Editor's Note: This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.
"COVID slide" has become an increasingly common phrase in the education community. The term refers to student learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially related to brick-and-mortar public school closures and the expansion of remote learning.
The situation in Florida is serious enough that the Florida Senate is working on a bill related to the COVID slide that would allow parents to decide if their students should repeat a grade if their learning has suffered during the pandemic.
According to the school system's academic dashboard, Sarasota County schools have seen a 5.5% increase in chronic absenteeism so far during the 2020-2021 school year.
Along with the increase in chronic absenteeism, 187 Sarasota County kindergarteners who registered for classes did not show up for school this year.
"The increase in chronic absenteeism this year over last year is likely due to the challenges of quarantining over 9,000 students since the beginning of the year," said Dr. Laura Kingsley, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer of Sarasota schools.
According to district data, as more students have returned to in-person classes in January and February, overall chronic absenteeism has begun to show a decline. As of Feb. 11, 16% of middle and high school students and 10% of elementary school students are participating in remote learning.
"National research and studies have shown that students typically learn best with face-to-face instruction," said Kingsley. "However, the school district will continue to rally alongside families and students wherever they are in their learning journey this school year."
A lack of broadband
To help with remote learning over the past year, the district says they distributed Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops to every family that requested them.
Hotspots are a useful stop-gap measure for students but are not a reliable substitute for broadband internet. Because of slow speeds and spotty service, students using them can sometimes be dropped out of online classes or unable to log in at all.
These issues can affect remote learners' attendance. Students who log in late to remote classes are marked tardy. If they do not log in at all, they are marked absent unless they are quarantined because of having COVID-19, in which case they are excused.
Nicole Light, education officer for the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, says that broadband funds were rarely requested from their Student Emergency Funds (SEF) before the pandemic hit, but things changed in 2020.
"Once COVID caused the shutdown of schools in March, we saw an immediate increase in requests for SEF to go toward technology needs, specifically and most often, for internet connectivity," Light says. "Those requests came from families who attend schools in all of the district."
Light says requests for this kind of relief are still coming in.
Two federal programs are being considered for families in need. In the federal stimulus passed in December, $3.2 billion was set aside to provide a $50-per-month reduction in broadband costs for qualifying families. And according to Vox, the FCC is attempting to expand E-Rate, a broadband discount service that usually applies only to educational institutions. Advocates of the expansion say homes where children are remote learning also should be included in E-Rate, which would help cover families' bills.
Efforts to help students and families
Along with absenteeism, i-Ready diagnostic results in Sarasota County indicate that some academic subjects show a COVID slide during the 2020-21 school year.
Fifty percent of Sarasota's elementary school students are one grade level or more behind in math, as opposed to 40% a year ago. Elementary reading comes in at 39%, compared to 32% the previous year. Middle school math increased to 57% from 51%, and students behind in middle school reading rose to 44% from 40%.
The most recent i-Ready report shows that in most subjects, performance was better in this quarter, as more students returned to brick and mortar classes.
To address the issues related to the COVID slide, the school district has implemented "Intentional and Targeted Support," which includes working closely with students who are not showing growth in certain subjects, along with an array of strategic interventions and education strategies.
Kingsley points out that while the effects of the pandemic and the switch to remote learning have shown a change in student performance, the situation is multi-faceted. Students had three to six weeks less instructional time before the mid-year assessment in 2020, along with other outcomes of COVID-19.
"Our staff is working harder than ever before to accelerate the learning of our lowest-performing students, even amid 666 staff quarantines and a serious substitute teacher shortage which results in every available staff member covering classrooms," Kingsley says. "Our children and their families are working harder than ever before, even amid job losses and COVID-19 illnesses affecting them."
School board members Tom Edwards and Jane Goodwin emphasized parent involvement in remote student learning at a school board workshop in February. Edwards talked about professional development for parents, saying that they would want to do anything they can to help. Goodwin brought up educational and digital access obstacles challenging some parents' ability to help students learn at home effectively.
"What can we do to help parents who are not computer literate, who may have a language barrier, who do not understand how we are teaching?" Goodwin asked. "We need to be thinking of thoughtful things we can do to encourage parents."
The school district says it has made several efforts to support families with remote learning. Before school began, the district had 4-6 instructional technology team members operating a parent hotline to provide personalized support and answers to anyone who called. The hotline remained open for several months until there were no longer calls. They also uploaded video tutorials and documents to the district website. These covered "every imaginable technology issue or question," according to Kingsley.
In facing these challenges, Superintendent Brennan Asplen delivered a positive message at February's school board workshop.
"We always want to be better than we are. We always want to improve and move forward. But I have to say, I really think our teachers have done an amazing job this semester, to have the growth they've had based on everything that has been going on."