “It wasn’t like that. The pandemic really threw us for a loop.”
Walters said he and his staff now understand that “the unfinished learning is multi-faceted and it’s not just instructionally-based.”
Throughout the first months of school, chronic absenteeism – currently about 42% districtwide – kept students from attending regularly. Transportation problems caused by a bus driver shortage made some students late for school daily. Discipline issues were frequent in some schools and sometimes got physical. Social media threats against schools raised fears, keeping some students away, and counselors and social workers were overwhelmed with the social and emotional needs students brought to school after their time in isolation.
Last week, a new complication emerged as students returned from holiday break: Staffing shortages that called for more than two dozen Pittsburgh schools to revert to online learning for days at a time. District press releases attributed the staff call-offs to “positive cases of COVID-19, COVID-related quarantines, and other staff-related absences.”
The school closures are the result of a shortage of substitutes available for teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other staff needed to keep buildings open.
“We’re really a football team without a bench,” Walters said in an interview before the holiday break as he anticipated the coming problems.
The obstacles that block the path to recovering unfinished learning are magnified locally in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the largest of Allegheny County’s districts with about 21,000 students.
But those same issues can be found among the surrounding 42 suburban districts as they also deal with students’ social and emotional issues, staffing shortages and transportation issues at the same time they try to move students forward academically, said Jill Jacoby, assistant executive director for teaching and learning at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU). The AIU provides professional development and other educational services to the county’s suburban districts.
“COVID has really put pressure on staffing from the lack of subs to people leaving the profession. So districts really have to be creative in how they staff schools on a daily basis,” Jacoby said. “It’s across the board of this region, the commonwealth and the nation.”
The situation is poised to get worse for Pittsburgh and other districts as the seven-day positivity rate in the county exceeded a record-breaking 30% by the end of last week. That meant that even in districts where staff is available, switches to online learning have started to take place to prevent virus spread. The 14-day count of COVID cases in PPS buildings – students and staff – was 144 as of Jan.7, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The high positivity rate prompted the Woodland Hills School District to transition to online learning from Jan. 7 to the end of the month. Similarly, the Duquesne City School District on Jan. 4 announced plans to move to online learning at least through the end of last week.
The State of Unfinished Learning
The first public statewide data on student’s academic progress during the 2020-21 pandemic school year will be available when the state Department of Education releases scores from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams for students in grades 3-8 and Keystone exams for secondary students early this year. The tests were not administered in spring 2020.
Most districts in Allegheny County administered the annual exams last spring on schedule and received their results before the start of school allowing them to use the data in their academic recovery plans for 2021-22.
But Pittsburgh used a state-permitted extension that allowed the tests to be delayed until the return to school this fall. PPS did not have a way to bring all students back to school safely in the spring and the state requires the exams to be taken in person, Walters said.
The interim superintendent believes the state test results will give the most accurate picture of student achievement because they are based on state standards, Walters said.
“I wouldn’t say I’m expecting phenomenal growth right now,” Walters said. “I think what the data will give, it will give us some direction and guidance.”.
National studies have shown that students lost ground academically during their periods of pandemic remote learning and that the more time students spent learning online, the further they fell behind.
Data from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a national educational services organization, shows that student achievement nationally at the start of the 2021-22 school year was 9-11 percentagepoints behind in math and 3-7 percentage points behind in reading. Those deficits, reported in a December research brief, were similar to those reported by the NWEA in July and were based on scores from 6 million students who took MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) Growth tests in reading and math.
The brief found that while academic progress was down among all student groups, high achieving students’ academic gains were similar to those achieved in a typical school year, while historically marginalized students, including minority and poor students, had disproportionately lower achievement.
Another national analysis by McKinsey & Company, based on assessments given to students by Curriculum Associates, found that at the end of the 2020-21 school year, students were on average five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. For Black students and students attending low-income schools the news was worse. Black students scored six months behind in math and low income students, seven points behind.
The national data shows the disparity in achievement that existed before the pandemic has widened for the marginalized groups. This is an issue for PPS, where 52% of students are Black and 63% are economically disadvantaged.
Officials in Pittsburgh and other local districts report achievement rates similar to the national ones among their students.
“We fell almost exactly in line with what was reported nationally,” said Eddie Willson, Woodland Hills curriculum director. “We had a significant drop in math, some drops in reading, but less, and the drops were more significant in younger grades.”
Student achievement data given to the Pittsburgh school board last fall showed that Pittsburgh students in grades 2-7 had academic growth of about three-quarters of a typical year in reading and two-thirds in math at the end of the 2020-21 school year, according to a presentation from officials of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Education Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Education and Mathematica.
Growth could not be measured in grades K-1 or 8-12 because not enough students took the assessment exams.
The data came from MAP, exams. Pittsburgh, like many districts, uses MAP exams for interim assessments of students in between the annual state exams.
The presenters also analyzed the number of courses students in Pittsburgh failed during the 2020-21 school year and found that it increased by 5 percentage points in grades 5-12. The top factor connected to course failures was chronic absenteeism.
They also found that as the year of virtual learning went on, students were logging on less and for shorter periods of time.
“Students in older grades haven’t interacted in large groups in almost two years. That made for a lack of social cues.”
After effects of online learning
The biggest challenge during virtual learning was keeping students engaged, educators said.
And that issue went beyond teachers’ skills and efforts to make online learning compelling, said Pat Coyle, senior director of academics at Propel Schools, the county’s largest brick and mortar charter school operator with about 3,800 students.
Coyle said Propel staff worked hard to transfer their classes online and to keep students interested and engaged and their efforts mitigated some of the students’ academic deficits.
But their efforts could not completely make up for the lack of personal classroom interaction.
