You Have to Maslow Before you Bloom! Support Children to Emerge from this Pandemic Healthy, Ready to Learn, and Prepared to Flourish into Adulthood

February 12, 2021 | Ohio

You Have to Maslow Before you Bloom! Support Children to Emerge from this Pandemic Healthy, Ready to Learn, and Prepared to Flourish into Adulthood

Posted February 12, 2021

By Alison Paxson, Communications & Policy Associate

The number one priority for our state’s K-12 education system needs to be focused on ensuring our policies and practices for reopening schools are aligned with what children need from their educational experience to emerge from this pandemic healthy, ready to learn, and prepared to flourish into adulthood.

This week, Governor Mike DeWine announced $2 billion in one-time federal funding to address learning loss and get Ohio students back “on track.”

This decision comes on the heels of new data released last week from the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) regarding the pandemic’s impacts on student enrollment, attendance, fall assessments, and access to opportunities to learn.

The results were much of what we already expected and also a continuation of what Ohio’s seen in recent years:

  • Enrollment in preK-12 public schools declined by 3% between fall 2019 and fall 2020 (due mostly to parents delaying preschool and kindergarten);
  • Third-grade English and language arts proficiency fell by 8% since 2019 of those who were tested (with this being 9% for students on hybrid learning models and 12% for students fully virtual);
  • Limited internet connectivity and necessary devices created significant barriers to learning opportunity despite the efforts of school districts laid out in August 2020’s Remote Learning Plans;
  • Chronic absenteeism is up in both rural and urban districts since last year by 5% and 13% respectively; and
  • The results are mixed on the impact the pandemic has had on student kindergarten readiness. In 2018-2019 school year, only 40% of children scored “ready for kindergarten,” and in this analysis, nearly half of the children who participated in the kindergarten readiness assessment this fall scored ‘not on track’. This would seem to be an improvement, but it would appear that further analysis and/or explanation is needed to understand their results.

The data shows, too, how the pandemic’s challenges have had disparate impacts on children who are Black and other children of color. For instance, in a sample of ten Ohio school districts, nearly half of all Black students were chronically absent, missing more than 10% of the school year so far. Also, while a majority of students did take fall assessments, those who were not able to go to the tests administered in-person were predominantly students of color, and these students were also more likely to be disabled and economically disadvantaged, demonstrating the intersectionality of systems of disadvantage that have created inequities in educational access.

While ODE did not release data on test scores by race and ethnicity, their report does state that “scores generally are lower than past years, especially for Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students.” In an analysis that has received a lot of attention recently from The Ohio State University, ODE data from fall 2020 assessments was used to attempt to quantify learning loss by race, estimating that white students have lost a third of a year of learning while Black students have lost about half a year on average.

The OSU researchers arrived at their estimates of learning loss for Ohio children using methods that rely greatly on earlier research and approximations of typical test score improvements from second to third grade – so this is a ballpark estimate. It is important to take into account that the numbers used to measure and account for learning loss in this study, and in many others like it, including one seminal study on summer learning loss that researchers have since been unable to replicate, rely heavily on standardized tests to provide a baseline for what children are learning.

But using formal assessments to gauge learning loss is not likely to yield valid results that show us where our children truly are, especially during a pandemic. Informal formative assessments can be used as “temperature checks”, but the performance we see in formal state assessments right now could be more indicative of the anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, and instability that children are experiencing at heightened levels – which is also one reason why so many studies have concluded that non-instructional factors have long contributed to the variance in test scores to begin with, not mastery or ability.

So, as conversations around learning loss dominate educational spaces, press conferences, webinars and everywhere in-between, it really begs the question: what does ‘learning loss’ actually mean and how important is it when we consider whole child wellbeing? In other words, what have our children really lost that we must prioritize in this time?

Learning standards vary so widely across states and school districts that learning loss likely looks different from almost every angle based on how curricular attainment is measured. In fact, “No system exists that can accurately identify learning loss,” said one school administrator in an article this week from EducationWeek.

It seems uncertain whether anyone really knows or is on the same page with the answer to that question. And that is a serious problem – especially as Governor DeWine also announced this week that he wants Ohio school districts to come up with their own plans to address learning loss by April. Without a common understanding of the challenge, how can we define the opportunities for solutions?

Many experts in Ohio and across the country have started generating ideas on how to curb learning loss, including an extended school year, longer school days, more standardized testing and assessments, intensive summer school, and more. But many of these ideas don’t consider the sheer amount of exhaustion both educators and students are feeling. Further, one Boston public schools student who, when asked what they thought about this topic by their teacher, said: “Adults’ intentions might be good, but their solutions are really lacking.”

