Bit by bit, Utah educators are getting a firmer grasp on what the pandemic has meant for the state’s schoolchildren.

Many parents opted not to send their children to kindergarten this fall, which is worrisome, experts say, because early learning helps children build skills they need to learn how to read.

Kindergarten enrollment dropped statewide by nearly 4% this fall, representing 1,457 fewer students in Utah public schools. Kindergarten is optional in Utah, but most children are enrolled. The last time kindergarten enrollment was this low was in 2010.

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Experts say learning losses due to families opting not to send their children to kindergarten or preschool means some Utah children will struggle to perform on grade level as they progress through school.

“When we went into soft closure last year, March through May, those are critical times for kindergarten students and for first graders learning to read. So we can see in our early grades that they are generally not at the same level that we would expect them to be this time of year, and we don’t know exactly how long it will take to get kids back in what we would think of as an average learning cycle,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson told the Deseret News.

For older students, the pandemic has placed some Utah students at risk of not graduating from high school because of their struggles with online learning. Many Utah students lack reliable Wi-Fi access, have to share tablets or computers with siblings who are also participating in remote learning or they need more academic support from teachers than they receive on virtual learning platforms.

Some high schoolers are working to help support their families or they are babysitting younger siblings while their parents work. Many don’t have a quiet place to do their schoolwork. Last spring, some kids quit connecting with their teachers and didn’t do their schoolwork.

“We’re seeing a significant drop in the number of students earning credits versus attempting credits,” which makes high school completion more difficult, Dickson said.

National research shows students who drop out of school face lower lifetime earning potential, social stigma and a higher likelihood of being involved in the criminal justice system.

Adding to students’ challenges are rising levels of mental health struggles tied to stress, anxiety and depression.

Estimates of COVID-19 slide’s impact

At this point, no one knows the full extent of learning loss and mental health struggles for K-12 students due to COVID-19 pandemic.

Some national projections say students have lost three months to a year of learning, depending on the quality of their remote instruction, but these are estimates.

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Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit testing organization that looked at COVID-19 “slide estimates,” said the data suggested students returned to school in the fall “with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year.” And in mathematics, students were “likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.”

Meanwhile, consulting firm McKinsey & Co., predicts learning losses for Black, Hispanic and low-income students will be the most significant.

Patty Norman, Utah’s deputy superintendent of student achievement, in a recent meeting with state lawmakers, said the duration or extent of learning disruption related to the pandemic is not yet fully known.

Statewide testing schedules were also disrupted so the assessments data educators rely upon aren’t available for the period of soft closure. Testing is planned for this academic year, however.

“But this does not mean that we can wait until we have all of the traditional data in what we’re used to in analyzing what is needed. We need to begin our mitigation efforts in full force to have both the swift and the long-lasting impacts that are needed,” Norman said.

Mario Mojica works on a worksheet at Odyssey Elementary School in Ogden on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Plan to mitigate learning loss

The Utah State Board of Education has asked Utah lawmakers for an appropriation of $260 million — $60 million this current school and $200 million for the coming year — to assess the needs of students and teachers, to develop individualized plans to mitigate students’ disrupted learning and to provide supplemental instruction, summer/after-school programs as well as social-emotional instruction and support.

The funding would also be used to pay for educator training, and to pay teachers and support personnel who will help students bridge interruptions in learning and strengthen their connections to their schools.

As Ogden School District Superintendent Rich Nye puts it, the funding would be used to “buy time” for educators and support personnel to work with students using evidence-based practices to boost their learning and social-emotional capacity.

Norman acknowledges that the state funding request is “an astronomical amount of money,” but explained that implementing meaningful strategies across 41 school districts and some 140 public charter schools will require a significant infusion of state funding.

“So if we have 36,586 educators and we provide them with one professional development day — just one — we’re looking at $3.6 million,” she said.

Adding just one teaching position at each of Utah’s schools would cost $139 million a year. If a teacher and a counselor or social worker were added to the faculty of each school, “that would be two positions per year. Now we’re talking $278 million,” Norman said.

When placed in the context of what is needed and what $260 million can provide “at the level it needs to be provided, it still isn’t enough,” she said.

