Every morning, Michelle Martin-Sullivan rises with her toddler and begins her biggest task of the day: making contact with all her students, who are scattered among the foothills of rural eastern Kentucky. Some she calls by phone, others she chats with over text, and some she sees in class on Zoom.
Like teachers across the US, Martin-Sullivan is working remotely, and the transition has proved difficult almost everywhere. Rollouts of online portals have been plagued with technical issues in many districts, while others have struggled to distribute devices like laptops and iPads amid shortages from suppliers.
For Martin-Sullivan, though, the issues often go deeper than teaching itself. Many of her students are essential workers at stores like Walmart and have begun picking up extra shifts to support their families. Other students, as well as some teachers, don’t have internet access at all.
“Teachers … have been conducting their phone calls and check-ins with students from random parking lots, like church parking lots, the Walmart parking lot, [or] just anywhere that you can get wifi,” she says.
The results of these struggles with distance learning will remain unclear for some time. Many standardized tests have been delayed or canceled, which means school districts won’t get data on their students’ progress.
On this episode of Reset, we explore how the pandemic might affect students going forward, and how long those effects could last.
According to Matt Barnum, a national reporter for the education news site Chalkbeat, traumatic effects have big impacts on students’ lives, both on how much they learn and long-term factors like college enrollment rates and income.
“There’s this idea that children are resilient. They’ll just bounce back from whatever you throw at them. And from a research perspective, that’s just not the case,” he says. “We know that things can affect students, both good or bad. We know that early trauma can affect students for bad. We know that a high-quality teacher or access to early childhood education can affect students for good in the long term. So I think it’s not unreasonable to think that this is going to have long-run negative effects.”
Still, there are ways that policymakers can decrease these negative impacts, as Barnum explained. Research shows that one easy way to help students catch up is to add extra instructional time to the end of the school day or make the school year longer.
“We have evidence from research: There is a study in Florida that when low-performing schools extended the school day, students did better on state tests. We have another study in Louisiana showing that summer school helps students who are struggling in reading,” he says. “And so it just makes a whole lot of sense that if you want to make up for missed instruction, you should just make up for missed instruction.”
For students who have struggled more than their peers, some experts have suggested that the federal government should fund an “army” of recent college graduates to tutor students — with the added benefit of helping prop up a dismal job market.
Finally, students will also likely need emotional support when they go back to school. Aside from the interruption to their education, they may know people who got sick or died from Covid-19.
“If schools want to hit the ground running academically, they also probably need to be thinking about addressing the trauma that students may have faced. Presumably the best way to deal with that is to have trained professionals in schools, who can work with students to talk this through and support them in this,” Barnum says.
Whether government officials will take any of these actions remains to be seen. But policy options that can help students through the pandemic exist. The question is mostly whether governments — especially during a massive economic downturn — will make them happen.
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