COVID-19 school closures effects linger: How school leaders can help

The latest NWEA research on the effects of COVID-19 school closures is in: progress toward academic recovery for older kids in particular has been slower than we’d like.

Our researchers are predicting “the average student will require the equialent of 4.1 months of additional schooling to catch up to pre-COVID levels in reading and 4.5 months in math.” Older students will need more time, they explain, because “more months of schooling will be required to catch up middle school students given that older students tend to make smaller gains.” Gaps for Black and Hispanic students have grown wider since the pandemic started as well.

In our post titled “COVID-19 impacts: New data shows older students’ recovery needs attention,” we offer the following recommendations to state and district leaders:

  • Use local data to guide recovery and invest in what works
  • Expand instructional time by deploying evidence-based interventions and programs to the students who still need additional support
  • Communicate the importance of academic recovery, sharing timely and relevant information with families

I think these tips apply to you, too, if you’re a school leader. Read on to learn more about how you can support middle and high school students beginning this fall.

How to use local data

There are a few ways you can use your school’s data to support learning:

  • Use interim and formative assessments to determine areas of focus, then adjust scope and sequence based on findings
  • Progress monitor key indicators
  • Add and/or review classroom walk-through data

Use interim and formative assessments

Data from interim assessments, like MAP® Growth™, when viewed alongside data from formative assessments can offer clear insight into where students are in their learning. This kind of data analysis can help you determine areas of focus. Together with your teachers, you can then identify ways to adjust the scope and sequence of your curricula.

I’m sure you’ll notice that gaps in learning are inconsistent across grades, instructional strands, and students. I encourage you to use the most current data, and devote more time to the instructional areas where the loss has been greatest.

When I work with districts, we often pull the MAP Growth premium instructional report and frequently find that there are topics students know very well and topics they’re less confident in. This specific data source can support your work around scope and sequence and ensuring the level of rigor is appropriate. If you look at state standards, you will see that a standard is often taught across multiple grade levels and that the standards progress in level of difficulty from the beginning to the end of the year. Support your teachers in offering the level of rigor expected in the standard. Also review curriculum and pacing charts, and make adjustments as needed.

Data will also help you identify students who may need scaffolding to access grade-level content. I often hear teachers express concerns that some of their students cannot do grade-level work. Assessment data will almost for sure reveal that any student who is in need of extra support has a learning gap. Instead of encouraging your teachers to reteach content that is below grade level to all students, support them in preteaching to only those kids who have demonstrated learning gaps. The preteaching should focus on whatever will allow them to access grade-level content. (For more on why both preteaching and providing access to grade-level content work, see The 74.) Remember: Every kid in your school should be getting consistent access to grade-level content.

Last­—but definitely not least—be sure to go beyond looking solely at aggregated data. Review assessment results by student groups, such as ethnicity and program. Disparity is easily hidden when we look only at overall performance. I recommend Fenesha Hubbard’s book The Equity Equation: Six Entry Points for Nonnegotiable Academic Success for more ideas on how to address opportunity gaps.

Progress monitor key indicators

State assessment data comes too late to allow adjustments to instruction, so don’t spend too much time using last spring’s data to shape your strategies for the current school year. Even interim assessments will only give you three data sets to look at: one for each testing event during the course of the school year. Help your teachers get in the habit of using formative assessment data to monitor progress, if they’re not already doing this.

Formative assessment data should be gathered often—at least weekly—and used to adjust instruction. While it should never be used for grading, it is an invaluable resource for helping teachers get a pulse on where kids are in their learning early enough that they can still make valuable changes to their lesson plans. Your teachers probably have plenty of great strategies they rely on already, but if you want to encourage them to try something new this year, or to simply learn about other approaches, invite them to read “27 easy formative assessment strategies for gathering evidence of student learning.”

Support your teachers by giving them time to evaluate formative assessment data and make instructional adjustments. Encourage them to share successes across classrooms and grade levels, perhaps in PLC meetings.

Add and/or review classroom walk-through data

As an administrator, I’m sure you have faith in your teachers. Still, it’s important to inspect what we expect. Classroom walk-through data is critical to knowing that instruction is on grade level and at appropriate levels of rigor.

Before my school had a formalized walk-through tool, I used a summary page of power standards to conduct my classroom walk-throughs. I highlighted the power standard I wanted to focus on and if I didn’t see the standard being taught in the grade-level curriculum, the teacher and I would discuss why in our debrief. I also valued giving teachers detailed feedback plus exemplars and best practices they could try. Your input can be as simple as sharing the relevant power standards, having a short conversation about your observations as a whole, or providing teachers with a few self-reflection questions (I encourage you to stick around for the answers, or to invite your teachers to email you after they’ve had some time to think).

