By Amy Cox

2021/02/08

This article was originally published on the Thomas B. Fordham Flypaper blog in May 2020. 

The last time I saw my third grade reading students was more than 40 days ago. Like most schools across the country, ours closed its doors as a safety measure to help slow the spread of COVID-19. And like most schools and districts, we faced the challenge of how to ensure our students continued to learn when they could no longer be inside a classroom.

My district struggled with the transition as leaders grappled with concerns of equitable access to technology and providing individualized education programs. We were also confronted with the reality that our current K–5 English language arts instructional materials are neither strong nor set up to support remote learning. The decision the district ultimately made was to not offer virtual classes because we couldn’t reach all students.

I got in touch with my students to check on them personally and to offer any support that I could—but the district placed strict limitations on teachers. I came to realize that because of this crisis, and the district mandate, my students would enter their fourth grade year missing nearly two months of reading content and preparation.

The consequences of lost learning time

Third grade is a critical year for students in the development of their reading and literacy skills. Students are solidifying what they have learned in K–2 and are beginning to analyze texts while growing a passion for reading and writing. The importance of ensuring that literacy skills are strong as students move forward cannot be overstated. If students struggle to read, they are likely to struggle in every subject they encounter.

My students, along with millions of others, are now experiencing an interruption in learning at a critical time followed by a long break with little to no instruction at all. Studies conducted on school closures due to natural disasters, or simply summer break, show that being out of the classroom has lasting consequences for students to retain skills and content.

After most public schools in New Orleans were closed for a range of eight to twelve weeks due to Hurricane Katrina, it took students nearly two years to recapture the learning they lost. Research has also shown that the effects on early learners is even more dramatic. It is likely that by the time school starts back, the students in my district will have missed nearly twice the amount of time as many students in Louisiana did.

The promise of quality instructional materials

Despite these sobering challenges, there is a real ray of hope for our district. Before the COVID-19 crisis, we were in the middle of adopting new high-quality ELA materials using EdReports reviews as a guide to ensure standards alignment and local needs were met. After witnessing the ramifications of not having good resources on our ability to reach students, I am cautiously optimistic that a positive change is coming soon.

Of course, students always need access to aligned content, but materials are especially critical in overcoming the loss in learning gains that we will see as a result of this crisis. The right materials can provide scaffolds for students, content to strengthen the skills they already have, and resources to fill in the gaps they are struggling with.

Quality instructional materials matter for teachers, as well. More than ever, we’re expected to do it all and then some. We embrace those expectations because we care about our students’ wellbeing and their learning. However, it’s exhausting to be without the supports quality materials can provide, especially when the stakes are so high. Having been in the classroom for more than two decades, I know that having great content makes a huge difference in the kind of instruction I can provide.

Taking action to support teachers and students

In this time of uncertainty, I’m looking for the bright spots. I am hopeful that we are on the road to selecting quality instructional materials. That is a great first step that every district should consider if they found themselves scrambling to compile a coherent curriculum that could work for the moment we’re in. So much of our work for the fall relies upon completing this adoption and offering the professional learning to ensure the materials have the kind of impact on teachers and students we need.

We (and other districts) must:

  1. Adopt quality instructional materials. Aligned, high-quality materials are the foundation for student learning. As education continues to shift and change over the next year to deal with the consequences of COVID-19, teachers must have great content to reach all kids.

  2. Provide ongoing professional development for implementing materials long before the start of the school year. This step is key since learning and implementing a new program, no matter how great that program is, takes time and training. Districts should provide a series of virtual professional development sessions over the next weeks and months around how to utilize new materials. That way once we can begin teaching again, we’ll be ready to hit the ground running.

  3. Invest in community. I’ve been in the classroom for more than 20 years and have never experienced anything like this health crisis we’re all in. I am sure many of my colleagues are feeling just as isolated and overwhelmed as I am. Establishing a strong mentoring structure and making an effort to show teachers that what they do matters can go a long way to keeping spirits up. We want to be partners in the work that lies ahead. If leaders are working with us rather than above us, there's no limit to what we can achieve.

  4. Prepare for the fall right now. We don’t know what school may look like over the next year, but we can’t wait to see what the situation is before planning for it. Otherwise we risk students losing even more instruction time. We must begin now and plan for every contingency. Providing quality materials that teachers are trained to use is critical so that educators have tools to tackle whatever obstacle arises.

 

Amy Cox is twenty-one-year veteran educator, EdReports Reviewer and Klawe Fellow, and former SCORE Fellow. She currently serves as a third grade English language arts teacher at Halls Elementary School in Knox County Schools in Tennessee.

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