Neem Avashia, a veteran 8th grade civics instructor in Boston Public Schools, wrote a piece recently about what she learned from her students and what they lost. Avashia gave her students space to share in their distance learning environment with each other. In one of those sessions, she asked them a series of questions, such as, “During the pandemic, what are things that you feel like you’ve lost?” They responded:

  • “I lost my ability to be happy. Staying in the house is not for me. Basketball really helped my depression, and I can’t play it now. I’ve lost a lot of interest in my friends. I stick to myself.”
  • “I lost family, I lost myself and what hurts me more is that I lost everyone who said they were going to be there for me.”
  • “I lost time I could have been enjoying my childhood.”
  • “I have less motivation for school.”
  • “I’ve lost myself.”

What have our children really lost? Relationships. Loved ones. A sense of belonging and connection. Opportunities for socialization and play. Supportive adults and communities.

We should be concerned about the pandemic’s impact on children and their learning; however, there is much more to child wellbeing and a child’s ability to be successful that go beyond this notion of learning loss. Policymakers should listen to students and center children’s mental and behavioral health as the priority right now as we reopen and plans are made to address learning gaps.

We do not fully understand the consequences of virtual learning in academic performance – we won’t for a while. However, we know what is at stake for children who are struggling and who’s mental and behavioral health is not recognized or addressed, especially in the aftermath of traumatic events and natural disasters. Although adolescence offers a key window of opportunity in the brain’s development to rewire itself and heal from trauma, this is much more difficult ground to recover, more than grade levels and hard skills, especially as time passes.

The wellbeing of our children rests, in large part, on the decisions that adults make on their behalf. Let’s make decisions that ensure children feel seen, heard, loved, and nourished. The more we talk about learning loss, the more we talk about what children “haven’t learned”, “haven’t done”, or “have fallen behind in”, and the more we reinforce feelings of inadequacy. This will have a negative impact on transitions back to school environments, especially if, as soon as they are back in school buildings, they are hit with standardized tests that may make them feel like they are falling short. The high stress for teachers to prioritize achievement over school climate and child wellbeing could also mean that they, too, come into school with a deficit mindset, the gears already turning about how they have to catch up, fill in gaps, and double down on rigor.

The truth is that throughout this time, our children have been put to the test, challenged in new ways, and stretched to (and in some cases beyond) their limits. They’ve excelled in virtual classrooms and with technological proficiency and flexibility for these circumstances. They’ve done so many remarkable things to survive, cope, adapt, learn, and make the best of this situation, and we should acknowledge this fact even if there’s not a test score to measure and reward it.

Bottom line, to begin building the society our children deserve, their resiliency must be recognized, their needs must be met. The following are recommendations of what must be done at both the federal and state levels to support child wellbeing.

Pass the American Rescue Plan.

Federal funding in the Biden educational proposal will help schools reopen more quickly and more safely – with funding dedicated to helping schools avoid layoffs, increasing access to school nurses, and ensuring schools can socially distance with essential PPE as more and more people are vaccinated.

Protect Student Wellness and Success Funding in the Executive Budget.

Simply reopening schools will not guarantee students are in a better position to learn – traumatized, anxious, and depressed brains do not easily absorb information, engage in critical thinking, and focus on learning. Fortunately, the Executive Budget proposed by Governor DeWine not only protects the $675 million for Student Wellness and Success Funding allocated during the last budget, but also increases investments in these wraparound services for school districts by $100 million per fiscal year. These dollars need to be protected and used to address whole child wellbeing. We also need to consider how these dollars might be used more effectively to forge partnerships between schools and health professionals locally to address gaps in care. Further, more data is needed from the last biennium on their use by school district to understand how we can further support child wellbeing and health equity  in Ohio communities during the pandemic and beyond.

Expand school-based health and community connected care.

Healthy children are better learners. My colleague, Kelly Vyzral, our Senior Health Policy Associate, published a report this week outlining the importance of school-based health care in ensuring children have access to critical health services. School-based health care coupled with community connected care can ensure children (and their families) have medical homes that provide high quality, continuous, and comprehensive coverage, even when schools are closed or not in session.

Cancel spring standardized testing.

States should be given permission from the Biden Administration to not administer federal mandated standardized tests this spring and instead use other methods of gauging student academic needs and focus on what students need right now. As a letter to the administration from educational organizations across the country stated, “A test is a measure, not a remedy.” It is not in itself a solution to stemming learning loss, closing gaps, or making children and our youth healthy and ready to learn.

Survey students to collect data on what they want and need.

The only people who have experienced pandemic education are our children. We should value their lived expertise by listening to them and making them part of the process to recover and emerge from this pandemic. We should continue to collect youth survey data in the future as we prioritize what children need and what they need from their educational experiences, especially as research shows that “surveys can be used alongside traditional indicators like test scores to provide a more complete picture of how schools prepare students for the future.”

Lastly, we shouldn’t think of reopening plans as a means of going back to “normal.”

Our pre-pandemic education system was not serving all of our children, particularly Black and Brown students, those living in low income households, and those unable to access the resources they need. As we emerge from this pandemic, we must take this opportunity to re-imagine the education system by supporting more equitable funding systems and greater opportunities to address non-instructional needs for all students to thrive.