Op-Ed: NJ schools need a plan to rescue students from COVID-19 chasm

Darlyne de Haan | December 31, 2020 | Opinion, Education
Students from historically oppressed groups will experience much greater learning loss and higher dropout rates due to the pandemic
Darlyne de Haan

One result of the COVID-19 pandemic is widespread concern that the achievement gap in New Jersey schools has grown into a coronavirus chasm that threatens to swallow an entire generation of children from low-income families — as well as English-language learners and special-education students. These children, many of color, have been left to teach themselves unsupervised on Zoom in kitchens, bedrooms and on sofas. Many schools serving low-income students have lowered learning expectations for remote instruction because families may not have reliable technology to stream video.

Now that companies such as Pfizer and Moderna have reported positive results in COVID-19 vaccine trials, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the nightmare that has descended over America due to the pandemic. But also at the end of this tunnel are the two most important questions that New Jersey educators have faced in decades: Has learning loss occurred among significant numbers of students? And if so, what is the extent of this “unlearning”?

A survey conducted by ParentsTogether, a national advocacy group, indicated that low-income parents were 10 times more likely to report that their children were doing little or no remote learning compared with the responses of more affluent parents. The Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank, analyzed instruction in the COVID-19 era in 477 school districts and reported that only one-fifth were offering live teaching, with wealthier districts twice as likely to provide live teaching along with video.

State Sen. Theresa Ruiz, the chair of the Senate educational committee, has called on the Murphy administration to conduct a study that will answer these questions. She states, “More than ever, it is abundantly clear that there is a need for real-time data on where our children stand academically.”

The evidence is clear

While Sen. Ruiz’s proposed study is well-intentioned, it is also unnecessary. There is already extensive research from across the United States that indicates unprecedented learning losses have occurred and will continue to occur due to the pandemic. In addition, virtually every predictive model published by the public and private sectors agrees that learning loss will be greatest for low-income students and students of color. Researchers from Brown University examined data from previous traditional school closings — excessive absences and summer breaks — and projected significant learning losses among these populations.

In June 2020, Dana Goldstein of The New York Times wrote, “The average student could begin the next school year having lost as much as a third of the expected progress from the previous year in reading and half of the expected progress in math, according to a working paper from NWEA, a nonprofit organization, and scholars at Brown University and the University of Virginia.”

Researchers from Illuminate Education found that a “covid slide” is occurring, and that children who live in poverty will be much more adversely affected. The learning losses will be greatest on the elementary school level, particularly in reading and math, with kindergartners experiencing the most harm. There is extensive literature that indicates students from historically oppressed groups will experience much greater learning loss and higher dropout rates.

McKinsey & Co., a worldwide management consulting firm in public-sector practice, conducted an analysis that indicates school shutdowns due to the pandemic will exacerbate existing achievement gaps. The McKinsey report states, “The damage to individuals is consequential, but the consequences could go deeper; the United States as a whole could suffer measurable harm. With lower levels of learning and higher numbers of dropouts, students affected by Covid-19 will probably be less skilled and therefore less productive than students from generations that did not experience a similar gap in learning.”

NWEA, the publisher of MAP Growth, a K-12 online assessment in reading, math, language usage and science that is used throughout the United States and in many New Jersey schools has characterized the pandemic learning-loss as ranging “from bleak to dire.” With every predictive model in agreement concerning the great harm that is being done to students as a result of school shutdowns, all stakeholders, led by Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Education, need to begin immediate planning to address the greatest challenge to New Jersey schools in generations.

New Jersey needs the educational equivalent of the Manhattan Project to rescue a generation of children from disappearing into a COVID-19 chasm from which some may never escape.