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In Mississippi and across the nation, schools closed because of coronavirus are struggling to find ways to educate children remotely. But even as Mississippi’s education leaders adapt to new platforms, experts say, they must begin to plan ahead. Once campuses fully reopen, schools will need clear strategies to catch up students who have been unable to keep up their studies at home, the experts advise.

Thousands of students already harmed by the state’s achievement gaps and underfunding will be hit hard.

“This virus is exacerbating the inequalities we knew were there before. The kids who have the least are getting the least now,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “They will, in fact, be behind the kids who are learning still. If the state is serious about equity, it will try to some things to address that.”

Summer School

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Noguera joins an early chorus of researchers and academics suggesting summer school should be offered, if possible, to help students catch up. Douglas Harris of the Brookings Institution has suggested making stimulus money available to offer summer school for students who fall behind during closures, either virtually, if schools must remained closed, or on-site to make up for missed instruction. The former might still edge out students already impacted by the nation’s digital divide or who are without adult supervision.

Related: Desperate parents need help as coronavirus upends our lives

There’s an additional reason for urgency around the well-known strategy this year. Research has shown losing academic ground during the summer months or “summer learning loss” tends to impact low-income students more. Without intervention, the gaps could widen even further this summer given how much class time children have already missed.

Find time in the day

Beyond summer school, principals and superintendents will also confront the question of the best way to help students catch up when school resumes — probably with the beginning of the 2020-21 year in August. Alanna Bjorklund-Young, director of research at the John Hopkins Institute for Education Policy said one strategy schools might consider is keeping students with their previous teacher for part of the next school year. Children’s current teachers, Bjorklund-Young theorized, may be better positioned to review material and content kids missed or struggled with during this time.

“This virus is exacerbating the inequalities we knew were there before. The kids who have the least are getting the least now.”

Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles

Another research-based approach is the use of one-on-one or small group tutoring. While this approach can grow costly, the solution doesn’t require upending the entire school day. Depending on the program, Bjorklund explained intensive tutoring could occur before, during or after school.

Ideally, Noguera said, kids would also have access to after school programming providing enrichment activities like art or robotics to balance out ramped-up instruction.

Ramp up rigor

Although it might be tempting to avoid rigorous assignments for students who need extra help, cautioned David Steiner, Bjorklund-Young’s colleague and the executive director of the institute, that’s the wrong approach. Educators who back away from tougher lessons because they don’t want to overwhelm students could do more harm than good. Steiner said the evidence is beginning to mount that struggling students do better when they have the same level of access to challenging, grade-level materials as their peers.

“It doesn’t mean you ignore the child,” Bjorklund-Young added. In English language arts, for example, a child who has trouble sounding out or “decoding” words, she explained, will still need intervention.

But struggling students should still be challenged to think critically about the same books their peers are reading, and to share what they learned from a story. An elementary school teacher can rephrase discussion questions to make them more digestible or pair a struggling student with a classmate who has a firmer grip on reading skills.

Steiner said the challenge educators will face in the fall is to pull up students who are in rough academic shape, rather than “teaching down.”

“The tool to do that is not just professional development; it’s curriculum,” he said.

Related: Double whammy? State allegedly misspends funds for Mississippi’s poorest, now COVID-19 closes schools

Too many teachers, Steiner argued, have to spend time hunting down materials for their own curriculum. That can lead to shaky quality and frustration. And those hours spent searching online can rob teachers of the time they need to think through presenting challenging material in a way that reaches struggling students.

The bottom line

All these interventions, of course, are dependent on funding. Amid fears that rising unemployment could trigger a recession, school leaders in Mississippi could face tough budget choices ahead, especially in communities that lack the tax base to fill in state funding shortfalls.

If Mississippi is going to build on the academic progress it’s made in recent years, the state will have to make a commitment that any layoffs do not disproportionately impact the highest needs schools that already struggle to hire support staff like interventionists, social workers and literacy coaches whose roles will become only more critical in the months to come, said Ary Amerikaner, a vice president at the nonprofit Education Trust.

“Students in those schools will already be facing the instructional and social and emotional impacts of the coronavirus and it is important that supports remain as consistent as possible,” Amerikaner said in a statement.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Friday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about summer school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on government accountability for the paper’s investigative...

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3 Letters

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  1. Hi,

    I am not so sure summer school is always the best option or the easiest to implement. If a mediocre school simply extends teaching into summer or evening, the school will simply deliver mediocre instruction and students will have mediocre results. A school should seriously reconsider if it is necessary and justifiable. More isn’t better; better is better.

  2. I am a former school district Assistant Superintendent with an Ed.D. from UCLA. I support the concept of using a summer school approach for students to catch up on what they have missed. For example, I doubt current math students in first year Algebra know what the quadratic formula is. It’s the most powerful formula in solving equations and the kids don’t have a clue what it is if they left in mid-March….Some students are involved in distance learning and it may work for some, maybe many, but I am skeptical. Because of that, I suggest summer school be optional for those who did stay on track. I recommend we address the “basics” like English, Math, Science and Social Studies in a half day program. The electives will have to wait. The first question is how will we pay for this. My response is that it won’t be as expensive as one might think. Summer school is typically taught by teachers seeking some extra income. Also typical is the teaching pay rate is fixed. One rate for all. Benefits for teachers are already covered in their contract. No extra costs there. Next question is how long will it last? Probably 6-8 weeks. So we finish before the traditional year starts. I think it’s a rational approach and will help many students.

  3. Great Day!

    I agree with Pedro N. in regards to planning ahead and keeping EQUITY in mind. One must not only give every child a shoe, but give every child a shoe that fits! Summer school is suggested and is going to happen. I have been teaching 5th grade science, in a low-income area within Jackson, MS for the past two years. We are currently creating our list of students who will benefit from attending summer school. We plan to give them devices to ensure it happens. If we do not reopen schools, the district must consider giving each child a device to learn. I disagree with Young’s idea of letting scholars remain with their previous teacher for a portion of the year because time is valuable. Think of the grades that are tested. As one who has taught 5th grade, I do not expect the district to hold 5th graders back from middle school for a part of the year. One-on-one tutoring can be good. It could be better if the services were free! That will ensure all students have an opportunity to get help. I also agree with rigorous work. One should never back down on issuing challenging work. Accommodate that scholar by giving the same question in a format he or she understands. Lastly, I will bring to your attention school staffing. During this pandemic, schools are experiencing extremely low enrollment rates. I recently suffered from it because I was moved to teach 4th grade science instead of 5th grade science. The District seems to have the authority to take positions if the incoming class is small. My former 5th grade team will have to divide the science work. All is devastating because each major subject is tested in 5th grade. Now is the time to give, not take from schools.

    Best,

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