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This is how we help kids failing school because of the pandemic | COMMENTARY

Roger Lyons, a science and social studies teacher at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School, speaks with 6th grade students learning remotely on Friday morning. Five students are in the classroom. In-person class size is limited to10 students because of COVID-19 restrictions. April 23, 2020.
Roger Lyons, a science and social studies teacher at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School, speaks with 6th grade students learning remotely on Friday morning. Five students are in the classroom. In-person class size is limited to10 students because of COVID-19 restrictions. April 23, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

School systems throughout Maryland, and the country for that matter, face a daunting task over the coming months to get students who have fallen behind during the pandemic back on the learning track. Failing grades have tripled in some cases amid virtual learning and the stress COVID-19 has put on students and their families. Students of all backgrounds are struggling, but especially those who faced challenges before the pandemic.

But this is not the time to hold students back a grade, punishing them for the extraordinary crisis we find ourselves in, through no fault of our own. Life was turned upside down for everyone, and holding children back will do unnecessary harm to their self worth and long-term potential. We say this, however, with the caveat that schools must do all that they can to make up for lost learning, starting now, because that too has consequences.

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The expansion of one-on-one and small group tutoring programs should become a priority, something supported by a recent Abell Foundation report. Tutoring helps reinforce what students learn in the classroom — or teach it, if it was never grasped in the first place — and work on weaknesses or concepts they may have trouble with. The format is often more engaging, and more fun, than that offered in a traditional classroom and the opportunity for individual attention is greater. Programs like Middle Grades Partnership, which provides year-round education opportunities for Baltimore middle schoolers, have proven summer enrichment programs can help at-risk students achieve and should be expanded.

We also must expand summer school options for students, and consider mandatory summer school for those who have fallen farthest behind. Chronic absences because of obstacles with online learning — whether it be bad internet connections or trouble engaging and focusing via computer — means many students have missed a year of learning. In-person classes over the summer could go a long way toward making up for the lost time. Summer school should include recreational and other activities to address the mental health consequences of COVID students have also faced.

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We know that some of this extra reinforcement, particularly summer school, puts extra pressure on teachers, who have already gone above and beyond to adjust under COVID. They have been asked to bend in ways no one ever imagined and deserve credit. We would hope many continue to step up and volunteer to work over the summer or in tutoring groups; we would also suggest school systems look to the retired teacher ranks to help out.

The Maryland State Board of Education has said it wants all schools to reopen for in-person learning five days a week next year, and though it plans to allow school systems to seek exceptions, the expectation is that most kids will be in school in the fall. Vaccinations for adults is now widely available and a children’s vaccine is on its way toward approval. Many of the kids who struggled this past year did so because of the failings of virtual learning. They need to get back in school, with the necessary safety precautions taken.

Yet, for all the students who discovered computer learning didn’t work, some others thrived. School systems will need to remain nimble and ready to pivot should the pandemic worsen at any point, but beyond that, they should learn from the successes of this past year to improve the way we educate our students. Not all students learn best the same way; we should reexamine the cookie cutter approach to education. Some students missed school to work to help with the family finances, for example. How do we make schooling fit for these students?

Education in Maryland is in the midst of an emergency, and schools need to continue on in crisis mode to help. The good news is that education experts say learning loss can be made up for in many students if we deploy enough resources to make it happen. That should be motivation for us all to do our parts.

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The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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