As COVID-19 Continues, Classroom Learning Gaps Between Haves And Haves-Nots Are Getting Wider

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As soon as schools reopened in September, it was apparent that the gaps in her son’s classroom between the haves and the have-nots had grown, says parent Amina Scott. Scott suspects that some kids had access to enrichment programs and hands-on help during the many months that schools and summer camps were shut down, and some, like her third-grade son, had not.

Scott’s son, Yasin, attends a public school in the affluent suburb of Newton, just outside Boston. He is bused from their home in the Roxbury neighborhood to the suburbs through a voluntary desegregation program called METCO. Yasin has always been at grade level or even ahead of his classmates, especially excelling in reading, says Scott. But this year, while attending in-person classes two times a week on a hybrid schedule, the dynamic shifted.

After months away from school, some of his classmates seemed to have mysteriously advanced, easily reciting concepts he says they were never taught. In the early weeks of class, Yasin came home upset, questioning where his classmates could have learned such material. He used to indulge his mom’s questions about what he was learning and how his day was, but he soon stopped wanting to talk about school, telling Scott that he had finished his homework even when he had skipped questions.

“He feels behind and it’s affecting his confidence. I could tell he was avoiding talking about it,” said Scott, a 29-year-old single mother who works full time at a nonprofit in addition to holding down two consulting gigs. “To me it’s scary, it worries me but also I feel sad. I don’t know what to do about it.” Scott believes other kids in her son’s class spent the spring and summer getting extra tutoring and virtual enrichment, overseen by their parents.

Education researchers have been studying how much learning loss is taking place as a result of school shutdowns and remote school. The latest numbers from NWEA, an education research group, says that the average student in third through eighth grade has lost 5 to 10 percentile points in math, but remained on track for reading. Overall, these numbers proved better than earlier, more dire projections, but questions still remain about how vulnerable student groups specifically are faring.

Fewer of the students in groups more likely to be negatively impacted by COVID-19 participated in the research, and early indicators suggest that Black and Hispanic students in upper elementary grades may have experienced small declines in reading scores not shared by other groups. Researchers cautioned that it’s too early to draw firm conclusions.

Scott, as a middle-class mother in a sea of richer families, says she has already seen disparities widen in her son’s classroom.

Scott greets Yasin as he gets off the bus after school on Nov. 24.

Scott, like many parents, has struggled since March to balance her career with supervising her son’s schooling. On days of remote learning, she sits next to him, making sure he doesn’t turn off his mic or camera, in between returning emails and calling into meetings. She doesn’t have time to check over his work like she normally would. She’s staying afloat, but just barely. “My head is going to explode soon,” she said. She wonders if other families in her son’s class have faced the same struggles, speculating that in two-parent households, one might have the luxury of helping their child with homework or providing extra tutoring.

During a normal summer, Scott would send Yasin to camps focusing on academic enrichment, but those were closed this summer. In lieu of camp, he was supervised by a 15-year-old cousin. Instead of learning new science concepts, he came home with new knowledge of TikTok dances. “It was like a kid babysitting a kid,” Scott said.

She recalled running into a parent of Yasin’s classmates one day while running errands. The parent said she had enrolled her child in enrichment activities conducted via Zoom, and spent all day going over material with him. Scott suspects there were more children with such opportunities and that other parents had more time to help supervise or tutor. By the time school started, it felt like Yasin was trying to catch up to a moving train.

Some of the ways in which groups of affluent parents have been using their wealth for educational advantage during the pandemic have been well-documented. Many private schools, in some areas more likely to open in-person education, have seen increased enrollment numbers. Other families have turned to “pandemic pods,” which bring teachers into students’ homes to work with small groups of pupils of varying sizes and at varying costs.

But there’s little research on how often families are taking advantage of increased tutoring or other supplemental services, says Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research analysis organization. Anecdotally, she has heard of tutoring companies with growing enrollment numbers.

“It’s the way things have always worked. Advantaged families find a way, so this should not be news to us,” Lake said. “But the stakes are so much higher now for kids who don’t have access to those resources. It’s not just about supplemental enrichment, it’s about core learning, that’s what’s really worrisome.”

