How to Overcome the "COVID Slide"

The response from K-12 educators to the novel coronavirus has been extraordinary, with schools shifting to remote teaching and learning almost overnight. The teachers and administrators leading this transition have done incredible work in ensuring that learning has continued from home during this unprecedented crisis.

Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a significant disruption in learning for many students. This disruption has had the greatest effect on the most vulnerable student populations, such as children from low-income families, English language learners, and those with learning disabilities — thus widening already existing achievement gaps.
As K-12 leaders shift their attention from wrapping up the 2019-20 school year to planning ahead for the summer and fall, leaders will need to come up with creative solutions for closing the gaps that have widened among certain student populations and making up for significant learning loss as a result of the pandemic.

This article examines the so-called “COVID slide” in more detail and offers ideas for how to address it.

What Is the COVID Slide?

As an instructional leader, you’re already familiar with the concept of the “summer slide”: Research suggests that during a typical summer break, students lose the equivalent of a month’s worth of what they have learned, on average — and this learning loss is greater for low-income students who don’t have access to as many opportunities for learning and enrichment over the summer vacation as their peers from wealthier families.

The disruption to normal learning from COVID-19 is having a similar, though far greater, effect on student learning. As scholar and author Richard Rothstein writes, “The COVID-19 pandemic will take existing academic achievement differences between middle-class and low-income students and explode them.”

With schools shut down and most adults working from home, the amount of parental support that students have received in learning remotely has varied widely. Some students have had the benefit of supplemental resources and activities, while other students have lacked this support. What’s more, many families don’t have the devices and broadband internet service needed to support remote instruction.

Four Strategies for Addressing the COVID Slide

The COVID slide could exacerbate existing achievement gaps if K-12 leaders don’t take action. Here are four strategies that can help solve this challenge.

Take stock of existing needs and work to eliminate inequities.

With remote learning likely to continue for an extended period, now would be a good time for leaders to build on the efforts they have already made this spring by probing more deeply into inequities that might exist and aiming to eradicate them. For instance, leaders could use surveys, email, texting, and phone calls to reach every family in order to find out (1) what devices are available to children in the household for learning remotely, (2) whether the family has high-speed internet access, (3) how devices must be shared among children for learning, and how this affects each child’s access to lessons, and (4) how frequently children are engaged in learning both online and offline during the school day.

While many school-aged children have access to a smartphone, phones might not be sufficient for accessing educational software or typing essays. If students haven’t been given laptops, tablets, Chromebooks, or other devices for learning, think about how you might lend school-owned mobile devices to students who don’t have a device of their own for as long as remote learning continues. Consider offering training for families in how to use devices, access programs, and troubleshoot as well; leaders shouldn’t assume that families will know how to use the technology.

Students will also need access to reliable broadband service to continue learning effectively from home. If you still have families without home internet access, talk with service providers about what they can do to extend service to those families. To make this easier, the Federal Communications Commission has waived the E-rate rules prohibiting schools from accepting gifts from service providers during this time of crisis — and you can find a list of companies offering free internet service to low-income families who need it here.

Step up training and coaching for teachers.

In the initial stages of remote learning, schools were mostly concerned with setting up their infrastructure and making sure teachers understood how to lead video conferences with students, assign and collect schoolwork remotely, and give feedback. In other words, the focus was on how to keep instruction going at a very basic level.

As remote learning continues, K-12 leaders will need to expand the guidance and support they provide for teachers beyond this basic functionality. Teachers require ongoing professional learning and coaching in how to teach effectively in an online environment, including how to make remote learning more active, engaging, and successful.

Engage more deeply with families.

Families play a vital role in ensuring that children log on, take part in daily lessons, and follow through with their studies. Make sure you’re communicating regularly with all parents, but especially those from the most vulnerable populations (such as low-income and non-English-speaking families), using multiple means of engagement — including email, texting, radio and TV broadcasts, and social media.

Encourage families to become involved in their children’s education. Provide information and supporting materials in multiple languages, so that all families can benefit. Offer support and advice to help parents reinforce their children’s education, such as lesson ideas that can be completed as a family and resources to help deepen instruction.

According to the nonprofit organizations Education Trust and Digital Promise, District of Columbia Public Schools offer instructional resources for students and families in various languages. The New York Public Library partnered with an online tutoring service to give all New York-area students access to free homework help in both English and Spanish. And Anchorage School District created a Help Center resource for families to request help with technology, homework, and curriculum support.

School Specialty has put together a special collection of at-home learning materials and activities that can help families enrich their children’s learning. Educators can find ideas and resources to share with parents by age, subject, and need here.

Assess students’ readiness for learning in the fall — and plan interventions to help close learning gaps.

Differentiated instruction will be key now more than ever. Educators can’t hope to close learning gaps without understanding the full nature of these shortfalls: where students are struggling, which skills they still lack, and what they’ll need to learn before they are ready for grade-level instruction. Schools will need to conduct comprehensive benchmark testing to identify how COVID-19 has affected student learning and plan for remediation.

K-12 leaders might consider a two-pronged approach to intervention, consisting of broad actions aimed at the general student population and more targeted intervention that addresses the learning needs of specific students.

For instance, the Washington Post reports that Miami-Dade County plans to use online log-in data to identify who has fallen behind and then deliver targeted interventions. School will be extended into the summer for some students, and others will start school earlier in the fall. The district also plans to redeploy staff members who have less work during the pandemic, forming a new one-to-one digital mentoring program for students who need extra help.

Curriculum providers are likely to offer services intended to help students make up for learning loss as a result of the pandemic. Look for services that can help educators identify specific learning needs and deliver targeted instruction or intervention.

Doing Nothing Isn’t an Option

Doing nothing to address the COVID slide isn’t an option. As Eric Gordon, chief executive for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, told the Post: “We have to have a recovery plan for education. I’m really worried that people think schools … just flipped to digital and everything’s fine, and we can just return to normal. That’s simply not the case.”

However you approach this challenge in your own schools, you’ll need to think creatively to overcome the COVID slide — and you’ll need the support of teachers, union representatives, and other staff. Think of creative ways to deploy teachers and educational specialists, and include these stakeholders in your planning process from the very earliest stages on.

School Specialty Curriculum can help as well. We have dedicated K-12 specialists with experience in supporting all kinds of learning scenarios, including hybrid and blended learning.