Last spring and over the summer, Florida’s top educators thought students’ reading skills would suffer the most during the pandemic.
And at a recent State Board of Education meeting, they agreed that distance learning was the main culprit. Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said his five school-age children had been “over-quarantined” because of illness at the schools.
But early data provided by Tampa Bay’s two largest school districts is putting those theories to the test.
It is math, not reading, where kids are losing the most ground, the numbers suggest. And the impact of distance learning and quarantines is far more complex than some Florida officials make them out to be.
Just as the virus has kept the medical community guessing, it has been every bit as puzzling for educators as the pandemic enters its second year.
When Pinellas County tested elementary school students in the fall of 2020 to gauge where they stood academically, the results were surprising. The schools, on average, showed a 1 percentage point increase over fall 2019 in the rate of children testing at or above expectations for their grade.
In math, however, that average dropped by 7 points.
Hillsborough County, which uses a different testing system to gauge readiness for the state’s spring tests, saw a similar trend.
On average, passing rates were down 3 percentage points in reading, but down 5 points in math. In 18 Hillsborough elementary schools, fewer than 10 percent of students were ready to take and pass the spring state reading assessment. For math, 32 schools were in that situation.
Math teachers were not surprised by the slide, and they said it happened for a number of reasons.
The first one is pacing. Districts expect teachers to cover specific skills at certain times of the year. Even in normal years that can mean leaving some children behind, and there was nothing normal about 2020 and 2021.
Second, elementary math is one of those subjects that’s difficult to teach remotely. With school buildings closed for the last three months of the 2019-20 academic year, children were not able to conduct daily drills on addition, multiplication or fractions with a teacher circulating through the classroom and checking their work.
“So much of math instruction depends on constant feedback,” said Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent in Pinellas.
“We can overcompensate for reading deficiencies,” he said. “Students can work on their vocabulary. We have seen people who have full-blown dyslexia be able to memorize things until they get to eighth, ninth and 10th grade, because they are willing to work hard. But if I don’t know basic skills in mathematics, I can’t compensate for them.”
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Carmen Borders, a third-grade teacher at Ruskin’s Thompson Elementary, is used to a student population that fluctuates throughout the year. Her school community includes many agricultural workers.
But this year was different. “We had to shift our focus and think of our children as really being in second grade,” she said.
Kenneth Tompkins, who teaches fourth-grade math at Shore Elementary in Ybor City, has spent the school year juggling in-person and virtual lessons with groupings that change frequently as students adjust settings. At his school, student participation in in-person classes rose from 45 percent in September to 72 percent in January.
Tompkins has found himself chatting up the third-grade teachers to find out when they taught one skill or another — and if it was in the spring of 2020, when so many missed out.
“I think of math as building blocks in that you have to scaffold students and then build them up,” he said. “If they have a gap within math, they’re feeling frustrated. They’re feeling left behind.”
He worries that the gaps and frustration will become a bigger problem when the children enter middle school.
“A lot of students are really trying,” Tompkins said. “I can tell that they don’t have the coping skills to deal with that because they want to get everything right. They want to please themselves. They want to please their parents.”
The chief academic officers in the Hillsborough and Pinellas school districts have wrestled with the math issue, how it happened and what they can do about it.
Pinellas got an early start in addressing the math delays, Hendrick said.
Using federal COVID-19 relief funds, the district offered extra pay to teachers willing to tutor children before and after school. Attendance was voluntary, and parents had to provide transportation. But in some cases, children were able to build the extra time in if they arrived at school 20 or 30 minutes early.
Children also are being assigned more practice time on a computer program that is “gamified,” Hendrick said. And transportation will be provided this year for in-person summer school.
In Hillsborough, where much of the focus this year has been on literacy, deputy superintendent Terry Connor said principals this summer will gear staff training time to finding ways to bridge gaps, so children can catch up to their peer groups.
Connor said he wants teachers and principals to adopt a mindset of “acceleration, not remediation.”
In both districts, children have gradually returned to classrooms since the early months of the school year, when approximately half were learning from home.
That migration makes it difficult to pinpoint the effect that distance learning has on test performance. Despite negative statements about online learning from Corcoran, Gov. Ron DeSantis and others, many children with better resources at home are thriving in a virtual environment.
In Hillsborough’s low-performing schools, as many as 90 percent are now learning in person.
Connor said he worries about those who aren’t having success from home and are not fully engaged in day-to-day lessons. “Is it a technology issue? A family issue? A work issue?” he asks. “Those are the things in the e-learning realm that concern me the most.”
Another factor that may be driving the early numbers in favor of reading: Hillsborough spent the better part of the current school year implementing practices to strengthen reading instruction. The midyear test results are more promising for the early grades than for grades three to five, which suggests to Connor that improvement on state tests should show up in future years.
But getting kids back on track will require intense planning, much of it during the summer.
“The typical approach to remediation — providing work better suited for earlier grades — won’t come close to catching students up and will likely compound the problem,” Connor said. “That’s why schools need a fundamentally different strategy for diagnosing lost learning and putting every student on a fast track back to grade level.”
Despite hurdles that include ongoing job cuts to balance the district’s budget, he said: “I’m positive about moving forward next year. I think we’ve laid a good foundation, even in the chaos.”
American University student Thomas Furlong performed data analysis for this report.