Nikolai Vitti is worried about the legacy of pandemic-era education on children — his own and everyone else’s. He and his wife are “in a more privileged position because of our educational background, our professions, and the ability to work from home,” says Vitti, the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, whose four high school- and middle school-aged kids nonetheless struggled in virtual classes. “It’s been challenging. It’s led to our own mental health issues.”
If the superintendent is concerned, imagine how parents without doctorates in education or the resources to do something about it must feel. Whenever COVID subsides and everyone returns to in-person classes, we’ll still be left with an entire generation that fell behind en masse.
A December report from the management consultancy McKinsey & Co. found the average student will lose up to nine months of education by the end of the 2020-21 school year. For students of color, the estimate rises to as much as a full year of lost instruction. That makes sense considering that at the onset of the pandemic when DPSCD went virtual, just 10 percent of students — the vast majority of whom were Black — even had the technology necessary to complete online assignments.
What happens post-COVID? Nobody’s quite sure, other than to say it’s a major crisis that will demand commitments from government, educators, and parents to address. But there’s disagreement about whether the answer is to overwhelm students with more testing and additional instruction. “Our concern is that the response is going to be, ‘We’ve got to test the kids more, we’ve got to get them in their seats longer, and we’re just going to drill, drill, drill until they catch up,’ ” says Sarah Szurpicki, vice president of the Ann Arbor-based education think tank Michigan Future. “That’s not the way to get them re-engaged in school and take on the identity of a learner.”
Michigan Future champions a model, now in place at one district in suburban Grand Rapids, that treats textbook content as just one of six areas of instruction. Equally important are the five others: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence.
One way or another, something dramatic needs to happen. The data out of DPSCD is especially alarming: About 20 percent of elementary and middle school students and as many as 35 percent of high school students failed at least one class in the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year, Chalkbeat Detroit reports. That’s about twice the rates
of the previous school year, according to district estimates. “It’s just this spiraling effect in terms of just trying to progress kids through a curriculum,” Wendy Zdeb, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, told Chalkbeat.
Vitti believes the grading structure and the student workloads must change to avoid a cascade of failures that force students to repeat grades. The district went to a pass-fail system for end of the 2019-20 year because of the pandemic’s sudden disruption, but reverted to letter grades when school resumed last fall. As a result, Vitti says, the failure rate is now as much as 15 percent higher in some schools. In some cases, kids fail because they miss too much school, but students also may stop showing up because they figure they’ve already fallen so far behind that it doesn’t matter.
Vitti favors limiting homework and passing students who attend class regardless of their academic performance. By requiring fewer out-of-class assignments, students with inferior technology or those who have disruptive home lives would be on more equal footing with more fortunate kids, he says.
Meanwhile, plans are underway to offset lost learning with expanded after-school tutoring and a robust voluntary summer school program paid for, Vitti hopes, by new federal funding. So far Congress has focused on providing money, as in the December COVID relief package, to pay for the costs of preparing for safe in-person classes. As of late January, funds for expanded instructional programs had yet to be allocated in any significant way.
When students do return post-COVID, schools must also address the mental-health damage caused by this extended period without a normal social life and the loss of extracurricular activities. “Obviously the most important aspect of school is academic learning, but it’s also the social development that comes with interacting with peers,
problem-solving, and dealing with conflict and relationships,” says Vitti, who personally credits sports with keeping him interested in school when he was a teen struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia. “We’ve lost that.”
Some new uses of remote learning, once consigned largely to students with disabilities that prevented them from coming to school or some who lived in remote rural areas, may persist for healthy city kids after COVID, Vitti says. A DPSCD task force is exploring the notion, for instance, that students could beam in from anywhere to take advanced or rarely taught classes offered elsewhere, Vitti says.
But getting back into classrooms and on campuses is, by far, the most important first step to rescuing Generation Z, as sociologists dub this cohort, and it is looking increasingly likely that will happen in full by fall as vaccinations proliferate. Says Vitti: “What we’ve always known, and I think we now have a greater appreciation of it, is nothing replicates the relationship between the teacher and a student, especially in an intimate classroom face-to-face.”