One thing I really loved about classroom walk-throughs is that they let me know who had outstanding practices that should be shared. I prioritized making room for that in team meetings, including on professional learning days, and in emails to all faculty.

How to expand instructional time

There’s no way to add time to our days. Sorry! But thinking about time differently, leaning on all faculty to provide interventions, and not waiting to intervene, when you know there’s a problem, can greatly increase the value of the instructional time your students get.

Think about time differently

There’s a lot of value in challenging yourself to think about time differently.

Review your school schedule to identify time for an intervention block. If the master schedule doesn’t have enough wiggle room, consider dedicating a portion of classroom time to preteaching for students who lack prerequisite skills. Use processes for daily activities, such as make-up work, lunch requests, and assignments, to make this happen. Also consider having peer observations to identify other ways to find time in the classroom.

Ask all teachers to provide interventions support

Our students spend up to half of their time in specials or electives. Make sure all your teachers know curricular gap areas. Gaps can then be addressed in some of these classes while teachers are still teaching their curriculum.

The PE teachers at my school taught our students about means. They asked students to calculate the mean of their performance in a specific sport or activity weekly, and they intentionally changed their language, from “average” to “mean,” for both accuracy and to reflect what was being taught in our math classes. This did not take away the importance of the PE curriculum, but it did provide a different way to embed core content into specials and electives.

How can your PE, music, or even library faculty join the larger effort to provide meaningful interventions in your school?

Don’t wait to intervene

As soon as an alarming pattern emerges in your data, intervene immediately. We often wait until a student has failed a class before we have them retake the course. That’s not the only way (and, I would argue, that’s not the best way).

If a student fails first-semester Algebra 1, provide an opportunity for them to retake it second semester, beginning in January. They will only struggle with second-semester Algebra 1 if they’re asked to continue before retaking the first-semester class. And if they have to wait until the following fall to try Algebra 1 again, they’ll just be wasting all those months between winter break and the end of the school year. (And they’ll likely be frustrated and losing confidence to boot.) An option like this requires creating a master schedule to meet the needs of students.

Similarly, do not wait until students are unsuccessful to suggest tutoring, after-school support, or other tier 2 support. Use flexible identification for programs and move students in and out of support using data. Ideally, you’ll be evaluating whether students are getting the right kind of additional help after each interim assessment.

How to communicate with families

It’s important for parents and other guardians to understand what the research is telling us about COVID-19 school closures and their effects all these months later. Communicate regularly on the importance of academic recovery by providing the context relevant for your school and letting families know that you and your faculty are considering multiple data points when supporting students.

Put academic recovery information in context

Sometimes a school or district suffers the consequences of negative press about recent state or national assessment data. While there’s nothing we can do about the larger narrative, or even local media, we can make the concept of an academic recovery concrete to families. This is best done in person.

During conferences, encourage teachers to gently show parents and guardians where a student is in relation to pre-pandemic norms. This may require restructuring conferences to allow for enough time for everything. When I was working in a school, a neighboring district restructured conferences so each student had a single point of contact for three or more years. (The exact amount of time depended on the grade span of the school.) This point of contact was a teacher, and they were able to get to know their student deeply. They also grew to know the student’s caregivers as well.

As always, be sure to ensure translators and multilingual teachers are scheduled to support families who need them. Also consider including general information on academic recovery and what it means for your school in particular to any regular communications you send out.

Consider all data points

You and your faculty should work with parents and caregivers to think beyond just academics. For example, poor attendance can have a significant impact on students, especially older kids who might feel tempted to drop out. In addition, behavioral issues resulting from difficulties at home or even undiagnosed conditions, like ADHD, can negatively impact academics.

Ensure that families are aware of all the supports available to students in your school and community. During the multilingual family night at my school, for example, we invited community groups to set up tables and share resources. We did this at other events as well, but on our multilingual night in particular, we found that many people took comfort in seeing others in a similar position, even if they spoke different languages or came from different countries. We were able to provide invaluable information about summer camps, library services, and health and job services in the community. While we worked to provide interpreters on these nights, we would also see families translate for each other, and get to know each other in the process.

Lead confidently

As a school leader, you were called on to think differently about your students and their families during COVID-19 school closures. Your creative, innovative thinking is still needed.

How can some of the ideas here help you support learning this school year? What ideas of your own do you have? It’s been a rough few years for educators, to say the least, but I’m confident you have what it takes to keep the bar high and meet the needs of each student.


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