When Renee Webster-Hawkins was helping her fifth grade son with his math homework one night this past year, she noticed a troubling gap in his learning.
“It was clear that he simply didn’t understand how to divide two fractions,” said Webster-Hawkins, who regularly tutors her two sons, enrolled in Sacramento City Unified schools, to make sure they’re grasping everything from their teacher.
“There’s something very palpable that they’re missing in the online format. ... Somehow me, sitting next to them with a white board and dry erase marker and walking step by step with them — repeatedly — seems to be what they’re missing,” she said.
In the latest Valley Vision and CapRadio COVID-19 Resilience poll — the third in the past year — 70% of parents in the six county greater Sacramento area said they were concerned that their kids are falling behind in school.
More than 40% of parents in Sacramento, Placer, Yolo, El Dorado, Sutter and Yuba counties said they were extremely or very worried about their children academically.
“I’m feeling a little bit helpless right now,” said Gwynnae Byrd, who has two high-school juniors in Sacramento schools.
Her son, who goes to John F. Kennedy High School, has lost motivation, she says, and doesn’t always turn in assignments on his own. She’s concerned that her kids are not learning the skills needed to be competitive for college.
“There’s not a lot to hold him accountable right now,” she said.
When she has tried to set up more structured learning time for her kids, “it all goes out the window after a week or two … everybody gets tired.”
Recent research from Policy Analysis for California Education suggests there may be reason to be concerned about kids’ learning progress right now. A January study of 18 school districts indicates younger kids especially are falling behind in math and English skills.
But the learning loss varies substantially depending on the financial standing of the students’ household, the researchers say, as well as their English language skills. Some kids are 30% behind in certain subjects.
The PACE research also suggests poorer kids statewide are learning less than their peers.
“Our concerns are very, very deep for our students,” said Christine Baeta, chief academic officer for the Sacramento City Unified Schools District.
Baeta says there’s no doubt kids are falling behind. But that was true even before the pandemic; 70% of Sac City kids are socioeconomically disadvantaged — living in poverty, learning English or without stable housing.
“It's in these groups where we're seeing students struggling to engage, attend and log on,” said Baeta, who added that students aren’t turning in assignments or getting feedback from their teachers.
“And we know that if they struggle to engage, attend and log on, that they're struggling with learning,” Baeta added.
Teachers at Sacramento City Unified also acknowledge that kids have been falling behind during the pandemic, especially during remote learning.
Marcie Amparo, who teaches third graders at Edward Kemble Elementary School in South Sacramento, says this month she’s still teaching kids how to do multiplication and division. In a normal year, those skills are acquired by the winter break.
“It’s really difficult to keep kids engaged [online]. And when you can’t keep them engaged, they can’t learn,” she said.
When she teaches in person, she can “read the room” or gently tap their desk to grab their attention. That wasn’t possible for a year.
To catch kids up, Amparo says Sacramento teachers support the idea of learning assessments to gauge how much children have taken-in, not how much they’ve fallen behind. She also says teachers need instructional aides in the classroom and social workers to help kids who have experienced trauma.
Gina Warren works with kids who are processing violence and historical racism through her nonprofit in Del Paso Heights, called the Neighborhood Wellness Foundation.
She says many of the kids in the north Sacramento neighborhood struggled through distance learning because they may be “living in a multigenerational household and there's seven in a two bedroom complex.” She says kids deal with chronic stress and may not be getting enough to eat at home.
Warren and her staff provide food and WiFi for kids who swing by their community center. And staff make sure the kids are following through with tests and connecting with teachers and therapists.
“You can't talk about the academic piece unless you're going to talk about social-emotional piece,” Warren said.
Donna Hoffman Cullinan is also worried about her 7-year-old’s emotional and social needs more than his academic progress. She has a first grader enrolled at Sacramento City Unified.
“We have really seen a huge struggle [with him] processing change, emotional regulation ... and really just learning how to interact with his fellow first graders,” Hoffman Cullinan said.
She said in distance learning, her son didn’t learn skills like dealing with disappointment, how to take authority from a teacher, and building relationships.
When her son went back in-person for hybrid school, she said, it was a rough transition. “He was crying in the car, not feeling ready for the return,” Hoffman Cullinan said.
Focusing on mental health and equality is a huge priority right now for education leaders.
PACE Executive Director Heather Hough says it’s possible for California’s kids to make up for the learning loss, but it will require very strong attention.
“This crisis in public education is completely unprecedented,” Hough said. “We don’t really know how long it will take [to catch kids up]. But the idea is that it has to be aggressive, and it has to be now.”
Billions of public dollars have been poured into California schools this past year to prevent a bigger education problem down the road.
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