Q&A: Where does Ohio's education system go, post-COVID-19 pandemic?

WCPO file photo of a child reading in a classroom
Posted at 4:08 PM, May 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 09:08:34-04

WCPO explored the State of Education post-pandemic during its 7 p.m. broadcast Tuesday, May 25. Those who missed the live newscast can find it wherever they stream their favorite shows this coming Saturday and Sunday, May 29 and 30.

There are few years as critical to young students than the third grade, which is when experts say children should transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

But in Ohio, one study out of the Ohio State University John Glenn College of Public Affairs found some students are as far as a third- or even a half-year behind on reading due to pandemic-induced disruptions to learning.

The college compared scores on the state's English Language Arts Assessment between 2019 and 2020. The percentage of students scoring proficient fell by 9%. Those scoring just high enough to be promoted to the next grade level fell by 8%.

Black students' test scores declined about 50% more than white students, equaling about half a year of learning loss.

Roughly 10% of Ohio's school districts lost about three-quarters of a year, and declines were more pronounced in districts that employed fully remote learning during the pandemic.

"I was skeptical...not that there was learning loss...but, really, how do we know that already? And it caused me to dig deeper into my data here in Lockland...and I can tell you, I do see evidence that there is less achievement and success as it relates to third grade reading this year," said Lockland Local Schools superintendent Bob Longworth.

He said everyone lost ground when schools shut down the final third of last year. But Lockland was one of those districts that offered in-person instruction this whole school year. There were still challenges for the youngest of readers.

"It’s extremely important that kids be able to see my face and see my mouth when making sounds to be able to tell the difference between 'with' and 'wig,'" said first grade teacher, Marcy Marlow. "Teaching them to make the '-th' the right way."

At Lockland -- to preserve helpful reading practices -- they put up shields so Marlow could read maskless behind it.

Principal Ann Brinkley said the stakes are high.

"If students can’t read, they can’t read to learn, and that’s where we need them by the fourth grade," she told WCPO.

WCPO 9 News anchor Kristyn Hartman sat down with Paolo DeMaria, superintendent of public instruction for the Ohio Department of Education.

The following Q&A was edited for format, grammar, style and length.

Kristyn Hartman: Are there going to be children who are going to need to get caught up because they lost ground over the last 14 months?

Paolo DeMaria: Yeah, and I think we always need to be a little bit careful about the words that we use, because like, for instance, lost ground sometimes -- like let's say a group of students was listening to us, they might think, "Well, does that mean: Did I do something wrong?" And we don't want students to think that they somehow did something wrong, that they lost ground, what they didn't do, what happened was their learning was disrupted, right. So we as the education community, first, we need to understand that.

And so one of the key challenges to all of us is to make sure we know where students are in terms of their academic journey, and we pick them up where they are and continue to move them forward so that they end the current school year strong, and that they're ready to start next school year.

Also, you know, (they need to be) in a posture where they're ready to succeed and move forward. That's why we see a lot of districts thinking about, okay, what additional activities, opportunities do we need to make available to students to help them with that readiness and with, you know, wrapping up the year strong?

KH: How many districts out there might be pursuing over the summertime and into next school year to make sure that kids have everything that they need to continue on an upward trajectory?

PDM: Yeah, I think almost every school district is going to be doing something. In fact, if you recall, Governor DeWine, sort of, you know, made a request to the schools that by April 1, he wanted them to have, you know...a deliberate and sort of thoughtful plan for learning recovery. And so all those plans have been posted to, we have the place on our website that has links to all the different plans of the of the different districts, and many of them do exactly what you said.

Now, there's some places in Ohio, as you know, that started back early in the school year and were almost in a fairly normal routine. They might have had a quarantine of some staff or some students or what have you. But you know, we're fairly diligent by virtue of not having a lot of cases, not having a lot of positivity in their area of doing that. So their plan might look very different than a school that may be just returned to either maybe a hybrid setting here sometime in the middle of March or what have you. So they're going to, as you know, Ohio is this great, diverse landscape of different schools, different communities, and so forth and so on. And that's what you're gonna see in those recovery plans.