Codie Rodriguez, a behavior interventionist at Odyssey Elementary School in Ogden, center, asks questions of students Mario Mojica, left, Mason Morris and Nicco Rascon, during their class on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Ogden School District’s ‘summer bridge’

Last summer, the Ogden School District used about $1.4 million in federal funds to help students recover school credit, mitigate the effects of disrupted learning, provide social and emotional support to students and their families and offer on-site instruction.

The district offered an array of options, such as grab-and-go literacy packs that included culturally relevant texts intended to keep students on their path to becoming lifelong readers, as well as support material.

“Support cafes” were opened at its high schools, which were staffed by counselors and teachers who specialize in certain subject areas. The cafes gave students access to educators, a quiet work environment and stable Wi-Fi connections while they worked to recover school credit. They also received food and snacks.

“When we speak of credit recovery, it’s actually content recovery. We want our students to regain the content that was disrupted and it is reflected in the (course) credit,” Nye said.

At Ogden High School, 223 fourth quarter “no grades” were converted to “pass.” At Ben Lomond High, 499 “no grades” were converted to pass.

“Our students showed up. They showed up on site and were able to do it safely and effectively, and they were able to hit the ground running when school started,” Nye said.

The school district also hosted a math boot camp for students in grades three through eight as well as a literature camp for K through eight students. Both were offered virtually, with 1.5 hours of instruction offered four days a week over six weeks.

Codie Rodriguez, a behavior interventionist at Odyssey Elementary School in Ogden, watches as student Mario Mojica work on a worksheet during a class on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The “Lit Camp” attracted an average of 200 learners each day with 337 students participating for multiple weeks. The camp offered a blend of academic literacy development and social-emotional learning. Among parents of participating students, 91.6% indicated that they felt their child was better prepared for the 2020-21 school year.

Social-emotional learning involves teaching students self-awareness, self-control and interpersonal skills needed to succeed in school, work and life.

Codie Rodriguez, a behavior interventionist who teaches life skills to students at Ogden’s Odyssey Elementary School, said she worked through last summer to keep in contact with students and families.

“We would do home visits. We would take food to them and we would take books to them. It was so good to see where the kids lived and where they were coming from and to build that relationship, not only with the students, but to have the parents’ trust because it was so scary to come back and know that you’re sending your kids back to school in the middle of a pandemic and you don’t know what to expect,” Rodriguez said.

The personal contact and other bridge learning opportunities offered by the school district last summer meant a smoother start to the school year, she said.

The added bonus to home visits meant district employees got to visit their students.

“We were missing the kids so it was so good to get out ... be able to see them, tell them hi and see their little smiles. That was so good for us,” said Rodriguez.

Nye said summer bridge activities, particularly those where teachers and support personnel met in person with students, also helped smooth the professionals’ return to classrooms.

“They realized that the schooling could be done in a safe way under our current conditions. When the school year started, many of them had already had the experience of working with kids being in our schools, wearing the personal protective equipment and going through the hygiene and sanitation procedures,” he said.

Nye said the school district’s planning for summer bridge activities began in the spring and it was a “quick turnaround” from conception to execution. Initially, Nye was concerned that teachers and staff would be tired and burned out after working through the soft closure and that staffing the initiative would be difficult.

But when the district opened up positions for the various programs, there were more applicants than positions.

There were a lot of reasons for that, Nye said. For some, it was financial. Many teachers work second jobs, particularly during summer months. Some employees’ spouses have been furloughed during the pandemic, so teachers and other employees welcomed the opportunity to work in education during summer break.

“They just felt like, ‘I’d rather be doing this thing that I love, this career this passion that I have for educating kids, rather than go get a second job,’” he said.

Others stepped up because they knew kids needed their assistance. They recognized “there was some unfinished learning that happened during that fourth quarter and they wanted to jump in and help with that,” Nye said.

The pandemic placed unprecedented demands on students and educators globally. In Ogden School District, where nearly 80% of its students are economically disadvantaged and nearly 20% are English language learners, the stakes are even greater.

Disruptions in students’ learning “could potentially have lifetime effects on their educational pursuits, not only in K-12, but post-secondary jobs and other things that they pursue” so mitigating the impacts of the COVID slide is crucial, Nye said.

“There’s a lot of data at different stages in a child’s academic progress where they need to reach certain benchmarks by a certain age or they do fall behind academically, which does have an impact, literally, for the rest of their lives. So for us, it’s an acknowledgement of the potential lifetime effects if we don’t act and act in a meaningful way to mitigate against the disruptive learning that’s been experienced.”