For more than a year, the pandemic has caused widespread disruptions in many students’ school experiences, repeatedly changed their formats for learning, and isolated them physically from teachers and classmates. As educators work to return students to full-time, in-person learning, they will need more than just academic interventions. They will also need to help students reconnect and get back into the schooling mindset.
In doing so, newcomer programs—intended to provide intensive support for immigrant and often English-learner students who may come to U.S. schools with interrupted formal education and stress or trauma—may prove an important model.
“A lot of the techniques and the strategies, the pedagogies that are used with newcomer schools, we can be using with every kid now that they’re coming back to school,” said Audrey Cohan, senior dean for research and scholarship at Molloy College in New York, who studies newcomer programs. This includes a focus on accelerating students rather than remediating them; providing social-emotional and mental health supports; and reestablishing school habits and norms that help students reconnect with their school community.
“It’s not what we lost during the pandemic, but it’s, what did we learn from the pandemic?” Cohan said. “What positive experiences did the kids find; how did the everyday chores and the everyday responsibilities turn into new learning that maybe we didn’t consider as important before?
“I think all kids came away with new skills and new understanding and teachers have to have a chance to help them process it,” she said.
Studies tally up educational losses
UNESCO estimates that among students who should be in 3rd grade worldwide, the educational disruptions caused by the pandemic have reduced the share of students who read proficiently on grade level by 10 percentage points, or 14 million, to 49 percent of children that age.
In terms of time, the UNESCO researchers calculated that U.S. schools lost less than 10 percent of their total 2020 instructional time (through to November 2020) to full school closures caused by the pandemic—significantly less than in neighboring Mexico, where schools were fully closed for more than half of instructional time. But once researchers accounted for time lost to partial closures, including schools forced to move to half-days or -weeks, or those only able to serve certain grade levels, the share of lost school days with synchronous instruction grew to 35 percent to 54 percent.
While the pandemic has been unique in both the scale and ongoing nature of its educational disruption, it does show similarities to the effects of other major natural disasters.
“While [Hurricane] Katrina was a different kind of disaster, there are parallels in the effect on students’ lives,” said Douglas Harris, an economics professor and chair in public education at Tulane University, as well as director at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which has studied schooling in the region in the more than 15 years since that hurricane. In both the pandemic and widescale natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Harris said, “Students were thrown out of school ... and schools tried to grapple with how to serve students remotely.”
Students were isolated from friends. Some had parents who lost jobs, got sick, or died, he added.
“And while in Katrina, students were in-person,” Harris said, “in both [the hurricane and the pandemic], they were forced into different environments where they didn’t necessarily have relationships.”
And research from disaster recovery suggests children bounce back faster educationally when they have both academic and mental health supports and community connections in the months and years following the disaster. Harris and his colleagues found that by about two years after the disaster, students who had lived through school displacement during Hurricane Katrina had returned to their expected academic trajectory before the storm. But he noted that students continued to show signs of trauma and mental health issues for years after that.
It’s hard to separate the effects of just covering less content from the psychological effects of falling out of the routines and habits that put students in an academic mindset for learning, Harris noted.
Schools can help students recover more quickly if they build on skills that students have learned during this year, be it their experiences of helping at home or their virtual skills developed in remote classes, to improve the way they learn next year, Cohan said.
“Students during this time didn’t have time to submit everything or do everything in the traditional way that we might have expected before as teachers,” Cohan said, “but we’ve had to think of new ways to figure out if the kids mastered what they needed to master and they move on. So when we start to think about the reestablishment, what can we get rid of that was very traditional and not helpful? And what did we learn from the pandemic that we can keep?”
Summer newcomer program yields best practices
Dalton public schools, in northwest Georgia, developed a program for students who are newcomers to the United States about six years ago, in response to an influx of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America. The district typically gets 75 to 100 newcomer students each year.
“The first thing that is most important for someone who comes in with interrupted schooling is that we start building their relationships,” said Caroline Woodason, the director of school support for the 8,000-student school system. “That is the first and foremost foundation of our program, and I think that’s the same with COVID during the pandemic. You heard so much about students who had relatives passing away, who were feeling unsafe, and this year we’ve been so isolated. So we made it a priority to be back face-to-face as much as possible and rebuilding relationships.”
Last summer, just out of the first wave of the pandemic, the district was one of the few in Georgia to keep an in-person, districtwide summer program for newcomer students. For five weeks, secondary students in the program worked on recovering course credits, while students as young as preschool received enrichment designed to accelerate them academically and relieve their feelings of isolation.
To avoid contagion, the program had universal masking, symptoms checks, and cleaning regimens. The 300 students in the program were kept in groups of eight to 10 that saw only their teacher and other cohort members, but who were able to use playground equipment, receive visits from mobile zoo and museum programs, and do enrichment activities meant to help them bond with their cohort. At the secondary level, students’ cohorts were developed around the subjects they needed to focus on, such as algebra or U.S. government, to allow for more intensive tutoring.
The summer program last year both allowed the district to provide extra academic and emotional support for some of its most vulnerable students and to pilot best practices to use with all students through in-person cohorts and virtual remote platforms during the school year. There were no cases of COVID-19 or quarantines required during the summer program, Woodason said.
“Doing the summer program for 300 children gave us good guidance for how we were going to do it in the fall with 8,000,” Woodason said. “We already had some things in place that made it easier to do virtual, but we’ve been committed to face-to-face because we feel that’s best for the kids.”
This summer, the Dalton district will expand its program for newcomers and other students who have struggled this year to provide ways for students to get health care that may have been harder to access if they were in isolation, such as dentists, as well as more accelerated courses and enrichment.
“We have to work around who’s open and who’s not, but we’re going out to parks and museums so that students get a broader foundation to enrich their learning,” Woodason said. “These are opportunities that our children in poverty don’t get as often, and especially during the pandemic, you know many have stayed in their houses for so long. And so we are expanding their knowledge base so that they can have a richer foundation.”
In the long term, practices developed to support students with interrupted education during the pandemic could be used to help students with an even wider array of classroom disruptions, from migrant and homeless students to those who experience a school closure, according to Chris Chang-Bacon, an assistant education professor at the University of Virginia school of education and human development.
Woodason agreed. “There are some gaps, but I have seen that children are very resilient and that when we set high expectations, they can learn at a faster pace than we oftentimes look for,” she said.
“And so, instead of wringing our hands and saying, ‘Oh, my, they lost a year,’ Our school district has said, OK, let’s hit the ground running and let’s let look at what they need and just keep going.”