These disparities might be especially stark in a program like METCO, which buses a small number of Boston’s students of color to attend school in the rich suburbs. By enrolling in the program, parents like Scott hope that high-quality instruction and ample classroom resources can help to even the playing field for their kids. But the pandemic has only further exposed the artifice that school alone has the ability to close achievement gaps. Resources and money will always play a role.

Newton Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment. But the district’s back-to-school plan, posted online, emphasizes the need for equity, especially for children in the METCO program, noting that students of color are more likely to have had someone close to them who suffered severely or even died from COVID-19. These students are also more likely to have been affected by high-profile instances of racism this past summer, which set off months of protests around the country. Teachers have been participating in professional development around these issues, anti-racist practices and culturally responsive teaching, the district says.

Some of the disparities between METCO and non-METCO children have also made life more difficult for single mother Trenyca Schneider. Three of Schneider’s four children attend school in the Boston suburb of Brookline through METCO. Her kids are now back in school on a hybrid schedule, but at first she struggled to get her children the school supplies they needed for remote learning at home ― much of which had previously been provided for them at school.

The new supplies, like headphones, strained Schneider’s budget. It didn’t seem to occur to district leaders, Schneider speculates, that not every family had money to spare.

I think the district was insensitive about supplies because it’s used to catering to high-income families,” she said, while noting that overall, she has found teachers, district leaders and METCO coordinators incredibly supportive during a challenging time. “METCO has done a wondrous job making sure we had computers,” she said. Brookline’s school district did not respond to a request for comment.

“You have teachers saying, ‘Ask your parent for help if you don’t understand the work,’ but what if the parent is not available?” said Schneider, who works two jobs, as a human resources generalist Monday through Friday and as a patient ethics coordinator at a hospital on the weekend. It’s too much for me, and I feel like I’m losing it as I go day by day.”

Colin Stokes, director of communications, outreach and engagement for METCO, said that the program’s central office has been working to fill some of these gaps “through grants, partnerships, and volunteers; for things like tutoring, enrichment, technology, and food distribution.”

Scott waits for her son's bus to arrive outside of the Roxbury YMCA on Nov. 24.

Scott waits for her son’s bus to arrive outside of the Roxbury YMCA on Nov. 24.

In the Newton district, where Scott’s son attends school, elementary-age students have been attending class in person two days a week for half-days. While most children return home and finish the day online, because of their increased commute time, METCO students remain in the school building to finish classes, with volunteer teachers supervising. At first, Scott said it seemed like “a big recess session,” but after she and other parents complained, it improved.

But the longer the pandemic continues, the more Scott worries about the long-term impact of the past few months, and the more she has raced to try and make up for lost time for her son.

In October, she reached out to her son’s teacher to explain that she felt like every other student was further ahead on their multiplication tables. The teacher told her about extra tutoring being offered in the district. This tutoring, in the past offered in person after school, had bumped up against the METCO bus schedule, says Scott, ultimately precluding her son from participating. This year, the sessions are virtual. Scott immediately signed up her son, and she says it’s been helping.

She also attempted to enroll her son in extra tutoring at Kumon and Sylvan Learning, but neither option worked out. She felt like Sylvan was dragging out the virtual sessions for money, and when she brought her son to a Kumon center for an in-person assessment, they seemed uninterested in serving a child who was already behind. She cried in the car on the way home.

At home, Scott has been having Yasin complete as many multiplication problems as he can in a minute before he’s allowed to watch television or get other screen time. The amount of screen time he gets is dependent on how many problems he gets right. Little by little he’s improving.

“If I’m not on top of it, if I don’t get the tutoring or the extra help, if I can’t stay on top of where he’s struggling, I think it’s going to be really detrimental,” Scott said.

“These are the basic foundational years of his life. The stuff you learn in this part of elementary school is going to project how you perform in middle school, in high school, and higher education as well. It’s a little scary. There aren’t that many resources for us.”

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