This past spring, schools across the nation were hit by sudden shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There has been an enormous collective effort to meet the challenge of switching classes to online formats. While the results were far from ideal, teachers did the best they could within the constraints that were suddenly imposed.

Summer is usually the time to relax and recharge for the new school year, but no one is doing much relaxing this summer. Most schools have been working on preparing for a dual learning model because of the uncertainty of the new school year. Students are provided with options to take their classes in person, online, or a hybrid of the two. Anxiety levels are high for both school administrators and students due to the tremendous uncertainty about what they are preparing for and how it will all play out. 

Research has found that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the traditional summer slide in several ways, including compounded learning loss, widening inequality, and cuts to resources. 

Experts predict students will return to class in the fall with roughly 70 percent of knowledge in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much greater learning losses, returning with less than 50 percent of the knowledge, and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions 

The shift to online learning could worsen educational inequality in under-resourced communities. About 17 percent of students nationwide lack a computer at home, and 18 percent lack broadband internet access. Low-income families and families of color are especially likely to be without these resources. Experts around the country fear that the coronavirus crisis will end up worsening existing educational inequality, making it harder than ever for low-income students to learn and putting them at an even greater disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers.

Since states began to issue shelter-in-place orders, virtually all 50 states have significantly reduced economic activity, and almost 22 million Americans – more than one in ten working adults – have applied for unemployment insurance. This downturn has impacted state tax revenue and thus resulted in reduced state pre-K-12 school funds. Many schools were left without funds to open summer schools to help students avoid the summer slide. Families that can’t afford expensive summer camps to get ready for the new school year were left with few options. 

In San Antonio, where the majority population is made up of minorities, not all students have the same access to educational resources. San Antonio was ranked No. 90 among 102 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas in terms of collective brainpower in 2014 . In 2016, nearly one in six adults in San Antonio did not have a high school diploma. In fall 2019, data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed San Antonio had the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the nation’s 25 most populous metropolitan areas. Low income and under-resourced communities are already being left behind by a digital divide that has only widened during the pandemic.

The good news is that we are all in it together. Schools and families, in San Antonio and across the nation, are facing the same problems and uncertainty. We are also gathering and sharing information on challenges and ideas for dealing with them. The Northwest Evaluation Association has made a few recommendations for the new school year. 

Policymakers, schools, families, and communities should unite and support students together. articular attention should be given to mathematics, the subject that students lose the most knowledge of during the summer break and the time staying at home during school closures. The policymakers and state governments should address the pressing challenges first, like closing the digital divide by providing increased access to the internet and technology. School leaders and educators can design bridge courses to help students catch up from the COVID-19 summer slide. 

This past spring, almost all states had applied for or been granted federal assessment waivers for summative tests. However, educators use data from these assessments to evaluate students’ performance and inform curriculum development for the new school year. Losing this data may add to the challenge of understanding and addressing the disruption of the COVID-19 crisis that is occurring for our students, and especially for those who are historically underserved. Teachers could instead administer formative assessments at the beginning of the new school year and use this data to plan or adjust their curriculum. 

In the new school year, schools, families, and communities will be working in countless ways to support students academically during this crisis, such as practicing hybrid-learning, online-only learning, homeschooling, adjusting academic calendars, and enhancing classroom technologies. Students will also need to make adjustments. Beyond the usual switch from summer mode to school mode (like getting used to waking up early again), we should think about what we need to do to adjust to learning in ways we might not be used to while maintaining healthy habits. The new school will certainly be a test, but we can work together to meet the challenge.

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Hannah Guan

Hannah Guan is a sophomore at BASIS San Antonio Shavano. In 2018, she founded San Antonio Math Include, one of the nation’s largest non-profit organizations that provide greater access to STEM education...