A number of studies, the most recent one from Stanford University, attempt to predict student learning loss due to the pandemic. The conclusions are dire, indicating it will take many months, perhaps even a full year, for students to catch up to where they would have been without school closings.
These conclusions are best guesses based largely on what we know about summer learning loss because no new data is available. End-of-year tests that would have set a baseline were canceled nationwide in spring as schools grappled with remote learning. While many schools and districts have administered beginning-of-year assessments, this has been complicated by the nature of remote learning in many places.
Despite the clear limitations of the learning-loss studies, the message is clear schools must be proactive in addressing the impact of COVID-19 on learning, and we are.
The first step, of course, is to stanch any learning loss that may have occurred. Schools have made tremendous strides in the effectiveness of remote learning since spring for the following reasons:
• Teachers got better at remote learning. The lessons of the spring combined with rigorous professional development courses the Public Education Department offered over the summer resulted in teachers who are much better prepared to use the technical tools needed for remote learning. Our educators have been beyond spectacular at embracing this challenge.
• The software improved. PED offered to give every district and charter school free access to Canvas, a software suite known as a learning management system. It easily connects instructors and students and can be used to deliver instructional material, monitor grades, manage assignment submissions and facilitate communication.
• More students got connected. PED has distributed 6,282 Chromebook computers to New Mexico school children who lacked devices. Additionally, the Department of Information Technology and the PED provided districts with $5.75 million in funding for internet connectivity and created 800 internet hotspots, most of them residential. PED allocated another $850,000 to improve connectivity on tribal lands, while school districts and charter schools budgeted more than $40 million in CARES Act funding for connectivity and technology needs.
Those efforts are ongoing because, as a Legislative Finance Committee report last week noted, 6% of students are still without home internet and 5% still lack a digital device. That represents 16,000 to 19,000 students, and they will not be forgotten.
While we continue the work to improve remote learning for all, we are also working aggressively to find and assist New Mexico students who aren’t succeeding in that mode. Through a partnership with the Graduation Alliance, PED now offers one-on-one coaching to such students through the Engage New Mexico program. To date, 118 districts and charter schools have opted in, with 13,761 referrals and 80% of families requesting academic support.
We believe those efforts will improve the learning process during the pandemic and mitigate learning loss. Next comes a plan to help students recover academically when the pandemic ends or abates enough to safely get more students back in classrooms. While every option is on the table, PED is exploring four main strategies:
• Identifying learning loss that has occurred through testing.
• Intensifying core instruction in reading and math.
• Extending instructional time.
• Attending to social emotional learning to ensure students are fully ready to learn.
Meanwhile, it is worth remembering our children have not stopped learning during this crisis. In addition to academic subjects, they are learning independence, resilience and resourcefulness. They are developing computer skills they will need to succeed in career or college. They are learning new ways to connect and relate to others.
Learning can’t be measured only by time in class, even as we long to return there.