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OPINION

Independent Arkansas

Pandemic Effects Seen In Education

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Speaking to a school boards conference in December, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said some of the decisions he has made these past two years might have been wrong, but he was certain he had made the right decision when he reopened all schools in 2020-21.

Hutchinson said that when he sent students home the spring semester of 2020 when COVID first hit, “I proposed then, I said we can’t do this next year, and I immediately said all through that summer, we’re not going to be deterred from having in-classroom instruction in the school year of 2021. And it was a time when our cases were going up. It was a worrisome time, and schools were being closed all over the country, and we were one of the few states that said no, we’re sticking with it, our students need it, and it was also our athletes and our activities and our band members and our choir members. They needed that opportunity.”

The state’s educators haven’t gotten enough credit for what they’ve accomplished during this pandemic. In a matter of days that first spring semester, they sent half a million public students home and then completely changed the way they did business so they could educate them there.

They turned that battleship around on a dime. Teachers of all ages became experts in virtual learning. Schools sent meals and lessons home to families via bus.

And then the next year, they became dual educators. The fall semester of 2021, 22.3% of students were studying remotely full-time and 13.5 percent were going back and forth. Many students had to leave school for weeks at a time because they had been infected or had to quarantine. Teachers and other adults went to work every day knowing they could get sick, too.

It’s become fashionable during my lifetime to speak contemptuously of government institutions. And yes, it is true that government is often not the most efficient way of doing things, and it is true that we should be wary of it.
But it is not true that everything done by every government institution is always bad. That’s because a lot of good people work for the government – like teachers and other school personnel.

All of that said, there’s now universal agreement that while some students learned well remotely, most would have done better in a classroom. Meanwhile, the disruptions these past two years have affected students negatively.

Based on end-of-the-year assessments, graduation rates and other indicators, only 12 percent of the state’s school districts showed improvements in overall achievement and growth in 2021 compared to 2019 before the pandemic occurred. Students skipped the end-of-the-year assessments in 2020.

It’s no wonder that while almost 36 percent of the state’s public school students were learning at least part-time at home last school year, only 4 percent this year have digital learning plans. Many school districts aren’t even offering remote learning as an option, though they are still sending students home if they get sick or have to quarantine.

This is about more than temporary test scores. The longer students receive a substandard education, the more the effects will be permanent. One good example is early-grade reading. According to a 2012 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 16 percent of children not reading proficiently by the end of third grade would not graduate from high school, which was quadruple the rate for proficient readers.

A slow start or a prolonged interruption can affect a child’s future quality of life, career opportunities, and even their lifespan. Statistically, poverty takes years off a person’s life.

In light of all this, combatting learning loss is one of educators’ top priorities. They’ll spend the next couple of years trying to catch students up to where they would have been.

They do have plenty of money to do it. Actually, it’s raining money on schools. The federal government has allocated $1.76 billion to Arkansas’ schools through the various huge, deficit-financed spending bills passed during the pandemic. So far, $561 million has been spent, part of it on directly combating learning loss and part of it on other pandemic mitigation efforts like technology purchases and facilities improvements.

Now we’ll have to see if lots of money can make up for lost time. At least students are in the classroom, where most of them will do better.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

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