Back at School and Already Behind

By Emanuela Gallo with additional reporting from David Alvarado, Karen Wong, Marziya Hasan and Shania DeGroot | January 31, 2022

Britney Segarra has been struggling to overcome curriculum challenges caused by remote learning. (Photo by David Alvarado)

When COVID-19 gripped the country in March 2020, classes at M.S. 158 Marie Curie Middle School in Queens became virtual. Britney Segarra, a sixth-grader at the time, was confined to the four mint-blue walls of her room.

Instead of friends and classmates, she was surrounded by the pink stuffed animals on her bed. Instead of a teacher, she learned from a laptop screen. Not only was it hard for her to focus, but a lack of homework and individual attention caused her to struggle.

Now in eighth grade, Britney is excited to be back at school in person. However, the return also came with the realization that she didn’t learn much of anything last year. Without the necessary foundation of seventh-grade material, facing advanced classes has proved to be an unforeseen challenge.

“Teachers are always saying like you learned this last year, you should know this,” she said. “But I didn’t really learn it.”

Britney isn’t alone. About one million NYC public school students fully returned to in-person classes last fall. During the first few months of the year, the learning loss they experienced due to virtual learning has come to light. Families, educators and tutors say that additional support is necessary for helping students adapt to these unprecedented academic challenges and thrive in their current and future studies.

Over 97 percent of public school K-12 teachers reported learning loss by their students over the past year, according to a 2021 Horace Mann study.

Christie Rizzo, who teaches fourth-graders at P.S. 205 Clarion in Brooklyn, said that connecting with students in a meaningful way was difficult over the past year.

“Part of teaching is the relationships that you have with the students and the way you interact with them,” she said. “It’s just not the same interacting with a screen.”

Remote learning had a negative impact on all students, according to Rizzo.

“The kids that are behind — something like the pandemic, like being remote just had them fall behind at a quicker rate,” she said. “But I also think that there were kids that would’ve been on grade-level also fall behind.”

Jena Lana, an elementary school teacher at P.S. 046 Alley Pond in Queens, also said that her students are not reaching their academic goals.

“​​They weren’t paying attention,” she said. “You can’t teach on Google Classroom. You can’t teach on Zoom. It’s unusable, they’re not gonna learn.”

This learning loss resulted in the curriculum being changed to be easier, according to Lana. This included less homework and testing.

For example, Britney reported receiving significantly less homework in seventh grade than in sixth grade.

Even since returning to in-person classes, she said she hasn’t had “one day of homework.” As a result, she is unable to check if she is understanding the material.

Curriculum is a concern for Anna Fung, who is the mother of a seventh-grader, a fourth-grader and a second-grader. Her oldest child attends I.S. 187 Christa McAuliffe, while her two youngest go to P.S. 205 Clarion.

“They’re going so slow with the curriculum to try to let everyone adapt and try to get everyone on the same page before they move onto the next subject,” she said.

Fung reported that her children are behind in certain subjects due to a curriculum that was too scattered and unfocused. She said that subjects such as science and social studies consisted of mostly independent and interpretive work.

“They would just give [slides or a video] to them and say ‘Do it to the best of your abilities and that was pretty much it,” she said.

Fung is concerned about her children’s performance on state tests, not believing that they are ready due to a ‘slowed’ curriculum.

“Will they be able to finish on time with all the lessons before they have to take the test?” she said.

Her children didn’t participate in state testing last year, but they weren’t alone. Approximately 40 percent of students in third to eighth grade took the spring 2021 English language arts and mathematics state tests. The pre-pandemic number was typically over 80 percent, according to the NYS education department.

While state tests will be offered to elementary and middle school students in 2022, the January administration of the high school regents exam was canceled. The New York State Education Department has not decided whether the June and August exams will be offered. 

It will request the Board of Regents to approve changes to the requirements necessary for high school diplomas and credentials. 

Students are faced with the challenge of not only catching up on past material, but also meeting their current grade-level standards.

“We’re kind of teaching two years worth of curriculum in one year,” Rizzo said.

To face this challenge, more than half of educators recommended a narrower focus on grade-level standards, the Horace Mann study reported. This focus would ensure that students understand the most important concepts.

The study also found that over 30 percent of educators want an increase in targeted support for struggling students by paraprofessionals.

Additional support is also provided by tutors such as Caileen Gonzalez, who owns Tiny to Tall Tutoring and Test Prep. She said that working in smaller groups and class sizes is important so that there is support on a personal level.

“When we’re working with students, we’re evaluating their needs,” she said. “[We want to understand] where they’re having a lot of trouble and meet them where they’re at.”

An individualized approach is common in special education, according to Director of Early Childhood Special Education at Hofstra University Stephen Hernandez.

The techniques special educators use fall under the Universal Design for Learning framework, which “recognizes that all students learn differently,” Hernandez said.

He advocates that all teachers use a UDL approach to combat pandemic-caused challenges. It can also benefit students that don’t have special needs.

Students can express their knowledge in an individualized way, whether that be written, verbal or action-oriented. Technology is a new medium for expressing knowledge, as students have increased proficiency in technology due to remote learning.

Some students, however, had limited access to technology. A New York State Education Department study revealed that in NYC, 14 percent of students lacked devices and 13 percent lacked sufficient internet access. 

“Our students who have historically gone without support and access were the ones doubly burdened by a remote learning education,” said Irma Solis, the Suffolk county chapter director for the NYCLU. 

In 2020, the Department of Education spent about $287 million on internet-enabled iPads and $4 million a month for data plans. However, 19,000 students in need of devices had not received them five weeks into online instruction.

Access to technology remains important as the return to virtual learning remains a possibility. In a Jan. 13 press conference, NYC Mayor Eric Adams said he is considering temporary remote learning due to lower attendance levels.  

Over 100 schools reported attendance of less than 60 percent, according to the Department of Education. With about 220,000 students sick or otherwise missing school, the challenge of helping students reach grade-level standards grows.

“Redoubled efforts to support the most vulnerable youth and communities coming out of this is needed,” said Kristen Wilcox, an associate professor of educational policy and leadership at the University at Albany. “That may mean that very creative initiatives need to be taken to re-engage young people.”