KH: When we talk about the challenges out there, what would you enumerate are the three challenges going forward past COVID?

PDM: Well one of them is settling back into what education is going to look like, and not losing the opportunity to learn from what we have discovered during the pandemic. So there's certainly an academic thread of what the future looks like, and what the education experience becomes going forward.

I think there's also a significant social, emotional component to this right. One of the challenges of pandemic and -- and it's not just students, it's you and me, and, and adults and others, you know -- was this notion of isolation, being apart from people, not being able to connect, you know, at our hearts. We're all social creatures; we really crave that interaction; we benefit from that interaction. And now we have to reintroduce ourselves to that and seek to effectively function and, and be supported for the, for the challenges and, you know, in some ways the stress and anxiety that was created when we were apart. So I think there's also sort of a socialization, social, emotional thread that undergirds that.

And I think the other thing that's important for all of us to remember is not to create more anxiety, not to get kids worried because of what happened, again, to make them understand that, "Hey, we're gonna sort of figure out where you are, pick up from where you are and move forward." And because if we, on the one hand, create too much anxiety, that's never good. On the other hand, we feel like we need to push them beyond what they're capable of. That's not good either. But we have to remember children like a challenge, right? So we shouldn't necessarily be overly sort of like, "Oh, I'm going to be protective of these students, because I don't think they can accomplish more, they're ready to go." Kids are amazingly resilient, and I think we're going to show how resilient they are as we go into the months ahead.

KH: If you don't want to create more anxiety, should we perhaps not be about testing at all this year? Because I think testing is equivalent anxiety for a lot of kids.

PDM: It all depends on how you look at it. You know, the reality is, the federal government has made their claim about testing. We're praying almost through the testing window. So, you know, I was just talking to one of my testing people; I think we've done over 2 million tests here in the last several weeks. And again, I haven't really heard very much about it, haven't been many glitches. And, you know, I think a lot of students have come to expect that as...just a real part of the education process.

KH: Speaking of testing, your website has copious amounts of information on testing and things such as attendance. Let's start with testing. The third grade English language test -- otherwise known to a lot of people as a "third grade reading guarantee" -- The John Glenn School of Public Policy did a study that shows that there is a percentage of students who might be a third of the year behind, and some minority students and urban district students might be up to half a year behind at a time when kids are segwaying, from learning to read, to reading to learn. How worrisome is that?

PDM: So, you know, again, let's start with is it unexpected? And, you know, the answer to that is no. I mean, if you think about what we went through, the disruption to the education process, of course, it's going to have an impact. So I don't think there's any surprise there.

I think the challenge, then, to all of us in the education community is to be the professionals that we are, be committed to this idea of helping students master this fundamental concept of being able to read and literacy. And again, leverage the tools at our disposal, which is everything from, you know, identifying where students are, and what their needs are, and then coming up with either reading improvement plans or those additional opportunities that allow students to continue to grow and learn and develop in their literacy skills.

So what I want to make the point about that you made earlier about anxiety, while testing sometimes creates anxiety, it's also the consequences for the testing. Unfortunately, the General Assembly in the legislature has said, we're not going to have those consequences this year. So what does that mean? It means that the data generated from assessments is really there to be used more to drive our improvement processes and how we identify and almost at an individual level, what a student needs. How we can meet those needs, and continue to set them on a trajectory to become great readers and make that pivot to reading to learn rather than learning to read?

KH: Yeah, and, you know, it's a pivotal time, because if you don't have the skill set to move forward, you could, that could disrupt lifelong learning could not.

PDM: Sure. Again, it all depends and really, you know, what it comes down to is being really supportive of our students, and accepting that they're going to be very resilient kids.

Kids love to discover; they love to learn. If we create the conditions that make for a joyful and engaging educational experience, they'll be right there with you. And I'm always amazed at especially elementary school teachers that have such a great facility identifying like, what kind of literature is going to speak to this child? How do we get a book, even if it's a comic book, or some other literature into their hands, that will excite them and really motivate them to improve their vocabulary, improve the fluency of their reading, improve all those things that we look for that really develop those reading skills, so that when it comes to using that reading at a higher level of academic pursuit, they're ready for that? And, and again, I have every confidence that the education committee is going to step up to meet those needs.

