Schools battle learning loss as federal funding nears expiration date
When COVID-19 first appeared, it didn’t take long for school teachers and administrators to recognize a coming crisis. A temporary emergency order by Gov. Chris Sununu in March 2020 required that all public schools move to remote instruction and shutter their doors. Teachers and parents scrambled to adjust to a new virtual teaching environment on a dime.
In Weare, the effects on learning behavior were seen as soon as students returned in person that fall.
“(We saw) the impact from being remote in the spring and from students being at home, not interacting with other children as much over the summer,” recalled Natasha Kolehmainen, assistant superintendent in Weare. “A lot of early development is oral, it’s not written. And so the impact of having less language exposure started to be apparent pretty quickly.”
Administrators assembled battle plans. Some searched for comparable experiences to find inspiration.
“We dialed in on Hurricane Katrina,” said Michael Jette, superintendent of the Litchfield School District. “Schools in New Orleans had been out of session for months on end. I mean, the schools were destroyed by the hurricane. And so they were sort of testing out alternative things to do. And what we learned was, it was just consistency. It was really trying to stay attentive to what really matters.”
The takeaway, Jette recalled: Focus on academics like math and science over other programming like sports games and school dances.
Two years on, studies are continuing to reveal the toll of those initial months. Students across New Hampshire – and the U.S. – suffered from learning loss during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while school districts have devoted much of the more than $500 million New Hampshire received in federal school COVID-19 money to hire staff to address the gaps, many faced staffing challenges. Next year, that federal money is set to expire, adding new headaches for schools.
A study released in October from Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project found that between 2019 and 2022, students in the state lost six months of total learning in math and two months in English.
Meanwhile, a December 2021 report commissioned for the state by the Comprehensive Center Network, a national organization, found that New Hampshire statewide assessment scores fell 10 percent in English and 18 percent in math between 2019 and 2022.
In the two school years that have passed since the pandemic began, administrators have done what they can to leverage federal COVID-19 relief dollars to tackle the learning shortages, hiring tutors and creating new programs to try to extend the school year for interested families. The Department of Education has also used federal money to partner with outside organizations to create online tutoring opportunities, trainings to better teach reading, and learning pods.
And state officials have pointed to signs that the interventions are working. Results from the 2022 New Hampshire Statewide Assessment indicate that while student performance dropped in every tested grade level between 2020 to 2021, some scores – particularly in math among younger grades – have rebounded slightly in the past year.
Still, districts are about to face a budgeting test. With the last round of COVID-19 related federal school funding expiring next year, some superintendents say they’ll need to get creative to continue the learning loss mitigation.
“I’m faced next year with falling off that cliff,” said Kathleen Murphy, superintendent of the Concord School District. “The money’s going to be gone. …How do we continue the support that we have for the youngsters with staff and how is the school district budget now going to handle that?”
New Hampshire school leaders have deployed a range of strategies. Aided by an infusion of federal cash that came in the form of three phases of a program known as “Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund,” or ESSER, districts got to work hiring teachers and creating new classes and programs.
Weare set up a summer learning program in 2021 to allow children to have more time to catch up before the next school year. This year, the district purchased new training courses in math and reading to try to address the gaps.
Litchfield used some of the federal funding to bring on a social worker in addition to holding a summer learning academy, a decision prompted by the high levels of social and emotional learning loss observed from students.
And Concord hired tutors in reading and math to help create “interventions” to provide targeted support for students who were falling behind. And they monitored student progress closely to decide which students would most benefit.
“I call it ‘dipsticking,’” Murphy said. “You check your oil – you dipstick at various points throughout the year, and you can see whether they’ve met those (benchmarks) and who has met it and who hasn’t, and those who haven’t met it get those interventions.”
The Department of Education rolled out some programs of its own, officials note. Those include a 2022 contract with Tutor.com to provide free online tutoring services to all New Hampshire students; the 2020 rollout of iLearn, a system offered to schools to allow teachers to better monitor student progress and design curricula; a Leaning into Literacy program designed to train caregivers, parents, and educators how to more effectively teach reading; and a partnership with Prenda, a private organization offering tutoring pods for students.
In a statement to the Bulletin Wednesday, New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said he remained “committed to providing New Hampshire students with ongoing, evidence-based supports, and interventions.”
School districts’ learning loss programs have faced their own hurdles. Even with federal funding, recruiting staff proved to be as much of an issue for new tutors as for existing teaching positions. And in some cases, when catch-up programs were created, take-up was not where administrators had hoped.
The summer learning loss program in Weare attracted fewer students than the school had expected, according to Kolehmainen. In that situation, the major barrier for parents was a lack of child care, Kolehmainen said. Parents were driving farther to find child care accommodations for their children over the summer, and because the district’s summer learning program was morning-only, some parents couldn’t swing the transportation demands.
“It was a combination of things that created a perfect storm where coming to our morning program for two hours just wasn’t feasible,” said Kolehmainen.
As the 2023 assessments loom around the corner, Edelblut says this year’s state’s assessment numbers show some reason for optimism. In July, the department announced that the 2022 assessment showed math scores for students in grades three through seven had improved from their drop in 2021, with third graders rising from 45 percent proficient to 51 percent proficient, and that English scores had remained the same or slightly improved for the same grade levels. But middle school English scores saw another slight dip this year, dropping from 52 percent to 49 percent proficient, and the assessment scores for all grades are still not at their pre-pandemic levels.
“On the 2022 assessment, we began to see the results of our recovery efforts, but not yet back to pre-pandemic levels,” Edelblut said in a statement Wednesday. “It is more important now, as it has always been, to support all students so that they can thrive and achieve their aspirations.”
Measuring learning loss accurately can be difficult. Comparing students in one specific grade in one year compared to another year is not exact; the group of students are not the same and the results could be influenced by other variables specific to one class year. The 2022 Harvard and Stanford study drew on test results from both the Performance Assessment of Competency Education results and the New Hampshire Statewide Assessment System to measure its learning loss. The 2021 Comprehensive Center Network report used only the Statewide Assessment System results.
Thomas Kane, a professor of education and economics at Harvard and a co-author of the October study, says the findings highlight the need for more district-level programs to address learning loss – both now and into the future. The center is planning to release a follow-up report in coming months that will contain a tool to suggest how much districts should invest into targeted tutoring in order to close the learning loss gaps within a given time period, Kane said.
“The whole village needs to hear the bell ringing, not just schools. Mayors should organize tutoring efforts at local libraries,” he said. “Community organizations should plan school vacation academies and summer learning opportunities. Governors should be funding and evaluating innovative pilots to provide models that everyone could use. We cannot wait for the spring 2023 state test results next fall to tell us that we underinvested in recovery efforts.”
But the end of the flow of federal ESSER money next year means many districts will need to pare back many of their learning loss programs. In some cases, that will mean the summer programming may be reduced or ended. In others, it may mean the number of tutors and support staff specifically hired with ESSER money will shrink.
As school districts begin crafting next school year’s budget proposals, Murphy said she’s hoping to retain as many of the new additions Concord has made as possible.
“What are the essential staff that I can continue to support?” she said. “Especially in the area of mathematics.”
Exactly how consequential the learning loss is – and how easily students can rebound in time for graduation – remains to be seen. School leaders are torn between hope and frustration.
“Look at history for a second: There have been tons and tons of historical events,” Jette said, mentioning World War II. “And we’ve always as a nation, and as an educational institution, recovered and done fine.”
Murphy is less sanguine.
“I think it’s going to be us thinking outside the box. How do we motivate students? How do we encourage them?” said Murphy. “…I think it’s gonna take a generation – not two or three years.”