The COVID Slide

Last week, I watched a powerful webinar from Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center about health inequity and COVID-19.

One of the first speakers, Dr. Nwando Olayiwola, started to talk about vulnerable populations but quickly corrected herself. She called them, “populations that have been made vulnerable.” 

What a difference such a small change made.

Instead of assuming that people in those populations are inherently vulnerable, her corrected phrase shows that inequity is the result of intentional decisions that negatively affect specific groups of people.

Her quick self-correction stuck with me. 

This morning, I was reading the education news that comes to my inbox each day and saw a headline from the Wall Street Journal last week that read, “Some School Districts Plan to End the Year Early, Call Remote Learning Too Tough.”

Another entry in the same newsletter suggested that based on a national poll of teachers and administrators, 65% want to start the school year as normal in the fall, without adjustments to the curriculum or schedule.

My heart sank, and I instantly thought of Dr. Olayiwola’s revised phrase. 

Now, I am no longer a K-12 teacher, so it is unfair for me to pass judgment on educators, whose jobs were already difficult, and who had to do a 180-degree shift in their daily practices within days or weeks.

That is an incredible challenge, and it will take time to adjust.

I empathize with teachers and cannot imagine what I would have done if I had to shift my middle school instruction online in a heartbeat.

However, we’re also faced with a growing educational crisis.

Evaluators and researchers have been doing some great work to illuminate the educational ramifications of COVID-19 on disadvantaged communities.

Researchers have studied the concept of “summer slide” for many years and have shown students regress in math and reading skills without educational opportunities during the summer. 

There is even a National Center on Time and Learning, whose work revolves around reducing inequities related to the inflexible and insufficient school year schedules that predominate in our country.

Recently, the Collaborative for Student Growth found that an even more significant “COVID slide” is likely to occur when students return to school in the fall, having retained only about 70% of the reading growth and 50% of the math growth they would have typically made in a school year. 

Recommendations to mitigate the COVID slide include summer school and additional learning time for students. 

Yet, the Wall Street Journal article discussed how districts across the country are choosing to end the school year up to three weeks early in order to have more time to prepare for the fall.

One superintendent even stated, “It made sense to us to get rid of the stress and get ready for the following school year.”  

We certainly need more supports for teachers and greater access to technology for students in order to make online learning more functional and effective. But does that justify giving up entirely?

Decades of research have shown that more time in school leads to better outcomes for students, especially those from low-income communities.

In a time of increased risk for widening the achievement gap, is it ethical to throw in the towel? 

By justifying inaction with the feeling that it is too difficult to educate students from home, we are making our student populations — in many cases — more vulnerable than they already were.

I hope that evaluators and researchers can come together with educators to study the data, fully understand the problem and its drivers, and develop policy recommendations that will not only support teachers but will also do right by students who need time with teachers to thrive.