(Metro Newspaper Service)

Harrison George barely could identify four letters of the alphabet — let alone read — when he started the first grade this fall.

The 7-year-old lost an entire year of learning because of the pandemic. It’s been one setback after another, his mother, Laurie George, said. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and then she found out about two months ago he has dyslexia — all issues she and her husband, Darien, a former Fort Worth City Council candidate, would have found out sooner if not for the coronavirus crisis.

“If the pandemic had not happened, we would have gotten the ball rolling on that like a year ago and been in therapy for a year — which, from at least from what I’m hearing from parents and educators, is that when you catch something really young and you get on it you can eliminate that gap pretty easily,” she said.

Estimates from the Texas Education Agency show students have lost at least five months of learning. Those estimates are almost certainly conservative. In reality, students are more likely to be similar to Harrison and have a huge chunk of their learning gone — setting them back for their entire lives.

“I think we’re going to have a statewide, if not nationwide, issue with a generation being a year behind, not being prepared for college because they’ve missed out on a whole year of education,” said Jamin Vess, who teaches English, reading and language arts and is the special education head at Meacham Middle School.

‘The more data, the better’

In Fort Worth ISD, administrators said learning loss has mirrored national trends monitored by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit that administers assessments that it says can “precisely measure growth and proficiency.” 

Fort Worth students have been taking the math test for more than a year, said Sara Arispe, associate superintendent for accountability and data quality. The nonprofit’s reading test was just implemented this year, she said.

The nonprofit estimated that about 50 percent of the learning gains students made in math were lost by the time they returned to school for the current year.

At the high school level, nearly 42% of freshmen have failed at least one core course this year, according to Fort Worth ISD data. That is 5,986 students, Arispe said. Last year, that figure was 5,614 — or 28.1%.

“We’re talking about 372 students more, but that’s still 372 students, so we have to pay attention to that,” Arispe said. “We would be paying attention to the 28%, too. In a normal school year, there are systems in place to help kids recover if they fall off track. But with that percentage going up, it heightened our awareness as we were watching it during the first six weeks, second six weeks and third six weeks.”

Fort Worth ISD and districts across Texas will have an even better understanding of how far students have slipped back once results from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exam are released later this spring.

Jerry Moore, Fort Worth ISD’s chief academic officer, said the STAAR results will provide a baseline of the new reality created by COVID-19. It will be used on top of the NWEA tests the district uses, he said.

“I think what the STAAR is going to be is another data point that’s going to help us understand where our students are and how we respond to the needs they have in the year,” Moore said. “The more data, the better, right?”

Face-to-face instruction important

Reading has likely been impacted the most by learning loss, Jan Lacina, associate dean of graduate studies and a professor of language and literacy at Texas Christian University, said 

Lacina pointed to a Stanford University study that showed reading fluency among second- and third-graders is roughly 30% behind what would be expected in a normal year. That is a crucial time in a student’s life, the TCU professor said. Students in the second grade are still learning how to read more complex texts, she said.

“They’re missing out on phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and that all impacts their comprehension instruction, and that connects with all of our content areas,” Lacina said.

Virtual instruction cannot replicate those lessons, the literacy education professor said. Roughly half of the 84,000 students in Fort Worth ISD are still in remote learning.

Children learn the building blocks of reading with hands-on activities, like playing with letters or learning how to form shapes, and by just having conversations with their classmates and teacher.

“They can’t learn how to read complex informational texts — which we’d want them to start reading in third and fourth grade — if they don’t have those foundation skills,” Lacina said. “It’s essentially important for them to have that face-to-face interaction with their teacher and their peers.”

Curby Alexander, an education professor at TCU, said there is no replacement for having students physically in a classroom. Teachers can better observe students and see how they are learning and whether they are stumped on a question or concept, he said.

“If they seem like they’re frustrated, you can address it right there on the spot,” Alexander said. “There’s really no replacement for just having students in class and being able to work with them one-one-one interpersonally.”

‘They’ve lost a full year’

Learning loss is collateral damage to the other hardships many students have faced in the past year, Alexander said.

