Shealynn Hutchinson was experiencing anxiety as she attended in-person classes five days a week at Bangor’s James F. Doughty School during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So her mother recently allowed the eighth grader to attend school remotely full time. Last month, she joined her brother, a fifth grader at Downeast School, and a friend of his in learning exclusively at their home in Bangor’s Capehart neighborhood.
Now, Krysteen Hutchinson said, her daughter has fallen behind and is refusing to finish her schoolwork.
“She was in advanced classes and a straight-A student,” Krysteen Hutchinson said. “Now that she’s left to her own devices, she’s not getting it done. And she’s failing a couple of her classes.”
The sudden switch to remote learning a year ago and the continued absence of students from classrooms this school year mean that students in Maine and across the country have fallen behind where they would otherwise be academically.
“The loss actually began last year, when it was a sudden decision for everybody to go remote,” said Eleonora Villegas-Reimers, a clinical professor and department chair for teaching and learning at Boston University. “They might have lost a full grade.”
But in Maine, students might not have fallen as far behind as their peers elsewhere in the country. Across the state, students have generally had the chance to attend school in person at least a couple days a week, unlike in some regions of the country where schools haven’t opened their doors at all. In the Bangor area, administrators have generally seen students in younger grades make less academic progress than they likely would in a normal school year, and students have generally fallen behind further in math than in reading. But in some cases, they haven’t seen much change from a normal academic year.
The time in the school building makes a difference, Villegas-Reimers said.
“Given what we know about learning losses and the importance of classroom time, logic would say the fewer days that you are in person, the more learning loss that you will have,” she said, “unless you live in a household where there are educated people who can support you in doing the work that you would have done in the classroom.”
National research and school districts’ local testing are beginning to show how far students have fallen behind. But there are holes in the data. States last spring called off standardized testing, meaning there’s one less data point to use in evaluating kids’ performance. This school year, school districts are using their own tests to judge students’ performance, but national data show they’re generally testing fewer students, particularly low-income and minority students who are likely to be hardest hit by the pandemic’s life changes.
‘We want to be able to address those losses’
As they test students this academic year, school districts in the Bangor area are generally finding that students have slipped behind where they normally would be at this point in the school year. But the findings have been mixed.
In Bangor, testing showed the youngest students had fallen behind. But by the winter, third-grade students and older pupils had largely caught up to where their peers had been in math and reading in previous years, said interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg.
Bangor has allowed students to attend school in person five days a week this school year, whereas most other districts in the area have had students split their time between home and school. Harris-Smedberg said the academic growth between the fall months — when many students started behind following a spring spent at home — and the winter had been especially pronounced among students who attended in-person classes five days a week.
In Regional School Unit 22, which serves Hampden, Winterport, Newburgh and Frankfort, students generally had lost more ground in math than in reading, said Mary Giard, the district’s curriculum director. And like in Bangor, the youngest students fell behind while high schoolers showed relatively stable results compared with their fall 2019 performance.
Results at the district’s two middle schools were mixed. One school saw drops in math and reading scores while the other didn’t show much change, Giard said.
In Hermon, students have largely followed the national trend. This past fall, the town actually saw more students reading at grade level than in the 2019-20 school year — 63 percent compared with 60 percent last year. But students were less likely to perform at grade level in math, based on Hermon’s local test. Half of students performed at grade level this year, compared with 58 percent last year.
“It’s a lot easier for families to engage in reading with their child at home. That’s a really easy activity that parents can do with their students and we’re seeing a lot of parents really involved in that,” said Melissa Davis, Hermon’s curriculum director. “It’s much harder to do with math, especially the harder the math gets.”
The lost progress will prompt some efforts this summer — such as summer school — and next fall to bring students up to speed. Plus, schools in the area are starting to bring students back for more days as vaccinations pick up and virus cases stabilize.
“We want to be able to address those losses, but because we’ve been primarily in hybrid or remote, we’re finding that we’re not able to support students through as much curriculum content as we would in a normal year,” Giard said.
Falling behind, then staying behind
Local school districts generally haven’t broken down results from their local testing by types of students, so they can’t gauge whether low-income students have fallen further behind than their higher-income peers.
But Erika Lopez’s struggles to keep up with her school work this school year show how low-income students can fall behind their peers more easily, then stay behind.
The fifth grader attends Fairmount School five days a week in person, but when she got sick and had to stay out of school for eight days, slow internet service and outdated devices at home made it impossible for her to keep up with the school work she missed.
“We’ve had some issues with the internet, which is really slow half the time, and some laptops
that would just freeze,” said Shannon Lopez, Erika’s mother.
Erika couldn’t connect to the internet reliably enough while she was sick to receive her assignments, her mother said, so her only option was to do double the work when she finally returned to school.
“They’re sending paperwork home with her now. If they did it online she would never get her work done,” Shannon Lopez said.
Other parents who live in Bangor’s Capehart neighborhood, with low-income housing overseen by the Bangor Housing Authority, said they’ve either chosen to send their children to school in person full-time or bring their kids to work with them to navigate unreliable internet service. And more than a year into the pandemic, they prefer that teachers send home hard copies of school work, rather than online versions.
“I think it’s becoming clear that there are disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on students from lower-income or more disadvantaged communities,” said Andrew Bacher-Hicks, an assistant professor of education at Boston University. “Therefore, any steps that are taken to remediate these issues should definitely address those groups who have been hit hardest.”
Across the country, Google searches for online learning tools have risen during the pandemic, but the intensity has been greater in wealthier regions, Bacher-Hicks has found in his research. It’s another illustration of how more well-to-do families are better equipped to support their children while they learn at home.
“It seems reasonable that if they’re searching for these resources more, they are presumably using these resources more, although our study doesn’t necessarily provide any direct evidence of that,” Bacher-Hicks said.
For many parents, a return to full-time school will mean relief — and better academic results for their children.
Krysteen Hutchinson said she has watched both of her children struggle to focus on online work. They thrive when they are in school, however.
“She needs that structure, which is why she was in school full time in the beginning of the year,” she said of Shealynn. “But then her work just started dwindling when she’s at home, and she doesn’t have an answer for it.”