With learning losses, fluctuating COVID numbers and staff and supply shortages, how are Illinois’ kids really faring?
BY DANIELLE BRAFF | PHOTO BY THOMAS KUBIK
FIRST PRINTED IN THE JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2022 ISSUE
We’re halfway through a school year
that has long been predicted to be doomed, as students essentially went unschooled from the start of the pandemic, as teachers themselves struggled and as parents were burnt out and trying to help teach at the kitchen table.
So, were the predictions correct? Have our children morphed into feral animals unable to sit in a classroom and who forgot how to read and write? Not quite.
Socially, they lost a year of growing up. Mentally, warning bells are ringing so loudly that the American Academy of Pediatrics has declared a state of emergency in children’s mental health and the U.S. surgeon general issued a rare public health advisory centered on kids’ mental health. Academically, students suffered, particularly hurting children of color and those from lower-income families.
Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicted five months of unfinished learning for students, with the gap even wider for students of color and economically disadvantaged.
“We had these estimates and now teachers and administrators are actually dealing with it and seeing it in their work,” says Dr. Tabitha Bentley, director of policy and research at the Education Trust-Midwest. “… It’s concerning, I think it’s very concerning.”
For Black students and those who are economically disadvantaged, already seeing inequity in the resources devoted to their education pre-pandemic and fewer tools and technical support to navigate the pandemic, the news is so much worse, with significant losses compared to white peers.
“I think our kids are trying their hardest, I think our parents and our educators are trying their hardest, but it has been a very, very tough past two years and I think the data shows that,” Bentley says.
Data from the Illinois Assessment of Readiness found that the number of students who are meeting the state’s learning standards dropped by 18 percent in math and by 17 percent in English language arts. The grade levels showing the highest rate of decline were in third and fourth grades (third grade test scores fell by an average of 8 percentage points in English language arts between 2019 and 2021; and their math scores fell an average of 10 percentage points during that time period).
“Simply giving students an opportunity to share about their weekends on Monday, or to share what they hoped to do over the weekend on a Friday really gave students a chance to get to know each other.”
In Chicago, for instance, just one in five third graders met or exceeded state standards in reading and math.
On the SATs, there was an 8 percent drop in the number of 11th graders who reached proficiency in the English portion, and a drop of 14 percent in the math portion.
As predicted, the students who were in low-income families, those who had disabilities and those who had English as a second language had the more severe academic declines, according to the data.
Similar results were discovered in elementary and junior high schools across the Midwest and around the country, according to a report by Curriculum Associates, a curriculum and assessment provider.
“The pandemic has affected all students, but not in the same way or the same degree,” says Kristen Huff, the vice president of assessment and research at Curriculum Associates. “Unfinished learning has taken place in every elementary and middle school grade, first through eighth, reading and math. Unfortunately, those students who came into the pandemic at the greatest risk are at the most danger of not catching up from the dire consequences of the last 18 months.”
Private schools, with smaller enrollments and access to better resources, positioned themselves to help their students rebound more quickly.
Academics are far from the only problem
Gina Sandrzyk, a first grade teacher at Wilson Creek Elementary in Manhattan, says she’s more worried about the emotional state of her students at the moment.
She has no idea what her students went through last year, but she does know how she can create a happy, safe and healthy classroom environment for them. So every morning, Sandrzyk greets her students at the classroom door with a choice board so they can choose how they’d like to say “good morning.” They can give her a fist bump, an air high five, a foot bump, a bow and more. This gives the students a few minutes to choose what they’re comfortable with, to share anything with Sandrzyk and for her to show them she’s happy they’re there.
She also started a “handle with care” communication for the parents of her students.
“The parents know to email me with the subject ‘handle with care’ if their child is having a rough time at home or in the morning,” Sandrzyk says, adding that no further explanation is needed. “I know when this child comes in, they may need some extra time to ease into the day.”
The emotional needs of the students is the most pressing, agrees Sandra Ramirez, the bilingual math teacher at Richardson Middle School in Chicago. Like Sandrzyk, Ramirez takes a few minutes during each class to make sure her students feel safe. They do three minutes of meditation and breathing exercises.
“Many came back to school with trauma and social and academic deficiencies,” Ramirez says. “There are others who have lost parents, family members and their homes.”
Ramirez explains that she expected students to be struggling socially and academically, but didn’t expect it to be this significant.
The kids soaked up any anxiety their parents’ exhibited. Kids began to feel more pessimistic about their futures, whether it was from the trauma of the pandemic, the divisive political state of the country or the looming climate change crisis, they began to feel that there wasn’t a reason to work hard for their future, says Amanda Dexter, a secondary English educator.
“Students have told me that their depression increased particularly during the pandemic because they were home a lot with nothing to do,” she says. So their idle time was spent on their phones and on social media because it was their only way to connect with peers. Because of this exposure to social media, they were also reading misinformation, which left them even more depressed and less optimistic about the world.
Laurie Kopp Weingarten, a certified educational planner and the president of One-Stop College Counseling, says she’s seeing similar mental struggles with the families whom she coaches.
“Unfortunately, I’m seeing what the headlines are screaming: The mental health of students has declined during COVID,” Weingarten says.
More students are unable to complete their homework and other obligations, and a larger number of students are under the care of therapists for anxiety and depression, Weingarten says. They’ve missed more than a year of their lives at a time when they would normally mature and grow, and they can’t get that year back.
Weingarten says she’s never had so many students struggling with schoolwork. Many of her students are high-achieving, honor students — and she’s had multiple kids tell her that they have a terrible grade in one or two classes and are considering dropping from honors to regular classes. More of her students are requesting tutors, and are complaining of being exhausted.
Even if the classes they took during the pandemic were live, the students often had trouble focusing for so many hours while staring at a computer screen.