“Learning is social and it’s a lot harder to be social when it is virtual than in-person,” Coyle said. “There were students who performed very very well on virtual. But on the whole, we saw improvement in students’ growth when they were in person.
Another casualty of online learning was the inability of students to be prepared for big physical transitions such as from kindergarten to first grade, between elementary and middle school, and from middle school to high school. In typical years, students mature among their peers and participate in exercises including visits to their new schools.
“We might have a student who was in fourth grade when schools closed and now is in middle school,” Walters said. Other students were in middle school at the time of shut-down and returned as high school students.
“The culture of high school is so different,” Walters said.
At Woodland Hills, where students were online until March 2021, “students in older grades haven’t interacted in large groups in almost two years,” Willson said. “That made for a lack of social cues.”
He pointed out that students now in second grade did not have a full year in school before the pandemic shutdown.
“So instead of having just kindergarten introduced into a structured learning environment, we have first and second grade teachers who are now having to teach about things they don’t usually have to teach – the skills of how to be in school. That takes away from instructional time, which further increases academic gaps.”
Learning deficits in the early grades have raised concerns among educators about third grade reading proficiency. Third grade marks a pivotal time for reading. Before then, students spend much of their time learning to read. After third grade students must be able to read to learn in all of their subjects.
Students who can’t read by third grade often struggle academically and are four times more likely to drop out of school, according to national studies.
As with most achievement data, third grade reading proficiency lags for students in marginalized groups and the pandemic has exacerbated that. The December NWEA research brief reported that the median reading achievement for Black third grade students fell from the 41st percentile in fall 2019 to the 31st percentile in fall 2021.
“I am extremely worried about third grade reading and reading in grades 1-3,” Willson said. Chronic absenteeism in Woodland Hills early grades contributes to his concerns.
“We know that kids who were chronically absent in kindergarten are significantly less likely to be on grade in reading in third grade. We know that the most likely predictor of whether they will be chronically absent is if they show up on the first day,” Willson said.
“Many of our scholars weren’t able to do that during the pandemic and the traditional pillars of data points that we use to correlate future success in life around our elementary students are all lagging over the last two years and are so much lower than they have been.”
At Propel, Coyle said, as part of a new curriculum, literacy specialists had been placed in each K-2 classroom before the pandemic. That move helped to mitigate reading losses among its early elementary students.
Districts have significant federal money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to put toward setbacks from pandemic learning and improvements to educational programs and facilities.
But officials worry that the lack of available staff may hinder plans for tutoring programs, summer camps and to beef up counseling and social work staffs.
“I am extremely hopeful about the plans that we have in place to mitigate the effects of learning loss. But we have experienced challenges we were not expecting,” said Woodland Hills Willson. ”We’ve found that staffing is a huge hurdle.”
The district planned to use a portion of its ESSER funds for after school tutoring but has found it difficult to get staff to stay after school to work in the programs. “Everyone in the world of education is exhausted now,” Willson said. ”We have all had to juggle so many balls and jump through so many hoops during the world of COVID. Trying to get staff to stay after school to tutor is difficult.”
It’s also hard to find transportation for students in the after school programs because of bus driver shortages. And, Willson said, it’s tough to convince some parents who are worried about COVID exposure to allow their children to be introduced to a new set of peers – and possible exposure – at the tutoring sessions.
One solution for keeping tutoring programs alive has been to allow teachers to go home after the school day and tutor online.
The district operated a summer enrichment and remedial camp last year and is hoping to use ESSER funds to expand it this summer. Willson is hoping that increased stipends will entice school staff to work at the camp.
In Pittsburgh, a Public Stakeholder Advisory Committee worked with district administration to create plans for spending the slightly more than $100 million in its most recent allotment of ESSER funds.
Those plans include K-12 tutoring, Saturday enrichment programs for grades 9-10, evening programs for grades 11-12, K-3 literacy support and enhanced professional development for teachers and counselors. Also included is expansion of restorative disciplinary practices, the integration of social and emotional learning into the curriculum and facility improvements.
The funding breakdown is: $9.4 million for social and emotional learning supports; $33.7 continuation of services and stabilization of staff; $28.7 million to address learning loss; $17 million for physical plant improvements and $11.5 million for other improvements.
Walters said the district needed to wait for the approval for the annual budget, which took place on Dec. 22, before moving forward with spending the funds on the plans.
But, he said, he is worried that personnel shortages may affect the ability to carry out the plans.
Acceleration vs. Remediation
Despite the hurdles, educators are trying to move forward with academics, while simultaneously addressing students’ needs for remediation.
Propel’s Coyle said his administration believes it’s essential to provide students access to grade level work, but also to provide remediation for students who are lacking skills to perform grade level work. “It helps to connect it (remediation) to the higher level skills,” he said.
The approach gives students more confidence than sending groups straight to remediation. “Students know when you are remediating. They know when they are put at the table at the back of the room,” Coyle said.
Tammy L. Hughes, a professor of education at Duquesne University, said it is important to start students in a place in the curriculum where they don’t feel pressure and know they can succeed and to expect to provide refreshment of some skills.
Teachers should not be pressured to catch students up quickly either, Hughes said. “It shouldn’t be the message to teachers that you have to get these kids back. It should be, ‘let’s figure out where we are and how to get the kids back into learning.’”
Willson said that while Woodland Hills has enough federal funding for its extensive plans for helping students to recover from their academic deficits, educators know the work won’t be complete this school year.
“This is not something that we can manage in 180 days, that we can solve in 180 days. It’s probably not something we can solve in two to three years,” Willson said.
Coyle agreed: “Our approach is not that we plan to have everyone caught up this school year. It’s going to take a lot to make adjustments to a curriculum that we had just launched a year before (the pandemic). This is a long game.”