If you are an educator or a parent, your answer may be yes, with a temporary sigh of relief that your child’s spiraling grades are the result of a pandemic, and not just some viral dance craze. “Covid Slide” is a term for the very real, very tragic reality facing many of our students across the country. While many schools continue to teach virtually, there is a severe downward slide of student achievement across the nation. It’s dropping at an alarming rate. Actually, it’s fallen off a cliff.
Here are some alarming statistics: According to the December 23 report in USA Today, the bulk of these [student] failures are “concentrated among low-income students of color . . . as well as those who are still learning to speak English or have disabilities.” Add to that an increase in teenage suicides, as illustrated in the New York Times January 24, “Surge of Student Suicides Pushes Las Vegas Schools to Reopen,” and an increase in intimate partner violence and child abuse as reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Ultimately, these indicators show that the current educational protocols during the pandemic are not sustainable and that once again economically disadvantaged households are being hit the hardest.
American educators have been spending the better part of a year building an educational infrastructure we never knew we needed were it not for the pandemic: “[It] has highlighted just how important [technology] is as a toolkit for teachers to learn to use,” says Dr. Steve Wheeler, visiting research fellow at Plymouth Institute of Education. Restructuring in-person curriculums to an online format has been a steep learning curve for teachers, but if there is anything to take pride in it is the landing mat we have built for students in case of any emergency. Whether in lockdown, snowed in, or at home sick, students will no longer miss school. Or so I would hope.
To me, the ’COVID Slide’ is not just some catchy label to compartmentalize a problem; I see its effects on the kids I teach every day. I’m a teacher of English Language Learners in Rockland County, New York, forty miles north of New York City. The majority of our students are at or below the poverty line, receiving free meals, and almost sixty percent of the student body are children of Hispanic or Haitian immigrants. Our school is an intermediate level serving fourth through sixth grades, with special Ed., bilingual, and English as a New Language classes.
Thanks to the collective effort of our faculty and school district over the past year, all of our 400+ students are technologically equipped to learn: All students now have their own personal Chromebooks and user accounts for both Google and Schoology educational platforms. Our school’s hybrid learning module has been fully operational since Thanksgiving, but since then, in-person learning attendance has dropped 50%. Remote learning has been an increasing frustration among all teachers, as student attendance is increasingly inconsistent, and student work is way below par. Actual grades have been replaced with pass/fail scores, and at the time of this writing, New York State Standardized testing has been canceled for the second year in a row.
In truth, there is little with which to hold students accountable. Without reliable and affordable internet access, consistent parental involvement, and community outreach we cannot bridge the digital divide that still exists in our community.
When I look at the large school buses park in front of our building and see only five students emerge, or when I log into my class meetings and talk to avatars instead of live faces, it’s not hard to figure out why our kids are slipping down the COVID Slide. There are no consequences to students’ curricular apathy this academic year, and COVID-19 seems to be the free pass we will all use to explain away the moment and let the year, well, slide.
According to an EducationWeek educator survey, student absentee rates have doubled since the pandemic’s onset. The reasons listed are the same: students are not held accountable enough for actions once more severely punished in pre-pandemic years. The survey found that chronic student absences are mostly addressed with a phone call from teachers rather than a visit from the family resource liaison due to the risk of COVID spread. Furthermore, students have been given the choice whether to attend in person or online, now that everybody has the means to log on to a computer or walk through the school’s front door. And the choice is clear: they stay home.
Most of our students have followed suit, not because it is safer, but it is where they are most comfortable to learn. But are they really learning? Current schoolwork shows little progress, and I fear that when most teachers are vaccinated, and it is finally safe for students to return en masse, our kids will ultimately refuse to put on a mask and return to school if given the choice.
Florida State Senator Lori Berman appeared on the February 6 broadcast of Smerconish with one potential solution to the ‘COVID Slide’ dilemma: To enact legislation promoting a non-reversible request by parents to have their K-8 child repeat the current school year lost to the COVID pandemic. The bill was deemed the most viable solution to failing students in the current academic year and was given unanimous support when presented to both Democrats and Republicans.
However, in pre-pandemic times, student retention was discouraged and proven ineffective, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. So, will this new legislation prove effective? Or will it prove a useful weapon to oust Senator Berman from her seat if future data suggests that her band-aid couldn’t stop a hemorrhaging wound?
There is a real chance that student retention will further stigmatize and marginalize minority students who are already bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Students with more affluent backgrounds have been equipped with the resources to continue learning this pandemic. Impoverished communities, on the other hand, are the ones who have lacked the proper educational support, technology or broadband. Spotty Wi-Fi is not a child’s fault. Poverty is not a child’s fault. There is still no legislation on the table to make American technological infrastructure a national priority for all public-school students, but it is the very thing all schools need to keep their students connected.
Quality education is a right, not a privilege, and yet I can already hear the overprivileged telling the poor to return to school without the necessary resources to do so. If ill-prepared, will our students come back? If ill-prepared, would you?