‘COVID has impacted students differently’: East Texas school leaders discuss lost learning amid pandemic

Thursday is the deadline for Dorchester County School District 2 parents to notify the district...
Thursday is the deadline for Dorchester County School District 2 parents to notify the district whether they want to enroll or withdraw their children from the DD2 Virtual Academy.(Live 5/File)
Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 5:51 AM CDT
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PANOLA/MARION COUNTIES, Texas (KSLA) - As the nation and the Lone Star State turns the corner on the coronavirus pandemic, school district leaders are working to figure out how to help students after a turbulent and unprecedented year.

On April 28, Governor Greg Abbott announced public schools across Texas would be receiving a cut of $11.2 billion in federal funds to address lost learning due to the pandemic. Below is a breakdown of how much each district will receive:

“These one-time funds are intended to support a comprehensive learning recovery effort in Texas over the next three years,” reads a news release from Abbott’s office.

Two-third of the funds are available now through Texas Education Agency grants, while the last third is “contingent upon approval by the U.S. Department of Education.”

Rob Barnwell, superintendent of Jefferson ISD, and Allen Koch, chief learning officer of Carthage ISD, spoke about the challenges these districts face in addressing this somewhat ambiguous issue.

“COVID impacted some students differently, there are equity issues we are going to have to work through,” Koch said. “Our teachers and our principals are in the process of identifying those students who are in greatest need.”

Koch said addressing learning gaps isn’t an abnormal challenge for teachers, especially after summer breaks. Rather, Koch believes a child’s circumstances at home during the pandemic was a significant factor in how much instruction was potentially lost.

“The first equity issue you had to address were those of having a computer and internet access,” he said. “We had hot spots in the local community where they could drive up and get internet access and eventually we had hot spots for anybody that wanted one.”

Another inequity exacerbated by the pandemic centered around whether a parent was working. Some could afford to stay home with their child, while others simply could not.

“I think anytime a student doesn’t have structure at home, whether a parent had to work or for whatever reason, those students tend to have a larger learning gap than those who had somebody able to provide structure for them,” Koch explained. “I think that’s independent of economics and independent of race.”

Forty-three miles north in Jefferson, Barnwell said his district continues to suffer from inconsistent attendance of students and staff, due to the pandemic and subsequent quarantine guidance.

“There’s absolutely no doubt our kids are losing academic ground every time they’re not in the classroom,” Barnwell said. “Trying to show student progress, academic progress, it’s almost impossible for these kids who missed a lot of times.”

In fact, right now, Barnwell noted about 40 kids in fourth grade are “out because of close contact” after a recent positive case.

“Most of the time, our kids need that personal interaction, there are teachable moments in the classroom that are missed when you are not there face-to-face,” Barnwell explained. “You just don’t get that when you’re sitting at home on a computer.”

Barnwell and Koch said they fully expect to see an increase in the number of students enrolled in summer school programs this year, which means more staff will likely be needed - and paid for.

“It boils down to the number of people you’ve got involved, you’ve got to have good teachers on-site with kids, face-to-face,” Barnwell said. “It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of planning and these funds will help us pay those folks.”

Another issue both district leaders noted is that lost learning varies between students — some excel in a certain subject, while struggle in another.

“It’s our job to identify by student and by skill what their needs are and when you do it that way — it’s very difficult to put 20 kids into a classroom that have different needs and... have one teacher handle that,” Koch said. “We’re going to have to hire people, smaller class sizes and intervention of small groups.”

Though school districts everywhere have work cut out for them with shrinking these unique learning gaps, the pandemic has spotlighted the resilience, patience, versatility and grit of educators.

“That’s what teachers do, they rise to the occasion, they are now more technology savvy,” Koch said. “We can harness that and use that in our intervention efforts...I’m going to brag on teachers until the cows come home.”

Barnwell said he is grateful for the grace and flexibility parents have displayed throughout the course of the most difficult days of the pandemic.

“The parents have been really positive overall,” Barnwell explained. “It has been a struggle, but they have been really understanding and I hope that continues.”

To see the latest coronavirus data from Texas, tap or click here.

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