After more than 250 school days, full-time in-person learning in Massachusetts public schools finally resumed in early September. For many, being back in the classroom was reason for celebration, and a highly anticipated return to some sense of normalcy since the COVID-19 pandemic shut school buildings down in March of 2020.
But while going to school and sitting inside a physical classroom are routines that most people are familiar with, the start of this school year still feels different.
“I want to call it post-pandemic,” said Bob Tremblay, the superintendent of Framingham Public Schools. “But I don't think I can call it that officially because it’s not even school as usual. It's not even a new normal because I'm not even sure what that means day to day.”
Despite the lingering uncertainty, school leaders like Tremblay are facing some tough questions: How much learning did students miss? How should they make up for lost ground? And and what kinds of emotional supports do students need?
Many districts are turning to data and diagnostic testing to answer some of those questions.
"We're really trying to be intentional with picking up from where we left off, and that might be a different spot for everybody — depending on how much students were able to engage," explained Tremblay.
One view of student learning comes from the state standardized test known as the MCAS. In math, the number of 3rd through 8th graders who met expectations in 2021 dropped 16 percentage points compared with 2019, before the pandemic. English language arts and reading skills also dropped by about six percentage points.
To put this another way, some national studies estimate that students are an average of 5 months behind in math and 4 months behind in English.
Despite this, in many ways this school year began like most: students returned from summer break with a range of skills they retained from the previous school year.
"We have students on IEP's (Individualized Education Programs) and students who are English language learners, students who are new to the country and have had interrupted learning," explained Neema Avashia, a 9th grade ethnic studies teacher with Boston Public Schools. "Our classrooms are usually very mixed. So in that way, my job isn't different this year than it is in any other year."
But, she adds, this year is different. The gaps are wider, and students are entering the classroom from many different places emotionally. Some experienced food insecurity or lost a loved one to COVID-19. A lot of students struggled with the isolation and became depressed from being away from peers for so long, while other kids thrived in the remote learning environment.
To bridge these gaps, schools across Massachusetts are taking a variety of approaches.
In Chelsea, educators are using what's known as a "just-in-time" approach, which essentially means breaking kids up into small groups and reviewing skills from previous school years that will help them master the classwork teachers are assigning right now.
The district is using part of it's federal COVID-19 relief funding to hire additional reading specialists this year. Chelsea also hired retired teachers to act as tutors. The high school grades have built in more credit recovery opportunities for students who might have failed a class last year. They offer this during a "twilight school," which runs from 3:30-6:00 each night, and summer school.
"We really are trying a multifaceted approach, but approaches that are proven to be successful," said Chelsea Superintendent Almi Abeyta.
MATCH Charter Public Schools in Boston are using similar approaches to bridge the gap. They've built intervention time into the school day, so educators can offer students targeted help. Those activities can take the form of teacher-created lessons or online tasks.
When it comes to addressing learning loss, research shows that tutoring and individualized support hold promise for several reasons. First, they offer students an opportunity to connect with a caring adult in school.
"A student who likely hasn't been feeling engaged by many aspects of school is developing a relationship with someone who knows them, who sees them and who checks on them regularly," explained Nate Schwartz, a professor of practice at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. "The second thing that's happening is the student is working in an area where they have previously felt failure, often year after year after year, and is now being given the tools to succeed."
The existing research on learning loss also suggests that approaches that include remediation, like holding students back a grade or starting the year with the previous grade's curriculum, are not effective.
"When you have kids coming in four or five or six months behind, there's this real temptation to go back," said Annelise Eaton, research director at the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. She explains that it's hard for students to fully catch up if a teacher spends too much time covering earlier material, leaving too little time for that year's curriculum. Plus, Eaton adds, rewinding like that can be discouraging for students, which can lead to disengagement.
"You can't separate the academics from the social, the emotional, the relationships in school," she said.
That sentiment rings true for New Bedford High School senior, Dakota Lobo. She says that while she likes school and challenging herself with Advanced Placement classes, she felt a little rushed to get back to old routines this school year.
"I feel like a lot of teachers and the school administration think, 'Well, you've done this for so many years, you should be able to come back and be like it’s nothing,'" Lobo explained. "People haven't seen their friends in a while. [Administrators] should be more considerate. We’re still trying to get back into the groove of things."
Ninth grade ethnic studies teacher, Neema Avashia, adds that she's noticed many of her students are internalizing the anxiety adults feel about learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"And it's like, 'No, you didn't do anything wrong," said Avashia. "We, the adults, screwed this up, like the policy makers, the people who won’t get vaccinated and people who won’t wear masks. (...) And now we're going to put all of our anxiety on the young people who didn't create the problem? That’s not fair to them."
Avashia and other educators argue that students should get more credit for the things they did learn during the pandemic. While many of those skills aren't measured by state standards, Chelsea superintendent Almi Abeyta says the conversation about the last year and a half shouldn't just be framed around learning loss.
"They learned a lot about life and how to survive a pandemic," said Abeyta. "Some of our students who maybe were a little bit more shy in person learned to come out of their shell in remote learning."
Declan Collins, a Holliston High School junior, says he gained a lot of new organization and time management skills from remote learning that have helped him in the new school year. Still, being back in class full-time has been a huge relief. Collins says math is much easier for him in person. Plus, he likes the sense of normalcy it's brought back to his life.
"To be honest, I'm really just hoping for my first normal year of high school," he said. "Freshman year was cut short, sophomore year was pretty much nonexistent. So if I can have one concrete high school year with no interruptions, I think that's all I can ask for at this point."
WBUR's Education Desk will be continuing this conversation in a live panel discussion Monday night at 6:30 at WBUR's City Space. Virtual and in-person tickets can be reserved here.
This segment aired on October 25, 2021.