Vess, the Meacham Middle School teacher, has seen what Alexander described up close. Students who were successful before the pandemic and are in virtual instruction continue to do well, he said. 

“But those who were struggling when they were here at the school, when we went virtual and they decided to stay home, they not only performed where they were usually, but typically were performing at quite a few levels lower,” Vess said. “Just by being in the class, they could get some information, and it allowed us to help them stay on track and keep on track as best as possible.”

Some remote students are often distracted. Vess has had students who mute class and play video games instead of paying attention to that day’s lesson. Other students, Vess said, have had to help their parents by taking care of their siblings or even take on a job to make ends meet.

“I feel like there’s going to be a major gap in their education and they’re going to really struggle moving forward,” Vess said. “It’s almost as if they’ve lost a full year because some of them have not stepped foot in a school in a little over a year. Those are the students that really need to be here.”

“I think we’re going to have a statewide, if not nationwide, issue with a generation being a year behind, not being prepared for college because they’ve missed out on a whole year of education.”

Jamin Vess, Meachum Middle School special education head and English teacher

Getting students back on track will be complicated, Alexander said. It won’t just be about ensuring they are making the right grades, he explained. 

Schools, he said, will need to do a deep evaluation of each student when they are all back on campus. Some have been taking care of siblings, while others may have had a loved one contract – or die from – COVID-19, Alexander said.

“So I think the first thing they’re going to have to do is really just figure out where students are and to figure out holistically what’s going to be needed to support this kid — not just how do we get them back on track on the curriculum, but how do we make sure the child is physically and emotionally and mentally healthy?” he said.

Mike Morath, the state’s education commissioner, told senators in March that recovering from the pandemic could take four to five years.

Texas Tutor Corps

Lacina suggested legislation by state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, and Rep. James Talerico, D-Round Rock, may help students suffering from learning loss. Powell’s Senate Bill 2023 — which is identical to Talerico’s House Bill 4117 — would create the Texas Tutor Corps program and another program focused on accelerated learning to combat learning loss.

Powell described the legislation as “an aggressive tool” to address learning loss.

The proposed Texas Tutor Corps, the senator said, would use retired teachers, retired school paraprofessionals and college students in education programs to help get students up to speed. It would be supported by local organizations, Powell said. 

State Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson

“It pulls together a consortium of support for student to create an environment where they can get the tutoring that they need in in the daytime during classroom hours as pull-out tutoring; that gets them after hours tutoring; and then extended tutoring into the summer by really top notch professional tutor who can more quickly bring them up speed in the learning environment,” Powell said.

Tutoring is an effective education intervention tool, Lacina said.

“When they are highly trained tutors, they can provide high-dose tutoring and they would have some skills on how to help children develop those fundamental literacy skills, like phonemic awareness and fluency, that all leads to comprehension,” the TCU professor said. 

Both bills have been referred to their chamber’s Education Committee. The current legislative session ends May 31.

‘The fear for any parent’

Harrison, the first-grade son of Laurie George, is back in the classroom. 

Virtual learning was not right for Harrison, his mother said. Last spring, his learning completely stopped when schools transitioned from traditional instruction to online classes. Because of the coronavirus-induced shutdown, George could not get the help Harrison needed last year.

“Online learning for us was not even close to successful,” George said. “As a result, when he got back into the classroom … he just wasn’t there. He hadn’t made any gains — and, in fact, had lost.”

By being physically in class, Harrison’s teacher was able to approach his parents about the possibility of him having dyslexia and getting him the help he needed, George said.

“We ended up getting him testing for dyslexia, and he qualified for dyslexia services through Fort Worth ISD,” George said. “And since then he has been rocking and rolling.”

While Harrison is not reading yet, George has seen improvement, she said.

Still, George acknowledged her son has lost so much ground on learning how to read. She said it will be hard to get him on track — even with every resource now at her disposal.

“You could have the best of intentions. You could have the best teachers who are trying absolutely as hard as they can, and there’s just no way to have the outcome any different,” George said. “When a kid is not in the classroom, there’s loss and that’s it. The fear for any parent is that loss will continue to affect that child for years.”

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jacob SanchezEnterprise Reporter

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University....

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