‘It’s kind of heartbreaking’: Teachers, tutors see pandemic’s effect on students’ learning

SPOKANE, Wash. — Local students have been back in the classroom for two months. 

Though they have to wear masks and social distance, it is looking a little closer to normal. 

That, however, doesn’t mean they’re caught up. The pandemic has affected kids mentally and also in their learning. 

READ: More children struggling with mental health as result of pandemic

Technology has been both a positive and negative part of learning these past 20 months. Some students have thrived learning through a screen, while others have struggled. 

Teachers are able to help them in person whenever that happens, and they say it’s happening a lot more.

Shiloh Hills fifth-grader Sammy Blackham struggles with math. 

“He comes home and says he hates math. ‘I’m the stupidest kid in the class’ and it just broke my heart,” his mother Mayya said. 

Like many other parents, Mayya Blackham does not want to see her son struggle. But it is a reality and COVID made him fall even more behind. 

“When the kids were on, logged on, they had to study on their own and it didn’t work for Sammy,” she said. 

Sammy is not the only one. Second-grade teacher Julie Stannard is seeing something similar at Spokane International Academy. While she has a group of students who are doing well, some are really struggling. 

“I have some kids who don’t always understand what seven means right now,” Stannard said. “The number seven.” 

Stannard says some of her students are still are unsure of the alphabet, something kids should understand in kindergarten. 

“What I went through, even as a teacher, what I saw last year… no, I’m not shocked,” said Stannard, who has been a teacher for 27 years. 

A report released by research group McKinsey and Company shows students are, on average, five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. 

Catlin Goodrow, who has taught for 18 years, said she is also not surprised about what she is seeing in the classroom. She is an intervention teacher at Spokane International Academy; her role was created this year just for this reason. She works with students who may need a little more help.

This learning loss happening because of the pandemic is different than what’s seen in students when they return from months of summer.  Goodrow says there are lessons and curricula students learned in the last year and a half but didn’t really understand. Teachers then moved on to other material.  There was no time in the last year and a half for them to go back to that information and actually learn it.

“Just knowing where kids might’ve been before all this, I think that’s where it hits home,” Goodrow added.

They know second-grade students have never had a normal school year. Kindergarten was cut short and first grade was mostly online. 

“It’s their first time they’re really sitting at their desks in a year and a half,” Stannard said. 

Being back in the classroom full-time has been an adjustment for kids, too. Stannard and Goodrow says some kids are now lacking skills they should’ve learned in the last year and a half.

One skill they’re having trouble with: independence.

Stannard says remote learning limited teachers, but parents were home and were helpful.

However, when students came back to the classroom, the dependency of a person being home all the time spilled over.

“Some of them are so used to having someone behind them, saying, ‘You can’t find your paper? Let me go ahead and find it.’ I don’t do that for 24 students. They need those skills,” Stannard said.

That also happens on the playground, Goodrow added.

Students are lacking some social skills because of the pandemic and not being around other kids. Goodrow says they have kids could have a tough time problem-solving.

“What I’m seeing, a little argument on the playground where [say] a ball accidentally hit me. [It] can end up with a student sort of spiraling for about an hour or two and not being able to bring themselves back from that and get into a position where they’re not ready to learn,” Goodrow said.

So, not only are teachers working to help catch kids up on their social skills, they’re working through some of the material they should’ve learned.

Stannard says she’s had to change the way she’s teaching by doing more group work and one-on-one teaching.

“We’re not going to back down from the situation,” she said. “Our teaching is more intentional. We have looked at the data, we have decided what is a priority, we expose them to everything we’re teaching, but there’s some key pieces we need to focus heavily on to make sure kids have it.”

Some of that needs to happen at home. So, what can you do to help your kids? 

Do not be afraid to ask for help like Mayya did for Sammy. She ended up seeking help from Mathnasium, where owner Jerry Post said they have seen more students because of the pandemic. 

The first month or two after school starts is generally a busy time for Mathnasium, however this time around, he says they are 30 to 40 percent busier because of the pandemic.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking because this was a situation that’s totally out of their control, and yet, they’re the ones finding themselves so frustrated. And so, in a lot of cases, kind of embarrassed about struggling in math because they’ve never struggled before,” Post said. 

Just like Stannard and Goodrow, Post is seeing a gap in the foundational skills kids need in math.

Post says math is like a structure “with scaffolding.”

He says if the base, like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division skills are not there, it will make it harder for kids to move on to more complex math like fractions.

“Putting in the extra time now is going to close that gap and if they don’t close it now, it’s probably going to only get bigger and bigger,” Post said. 

In addition to reaching out for help — whether it be Mathnasium, a private tutor or reaching out to your school — practice with your kids at home. 

“Throwing out addition or subtraction of multiplication, division problems in the car. See if they can answer it, make it a game. Same with spelling words, sight words, just have fun with it,” Stannard said. 

Talk to your kids about how school is or what they may be struggling with, and don’t be afraid to check in with their teachers, too. 

“The story you hear from your student might not be the reality when you check in with the teacher, so check in with your teacher now,” Post said. “You don’t have to wait for conferences to see how they’re doing.” 

Encourage your kids. Let them know they are not alone in all of this. Many students are going through the same thing, and Sammy realized that when he went into Mathnasium and saw other kids needed help, too.

Lastly, give kids a break. Stannard says a lot of pressure is put on kids going to school for eight hours a day, and breaks are good for them.

READ: Reports show students are falling behind in school