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LEARNING GAP: Helping students recover from COVID-19 learning loss

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(KWWL) -- Nearly a year after US schools began to shutter due to the pandemic, educators face a new challenge in trying to close the gaps left by a lack of instruction.

"We know we're not going to be able to catch everybody up in one year," said Dr. Jane Lindaman, the superintendent for Waterloo Community Schools, during a January school board meeting.

Similar to what's happened across the US, educators in Waterloo see a decline in students' math and reading skills. Monthly assessments show a drop of about 6% to 7% across the district in all grades.

“We're anticipating these gaps to continue for the next few years that we're gonna have to address and we have to have a solid plan," said Ryan Christoffer, the curriculum coordinator for the Waterloo school district.

Their top concern is the number sense, Christoffer says. He offered an example of a benchmark for third grader. He says they should be able to multiply between zero and 12. That standard will feed into the curriculum for 4th grade and beyond.

How are students being assessed in Waterloo?

Because instruction was voluntary last spring in Waterloo, Christoffer says some students may have had no to little schooling from March to June. He says summer school will be crucial in catching students up.

"This year, summer school costs will be much higher," Dr. Lindaman said in that same January board meeting.

While there is millions in COVID relief money at WCSD that could be spent, the fine details of a budget are still being ironed out, says district Associate Superintendent Stephanie Mohorne. A number of factors play into the cost including how many staff and students will be involved. The length of summer school will also play a role in the final cost.

The expansion of summer school is definite as the need is clear. Christoffer says they'll have multiple locations in 2021 to accommodate a greater need from families.

“Last year we had one location, it was a two week program. this year, it's going to be a four to six week program that will be really focused on priority standards," said Christoffer.

Many school districts are still getting a grasp at what sort of efforts need to occur to either catch students up or maintain skills they've learned this year.

“We will be doing summer school this year with reading for sure," said Pam Zeigler, the Cedar Falls School District Associate Superintendent.

Zeigler says they're still processing their benchmark data in Cedar Falls into something comprehensible but students are doing well, some even seeing an improvement since fall.

"We're also looking at possibly doing some after school tutoring, like maybe in March and April, to help kids catch up or for the kids that maybe aren't at benchmark yet," Zeigler said.

She noted that discrepancies may occur between grade level and buildings. Zeigler praised the efforts among teachers to offer what are referred to as "interventions," such as when students break into smaller groups to tackle more specific needs.

WATCH: The TODAY Show's "Kids Under Pressure" Series on learning in a pandemic

New challenges for educators mean new tactics for building literacy skills for students.

Students of color are struggling more, according to a report quoted in Time magaine. Consulting firm McKinsey and Company found that nonwhite students appear to be at a disadvantage.

Black and Hispanic students continue to be more likely to remain remote and are less likely to have access to the prerequisites of learning—devices, internet access, and live contact with teachers. Left unaddressed, these opportunity gaps will translate into wider achievement gaps. Looking forward, we consider several different scenarios to estimate the total potential learning loss to the end of this academic year in June 2021. 

"Mind the gap: COVID-19 is widening racial disparities in learning," McKinsey & Co.

"In Cedar Falls we believe in every student, every day," Zeigler said.

She believes that the concerns center around equity among demographics. The Cedar Falls Community School District's next step is to further examine their benchmark data by looking at possible gaps regarding race, ethnicity, and so on.

Of course, there isn't a one size fits all approach because for some school districts in eastern Iowa the pandemic is only one issue. For Cedar Rapids and Linn-Mar school districts the derecho through another curveball last year. Like Cedar Falls, both say they've begun gathering data on student performance. It's likely to be available in the coming weeks.

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Taylor Vessel

Multimedia Reporter

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