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COVID-19 resulting in up to a year of learning loss

(Cathryn Cunningham/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely result in months’ to a year’s worth of learning loss for New Mexico’s students, according to a Legislative Finance Committee report.

The negative ripple effects are expected to affect younger, at-risk students the most in a state that was already found to have failed to provide a sufficient education for all students, especially those who are considered at risk – in the landmark Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.

Math teacher Tamara Gaudet does a math problem during the APS @Home show broadcast on KNME. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’re facing a very serious problem in public education due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Jon Courtney, LFC deputy director of program evaluation, told lawmakers Wednesday.

In March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration called for schools to close, ultimately for the remainder of the academic year, to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

The state Public Education Department waived instructional hour requirements and called for significantly reduced time spent on schoolwork each day. Educators were tasked with teaching from a distance and told to focus on content they’d already gone over.

But these moves didn’t come without consequences, and students are expected to start the 2020-21 school year with a big dip in learning.

“While the move to distance learning was unavoidable, the early closing of schools inherently exacerbated summer learning loss. Further, certain factors, like differing access to the internet, computers and parental engagement, mean that at-risk children will likely start the upcoming school year farther behind than their more affluent peers,” the report says.

The analysis says the shortened school schedules used during distance learning equate to 6.9% of the recommended instructional time for prekindergarten, 10.4% for kindergarten and first grade, 13.9% for second and third grade, 20.8% for fourth and fifth grades and 38.1% for middle and high school.

And PED’s direction to focus on previously learned material could have exacerbated learning loss, according to the LFC report.

A survey of thousands of teachers showed that fewer than half of students were participating in distance learning by the end of the year, and teachers reported they couldn’t contact about one in five students.

“In normal years, most students lose between one to two months of learning over the summer break (a phenomenon referred to as the summer slide.) Due to the unavoidable early school closures, however, students will lose substantially more learning time than normal, partly because of low student engagement,” the LFC document says.

Attendance policies could be a factor.

The LFC document showed that requirements varied across the state and that participation was better if attendance was mandatory.

“Of the 89 school districts, only seven (7.9%) required student attendance during distance learning in their CLPs. About a third (37.1%) of school districts planned to monitor and gauge student attendance, and 13 (14.6%) school districts provided clear guidance regarding consequences or retention of students who do not attend or participate,” the document says.

At-risk students, such as students experiencing poverty or learning English, are more likely to fall behind and less likely to have internet and devices, widening existing achievement gaps.

Information from the Public School Facilities Authority showed that 21.8% of students did not have access to internet at home and 31.9% of students did not have access to their own device.

As of early this month, Albuquerque Public Schools ended up distributing 20,000 Chromebook laptops to make distance learning work for students who didn’t have access to devices, according to Chief Information and Strategy Officer Richard Bowman.

But, as the LFC report suggests, not everyone was participating.

APS is able to see how many students used their school-issued Google account – regardless of what device they used – which showed 72% of elementary students logged into these accounts between April 6 and June 1, according to Bowman. That number gets higher for middle and high school students, at 96% and 91% respectively.

“Between April 6 and June 1, a total of 66,592 students have logged into their Google accounts at least once,” Bowman said, adding that was out of APS’ 80,000 students in the district.

APS plans to track students’ participation in schoolwork more thoroughly across multiple platforms for next school year, Bowman said.

Courtney told lawmakers that the state has to prioritize reopening schools and tackling learning loss. If New Mexico mitigates the loss, the dip in children’s learning could be temporary, the report says.

On the other hand, research shows the loss will continue to stack up if reopening is further delayed.

The PED put together a group to help craft plans for reentry into schools. But Courtney said that some states already have reopening guidance in place and that enough time needs to be given to get supplies and create procedures.

Even before the pandemic, students were lagging in learning. In New Mexico, 71% of fourth graders aren’t proficient in math and 76% of fourth graders aren’t proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

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