“Children are normally resilient, but I’m finding that many just haven’t been able to successfully pivot upon returning to live classes,” Weingarten says. Some say that they had such an easy time with their schoolwork (or lack of work) over the last 1 ½ years that they now feel the workload is overwhelming and too difficult to handle.
A lot of big feelings
But it’s not all gloom and doom.
Zach VanderGraaff, a K-5 music specialist, says he’s seeing a wide range of emotions and reactions that vary from child to child and largely depend on the grade of the students.
“In elementary,” VanderGraaff says, “We’re seeing a lot of happy kids.”
They’re happy to be back in school in person, despite the masks and the social distancing and the COVID rules, VanderGraaff says.
But the last year imparted a lot of trauma on the students, resulting in a rise in attention-seeking behaviors. More students are speaking without raising their hands, whining, refusing to do challenging activities, leaving their seats without permission, and asking for extra help.
Frustration is also seeping out in friendships.
“In the older elementary and middle-school ages, we’re seeing kids rebuild relationships with their friends, but they have a lower emotional threshold for frustration,” VanderGraaf says. He’s witnessed students get upset with each other about smaller issues more frequently than they had in previous years.
None of this is unexpected, however, says Kristine Binder, a fifth and sixth grade social studies teacher in Chicago. Binder says she expected students post-pandemic to be more reserved. She assumed they’d crave interaction yet be more anxious. She was correct when she believed they’d be excited about being at school and with friends, yet still worry about family when they are away.
Binder is also seeing anger, frustration and big feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness and loss of safety.
“They’re happy to be back in school in person, despite the masks and the social distancing and the COVID rules.”
“I think what was unexpected is the toll that the social-emotional learning takes on students, teachers and staff,” Binder says. She and the other teachers are putting more of an emphasis on Social Emotional Learning than ever before, holding weekly meetings to monitor students’ mental and physical wellbeing, sharing data and info to better support all the students.
The teachers are also supporting each other so they can better care for their students, similar to the way parents are advised to care for themselves before they can care for their children.
Cici Vacca, a Chicago teacher, says the teachers at the moment are spending the majority of their days dealing with their students’ emotional and mental struggles, which is difficult since they are not trained therapists, and are using their intuition on how to handle breakdowns in the classroom.
“Our resource staff is overwhelmed with cases, and many families are either waiting to see a therapist, or seeing a therapist is taboo in their culture,” Vacca says, explaining that the teachers are emotionally and mentally drained.
Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, in announcing the national health advisory, held open the door to optimism, though.
“According to more than 50 years of research, increases in distress symptoms are common during disasters, but most people cope well and do not go on to develop mental health disorders. Several measures of distress that increased early in the pandemic appear to have returned to pre-pandemic levels by mid-2020. … In addition, some young people thrived during the pandemic: They got more sleep, spent more quality time with family, experienced less academic stress and bullying, had more flexible schedules, and improved their coping skills.”
How parents and teachers can help
Maya Joshi, one of the students Chicago Parent featured during the heart of the pandemic in the Look for the Helpers series for creating the nonprofit Lifting Hearts With The Arts, says she believes a majority of students and teachers are happy to be in school. Also on the plus side, she believes the remote learning helped teachers digitize more content to make it easier to make up work.
She says parents can help by being supportive and adopting a growth mindset. “It was difficult for a lot of students to transition from remote learning to the rigor of in-person education, so managing expectations and just being there to listen/provide support would probably be greatly appreciated. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re still in a pandemic, and remote learning plus the pandemic has taken a toll on a lot of students’ educations, as well as mental health.”
The Education Trust’s Bentley suggests parents ask their schools how they plan to help their child progress and how they are accelerating student learning to fill in the gaps of the learning losses so they can move at grade level. Remediation is not the solution, she says.
Be sure to ask your school if they are using evidence-based strategies to help kids get back on track, she says. Among the things proven to work are targeted and intensive tutoring as well as expanded and extended learning time, she says.
Bentley is all for students getting the support they need, but now is not the time to return to the status quo. “The status quo will not work anymore. We need to be diligent about being equitable in our approach. We need to be all the more diligent in supporting our students, our parents and our educators.”
Part of that support is using federal dollars to be strategic and pushing for equitable funding for schools to get students and teachers what they need, she says.
As for teachers, Kerry Duffy, fourth grade teacher at Indian Knoll Elementary School in West Chicago, says she feels the most important thing teachers can do to help right now is to meet students where they are academically and work to fill the gaps.
“I expected the academics to be an issue, but I wasn’t prepared for the number of students who were not ready socially or emotionally for fourth grade,” Duffy says. It took her weeks to help her students build the stamina to be in school for a seven-hour day, to write instead of typing and to put papers in a folder and then into a desk — all tasks they didn’t do while learning remotely.
Amy Balu, a fourth grade teacher at Willard School in River Forest, says her students were old enough to understand that these are remarkable times. “If anything, I feel like my fourth graders came to school after virtual learning with a bit of well-deserved swagger,” Balu says. They gained tech skills, were proud of their independence and really know that they were capable of anything, she says.
“It was my goal to give them an environment where they could forget about the pandemic for a while and just be a student,” Balu says. To do that, she as well, had to forget and just be a teacher — not just a teacher during the pandemic. Balu says she followed all safety precautions carefully, but also focused on having fun and learning.
“Simply giving students an opportunity to share about their weekends on Monday, or to share what they hoped to do over the weekend on a Friday really gave students a chance to get to know each other,” she says. They asked each other great follow-up questions, and would reference each other’s comments throughout the week. The class took the time to read several great picture books. “We didn’t usually have time in our curriculum before to read that many thought-provoking books,” Balu says.