KH: Are there going to be more bucks in the budget to have reading specialists and things like that, especially in urban districts where kids might have not been able to do remote learning the way they do in the suburbs?

PDM: Yeah, and I have to tip my hat to the federal government. We've seen them now you know, on three occasions, infuse tremendous amounts of additional resources, you know, for quote, unquote COVID response recognizing exactly the phenomenon that you and I are talking about, that there are these children that are going to need something extra and in fact, in the latest round, you know, some $4 billion is making its way to Ohio now that's not all for one year, but that's you know, but it but the nice thing As it recognizes that this isn't going to be, you know, it's not a matter of three months, and we're and we're going to be past this, we know it's going to require an investment over a period of time. And again, I'm really grateful that the federal government has made that investment and our commitment, and I think education means commitment is we're going to do good things with these dollars and address the needs of our students.

KH: OK, absenteeism: I know that there was the study on the website that followed 10 districts, but you kind of have to extrapolate it out because it doesn't cover all districts. Is that concerning that you might have lost students?

PDM: The first thing I always do is try to, you know, think about what the explanations are, and frankly, talk to people about how they explain it. And I think what we saw were, you know, sort of their two distinct sets, on the one hand at the younger ages. And you know, this is totally understandable. A mom and dad might have said, you know, Susie was supposed to start kindergarten this year. But let's wait a year, right. And that notion of waiting a year before a student starts kindergarten is not foreign to us. That concept even existed before the pandemic, if people felt like a child wasn't actually ready and might benefit from starting a year later, that's okay. So it's, you know, it's understandable that especially in kindergarten, and even in preschool, we saw our enrollment numbers less than what we might have expected.

The other side of the equation is at the opposite end: Here's a high school student, a high school student that might be in a family that had some economic disruption, you know, a business was closed, a father was out of a job and mother was out of a job, some children needed some, somebody to take care of them while they were home. And so that child got distracted, maybe even had to enter the workforce in order to support the family budget, again, totally understandable circumstances.

As we return to a more, you know, whether it's a normalized economy, or a return to, you know, the routines of education, those students are going to re enter the system. So again, I'm, I'm fairly confident that we're going to see those numbers come back up as we not only you know, sort of wrap up this year, but as we go into the next year.

KH: What's the plan to reach out to some of those students to make sure we track them down and get them back into the fold?

PDM: Sometimes it's just friendly reminders, and helping emphasize especially at the younger grades. Sometimes people think, oh, if my daughter misses a day of kindergarten, that's no big deal. But you know, what the data shows us it is a big deal. So let's make sure we remind parents, sometimes it's through text messaging reminders, sometimes it's the robocalls. Sometimes it's as simple as sending a postcard home, reminding people how important it is, and, and how many days or hours have actually been missed at the child's education.

The other thing is leveraging all kinds of community partners, making sure our faith-based community and churches are involved making sure rec centers and understand you know, even places where people are likely to go grocery stores and what have you just constantly reminding people how important it is for students to engage in educational opportunities because when they don't, the data is so clear that it creates challenges to their success.

KH: Final question: What do you want parents to know about post-pandemic education in Ohio?

PDM: The first thing is: Don't get overly worried because students will detect anxiety, you know, especially if it puts more pressure on the student, right. And sometimes finding the balance between challenging students and overly you know, and fretting to the extent where you create more anxiety. That's a real challenge. Part of it is, take a deep breath and understand that students are amazingly resilient and things, by and large, are going to be fine.

The second thing is: Stay connected to your school, communicate with teachers have a good understanding of how well your child is doing. Because again, that's fundamentally key and it puts the parent in the position of asking good questions, understanding what's supposed to be going on.

The other thing: Monitor the condition of your student. Never be afraid to ask for help for your student. We see so many things where we know students are suffering from the mental challenges and those mental stressors Don't get me wrong. they existed in high school, you know, and in school, even prior to the pandemic, but now they're sort of amplified.