Schools saw big learning losses last year. Here’s what PSD is doing to combat it.

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As students shifted to remote learning a little more than a year ago, educators and families knew there were bound to be consequences. From struggling with technology to keeping students’ focus, remote learning presented new problems and learning loss at an unprecedented rate.

Early reporting from Poudre School District shows that the most profound learning losses from last spring were in reading and math at the elementary and middle school levels. 

“COVID-19-related learning losses in grades 3-8 appear to be most pronounced in math as opposed to reading. Reading learning losses are most pronounced at the Pre-K-first-grade levels,” read the report presented at a March 9 board of education meeting. 

The report also warned that learning gaps caused by COVID-19 and distance learning will continue in the immediate future and “must be actively addressed.”

Learning loss at the high school level was more difficult to measure last year because of the lack of PSAT and SAT data, said Dwayne Schmitz, PSD’s director of research who prepared the report. He instead pointed to credit counts to serve as a data point for measuring “the shifts in the number of students who will need support to stay on track towards graduation.”

Data from the 2019-20 year showed that 22% of high school students were not on track to graduate in four years. This number was up almost 2% from the previous year’s monitoring report in which 20.4% of students were not on track. 

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While learning loss from the entirety of school time affected by COVID-19 won’t be measured until about this time next year, the district expects to be addressing the learning loss from COVID-19 for a number of years moving forward. 

Work is being done at the local, state and federal levels to combat the learning losses expected during this year and to make sure students recover well. 

The Colorado legislature is considering a bill that addresses learning loss from COVID-19 and would require the state education department to “create and maintain a resource bank of examples of educational products, explanations of and instructions for implementing strategies and educational services, and models of professional development programs related to using the products and implementing the strategies and services.” 

The department would also be expected to provide technical assistance in reversing learning loss to schools and districts upon request. The Senate bill passed its third reading in the Senate on March 25 without amendment and remains under consideration.

Federally, learning loss was addressed in the most recent stimulus package. 

A stipulation of education funding in the American Rescue Plan stated that districts have to use at least 20% of their funding to address learning loss. The law provided “summer learning or summer enrichment, extended day, comprehensive after-school programs, or extended school year programs” as examples. 

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How PSD is responding to COVID slump

At the elementary level, Traci Gile, interim assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said the intervention tactics schools had been using in past years are still at work but are elevated. To determine if a student needed intervention, or extra help to not fall behind or catch up, schools conducted assessments at the beginning of the year and placed students into intervention groups based on their scores. 

Gile said a typical intervention format is a 30-minute daily meeting of a small group or one-on-one student-to-teacher time in which the educator provides “a targeted re-teach” to help a student develop a certain skill or concept they’ve lagged in.

While similar intervention tactics have been done in previous years, Gile said this year there were more groups, as schools’ staffs allowed, and they were more intense to be “responsive to the student needs.”

An assessment was done in winter to determine intervention groups for the spring, and Gile said there will be one more at the end of April or beginning of May to determine how successful intervention groups were and who needs to continue. 

“That’ll also help us identify the targets for skill instruction for our summer programming,” Gile said.

Summer programs planned for PSD students

The district is currently in the process of inviting students to summer programming that has been expanded to assist with learning loss. Camp Sol, an invite-only summer program, doubled its available capacity for this summer, Gile said.

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The elementary level also implemented remote learning centers to assist students who were having trouble with remote learning during phases 1 and 3 of PSD’s learning levels this year. 

“That was another layered support for our students who maybe were having trouble accessing their classroom instruction that was happening during the school year when we were in remote,” Gile said. These are no longer in effect as elementary schools have been in Phase 4 learning since January. 

At the secondary level, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Schools Scott Nielsen said they’ve used many of the same tactics adapted for older students but have also found success in addressing learning loss through partnerships with community organizations. 

Nielsen and spokesperson Madeline Noblett said partnerships with the Matthews House, the Boys and Girls Club, AlphaBEST and others have been instrumental in providing support through remote learning. 

Nielsen said that a number of these partnerships were discussed in the past but came to fruition this year because of the obstacles to learning COVID-19 presented. But he doesn’t expect them to end in May.

“We’re starting to see some expansion with other partners doing that type of work with multiple high schools now, and we’ll expand that in the fall,” said Nielsen, who explained the partnerships as providing students with “accountability coaches” who can help discover what is interfering with a student’s learning and help them get through it. 

Noblett added that a number of these partnerships will be carried through the summer at both the elementary and secondary level.

Gile and Nielsen said summer school, both for credit recovery and getting ahead, will play a role in making up for learning losses this year, but it’s too early to see increases in summer enrollment. 

In terms of the money the district will receive from the latest federal aid package, an amount that could be around $20 million, Noblett said the district is awaiting guidance from the Colorado Department of Education on how it can be spent. Some money from past aid is being used to support summer programming.

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Molly Bohannon covers education for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @molboha or contact her at mbohannon@coloradoan.com. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.