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Falling Behind, Looking Ahead

Hard numbers detailing how South Carolina students and teachers dealt with the switch to distance learning this semester have been scarce, but now that the first full semester during the pandemic is winding down, nationwide figures are trickling in.

They don’t look good.

A McKinsey and Co. study released Dec. 8 estimates the transition to remote learning set students back months. Those losses are compounded by racial and ethnic disparities. According to the nationwide study, white students were set back by one to three months in mathematics. Students of color lost three to five months.

“The common denominator that I see locally is that a lot of online students are from parents who have a distrust of the school system for a variety of reasons,” said Jody Stallings, director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. “They have a lot of skepticism about school, and that spills over to the student, influencing motivation and comprehension. That’s the gap you see widening now.”

The achievement gap is not a new concept. Martin Luther King Jr. tackled the issue in 1967 by shining a light on the differences. “Negroes lag one to three years behind whites, and their segregated schools receive substantially less money per student than do the white schools,” he said. 

A September report from the center-left Brookings Institution discussed the demographics of students who opted to learn online this year, a group that has been overwhelmingly Black or Latinx.

“This finding is not surprising for a number of reasons,” Brookings researchers wrote. “COVID-19 has been most prevalent in cities. Second, districts in cities and suburbs have schools with more students, making it more difficult to organize socially distanced in-person learning. Third, policymakers in cities are more Democratic, which likely makes them more likely to favor coronavirus caution than Republicans in rural areas and towns.”

According to the report, two-thirds of students of color live in districts that opted for remote-only learning.

Paired with the difficulties faced by learning from home, the achievement gap has only widened further since the onset of the pandemic, educators say. Hybrid in-person/online classes were touted as the best-of-both-worlds option, but advocates say it has really only highlighted the differences between the two approaches.

“The best way I can describe it is, ‘You have to eat a salad and a bowl of soup at the same time, but you can only pick one implement to do it,’” Stallings said. “ ‘Do you pick a fork, or do you pick a spoon?’

“Most teachers are teaching hybrid as if it’s an in-person class, and that leaves the online kids trying to eat soup with a fork,” he continued. “Some teachers are better at designing sporks, for lack of a better word, but there’s just no model for doing this right now. We certainly haven’t seen one locally.”

These challenges have led to political leaders, educators and parents across the nation to butt heads over a solution. Many are crying for a full return to in-person classes, such as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. Others believe teachers and students simply need more time to adjust.

“It’s dirty, and it’s messy, and it’s complicated,” said Trever Etminan, Ashley Ridge High School teacher who works with SC for Ed, a statewide education advocacy group. “If we just give it time, we could have something that’s really incredible here. We could be onto a new style of education that’s just world-class and unparalleled.”

The move to distance learning has also changed the ability for educators to address challenges posed by classroom disparities during a normal school year.

“Before, it seemed as though we were addressing the gap with brick-and-mortar interventions,” Etminan said. “But, I think a lot of those solutions we have used in the past have really only ever put a gauze pad or a Band-Aid over a massively huge issue.”

Remote teaching does pose some issues, but Etminan also sees the challenges as an opportunity.

“I have to figure out how to adapt my instruction, or what I can do in the building to bring that student back,” he said.

And, that could change the way education professionals approach teaching once the pandemic is in the rear-view window.

“This will serve as a catalyst to inject some absolutely essential relevance back into the curriculum,” Etminan said.

Others aren’t as optimistic.

“I hate to be cynical, but I think the good that might come out of this is that we realize once and for all that online learning … we can’t do it very well,” Stallings said. “We’ve seen a push trying to bring more of it to our schools, but this is showing people that’s not working.”

Pandemic or none, Stallings knows good teachers are going to do what works best for their students, regardless of where they’re sitting.

“It depends on how good a spork we build,” he said.