Pandemic learning losses may mean more school days - Albuquerque Journal

Pandemic learning losses may mean more school days

Gena P. Quibal, a second grade teacher at Tony E. Quintana Elementary School outside Española, helps Justin Baeza with a phonics lesson during class Wednesday. New Mexico officials are grappling with how to address widespread learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – For many New Mexico students, getting caught up on pandemic-related learning losses could be a yearslong struggle.

A report presented Wednesday to a key legislative panel said public school students have lost the equivalent of between 10 and 60 days of instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That could make some students fall even further behind academically and could take years to make up, even with summer school and more school days, legislative analysts said.

Vera Trujillo, acting superintendent of Española Public Schools, said some students in the northern New Mexico district do not have internet access at home and had to use public WiFi hotspots to participate in remote learning while schools were closed last year.

“We certainly have some loss, not only academically, but also in the social/emotional realm,” Trujillo said in a Wednesday interview.

She also said Española schools have added 10 days to the current school year calendar – five at the start of the year and five at the end – but acknowledged that additional steps might be necessary.

“I believe we’re not going to be out of this any time soon and we’re going to have to be creative,” Trujillo told the Journal. “There are no bad ideas any more.”

While New Mexico received a federal waiver from statewide standardized testing last year, academic proficiency for younger elementary school students dropped from 37% at the end of the 2018-19 school year to 31% at the end of the 2020-21 school year, according to the report presented Wednesday to the Legislative Finance Committee.

In addition, a survey of New Mexico teachers found 72%believed their students learned less during the 2020-21 academic year than during a typical year, compared to just 3% who said their students learned more.

The learning loss, which previous studies have equated to roughly half a school year for some students, could renew a debate at the Roundhouse about whether to mandate additional school days in the coming years.

An extended learning time program for the current school year was approved by the Legislature this year, but made voluntary – and 43 of the state’s 89 school districts ultimately opted not to participate, according to the LFC.

In addition, some districts did not provide a plan to otherwise target lost instructional time, despite being required by state law.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, a retired teacher, warned that requiring educators to teach extra days could exacerbate an existing statewide teacher shortage.

“I think it was the right thing … not to mandate for last year,” Kernan said.

However, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said requiring additional school days could be the only way to turn around New Mexico’s chronically low ranking in national education studies.

“It’s about time that we have some leadership at (the Public Education Department),” Muñoz said, while acknowledging the state will have to address issues of teacher burnout and resistance.

Public Education Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus said during Wednesday’s hearing at the state Capitol that studies have shown incentives work better than mandates when it comes to getting buy-in for a longer school year, but added the state needs to find additional time for “high-quality learning.”

The debate over remedying pandemic learning loss comes after a landmark court ruling in 2018 that found New Mexico was not meeting its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate education to all students. Much of the case focused on students who are English language learners, Native American or from low-income families.

One program touted by legislative analysts as an effective response to the court ruling is K-5 Plus, which extends the school year by 25 days for elementary students in low-income districts. But LFC data suggests few schools are participating in the program – with some citing teacher exhaustion – and just 7% of the student slots funded by the state are filled.

Going forward, the legislative report recommended lawmakers consider requiring K-5 Plus and mandating other types of extended learning time for all districts and charter schools.

Steinhaus, who was appointed as the state’s top education official in July by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, acknowledged record-high funding for public schools in this year’s $7.4 billion budget and vowed his agency and school officials around New Mexico will work diligently to try and get students caught up.

“You’ve done your job and now it’s our time to do our job,” Steinhaus said.

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