Nearly two years into a pandemic that hobbled learning for millions of children, teachers are losing faith that they can lift their students to grade-level work by the end of this school year.
“I can help them make great strides, but I’m not going to be able to catch them all up by the end of this year,” said Rachel Bolas, who teaches 6th grade English/language arts and humanities at Limitless Learning Academy, a K-8 school in Escondido, Calif., that is designed to operate in hybrid mode. Some of her students are three to four grade levels behind, she said.
“It’s like saying to someone who’s less than fit, ‘Come to the Olympics. Can you be ready in two months?’ You need time,” Bolas said. “We need to look at this in the longer term, as work we’ll need to do over the next several years.”
Hannah Bouchard, a 2nd grade teacher at Platte Valley Elementary in Kersey, Colo., said barely half of her students are reading on grade level now. Before the pandemic, that figure would have been closer to 75 percent at this time of the school year. Recent interim test results showed lackluster progress among her students, too, she said. And even though her administration is reassuring teachers to just do the best they can, she’s plagued by feelings of failure.
“It’s heartbreaking. The pressure is overwhelming,” Bouchard said. “I feel like a horrible teacher. I’ve been teaching 22 years, and this might be the lowest self-esteem I’ve had.”
Bouchard and Bolas are hardly alone. In a national survey of 630 teachers in December, the EdWeek Research Center found that 7 in 10 are less confident now than before the pandemic that they’ll be able to help their students reach grade level by the end of the year.
Many noted that even in a normal year, 100 percent of students don’t reach grade level by June. But moving the needle is tougher now: 8 in 10 said fewer of their students this winter are on track to reach grade level than were on track two winters ago.
Teachers are increasingly urging a longer, more humane timeline for academic recovery. But the survey findings feed growing concern about their flagging morale.
“Teachers are the canaries in the coal mine. We need to take these data seriously and ask what kinds of supports they need,” said Travis J. Bristol, who studies teachers’ workplace experiences as an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
It’s crucial that superintendents recognize the danger signs of teacher burnout, and engage them in meaningful conversation about what they need, Bristol said.
“Teachers are stressed and worn out, and that is ultimately going to lead to lower retention and higher attrition,” said Tuan Nguyen, who studies those dynamics as an assistant professor at Kansas State University. Studies have suggested that a big wave of teacher resignations or retirements is looming.
Hopes for a recovery year, revised
As the first big waves of COVID-19 subsided in the spring of 2021, many educators and families hoped this school year could be a haven of recovery, both academically and emotionally. But the one-two punch of the delta and omicron variants splintered those plans, forcing yet another round of disruptions as illness, and its resulting staffing challenges, closed schools or shifted them into remote learning.
Teachers are contending with the steep toll COVID-19 has taken on their students. At all grade levels, they described a cohort of children who are significantly behind where they’d normally be at this time of year. Their descriptions echo studies that detail the profound academic setbacks caused by the pandemic.
In the EdWeek Research Center survey, elementary teachers reported that on average, 49 percent of their students were reading on grade level in December, nearly a 16 percent drop from the 58 percent they said were on grade level in winter 2019.
In math, elementary teachers said that 53 percent of their students were on grade level in December, a 13 percent decline from the 61 percent they said were on grade level two winters ago.
The state of teachers’ confidence and morale is likely “more dire” than what’s portrayed by EdWeek’s survey, Nguyen said. He noted that the survey pool tilts heavily toward very experienced teachers—98 percent have been teaching more than 15 years, when 14 is the national average—and toward those in majority-white schools. Their expertise, their access to resources, and the greater likelihood that students had more advantages in connecting with schooling, influence the picture the survey paints.
COVID-19 hit low-income families of color the hardest. Those children were more likely to be without consistent internet access and adults at home to help with remote learning. The EdWeek survey displayed those patterns.
Elementary teachers in schools where fewer than half the students come from poverty, for instance, reported that on average, 64 percent of their students were reading on grade level. That was 24 points higher than the average reported by teachers who work in majority low-income schools.
An uphill climb
Even in well-resourced schools, COVID-19 is proving a formidable foe as teachers try to make up for skills or concepts students haven’t mastered.
Jessica Littlefield teaches 4th grade at Cedar Ridge Elementary, in Hyde Park, Utah, where most students are white and middle- or upper-middle class. With the help of federal COVID-recovery funds, her district is offering tutoring before school for children most in need of intervention, and after school for anyone who wants homework help.
But despite that, the gaps among students in her class are bigger than usual: She has some who are “modestly behind” and others who are “drastically behind,” which makes differentiation nearly impossible at times, she said.
And students are lacking key foundational skills in math and reading, Littlefield said. They have a weak grasp of number sense—they can’t recognize, for instance, that 60 is 10 times larger than 6—which will make it tough for her to move into a typical 4th grade skill: place value as high as the millions.
Absenteeism plagues recovery efforts
Hours of tutoring can’t work if kids don’t show up. And absenteeism has soared during the omicron variant wave, as students contract the virus or quarantine due to exposure.
Isabel Rodriguez teaches 9th grade English/language arts at the Da Vinci School for Science & the Arts, a charter school in El Paso, Texas. Her charter network is offering individualized tutoring before school, at lunch, and after school, with a bevy of newly hired tutors.
Rodriguez tutors after school four hours a week, goes in early one hour a week, and also tutors by Zoom for three hours on Saturday mornings, for $25 an hour. But only five of her 15 tutoring students show up regularly, she said.
In her regular classes, only 33 percent of her 150 students are on grade level, when in a normal winter, 90 percent or more would have been, Rodriguez said. And that’s after “a solid semester of good work,” she said. When school began, only 20 percent were on grade level. “I’m hopeful I can get it to 50 percent by the end of the year,” she said.
Absenteeism puts a big question mark over Theresa Bruce’s push to help her 8th graders learn the material they didn’t get in the last year or two.
“Attendance is sporadic,” said Bruce, a social studies teacher at KIPP Harmony Academy in Baltimore. “For those who are here, who have consistent instruction, I feel pretty good” about the prospects for academic recovery. “But the reality is COVID is something we can’t control.”
Urging a longer view
Education Week interviewed nine teachers across the country, and all said academic recovery will be a multi-year job. Many urged a mindset shift, from a sense of urgency to an extended, realistic timeline that recognizes students’ struggles and hard work.
“Time and space are realities. There is only so much you can do in any period of time,” said Michael Dunleavy, a high school chemistry teacher in Port Jervis, N.Y. “I was putting myself under a lot of pressure last year, but at some point, I had to realize it just wasn’t working. It wasn’t good for my mental health or the students’ mental health. What’s important is just to make progress, one step at a time.”
Larry Moore’s 3rd graders, in Nyssa, Ore., have been through a tough couple of years, he said. One of his students Zoomed into class from a bathroom last year, because he was at his babysitter’s house and it was the only quiet place he could find. In this small farming community near the Idaho line, many children were left at home alone, or with an older sibling, during remote learning while both parents worked, he said. Their behavior—swearing, screaming in the hallways—shows the strain they’ve been under.
That’s why Moore is more focused on admiring the students’ resilience, and celebrating their successes, than on reaching a fixed end goal. More than half of his students were two or three grade levels behind in math when the year began, he said, and even though many are still not at grade level, they’ve made huge strides.
“I think about where they came in at,” he said. “They’re making progress. That’s what counts.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Teachers Are Losing Hope That This Can Be a Catch-Up Year