COVID-19 pandemic left its mark on academics. Are students caught up from learning loss?

The academic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt on the Treasure Coast, years after students returned to the classrooms without masks or quarantines.

During the months of distance learning and continual interruptions from quarantines, educators were concerned students would fall behind academically and take years to get back on track. While some school districts say students now have caught up in math and reading, others say students continue to struggle, just as federal money targeted for tutoring and intensive summer recovering programs is set to end this fall.

"Overall, we are still seeing the lingering effects on students, especially in key grades," said St. Lucie County schools Deputy Superintendent Helen Wild.

Still, not all students are behind. In 2023, Indian River County students scored higher on state standardized tests than they did pre-pandemic in 2019, Superintendent David Moore said.

"The district has moved on from the pandemic. It's one of four in the state that is actually in a better place today than it was before the pandemic," Moore said.

"We've done a lot of work to offset the effects of the pandemic," Moore said.

Treasure Coast reading, math scores improve in areas, but educators say more work is needed

The pandemic's impact on learning continues to be a national concern, long after the pandemic has ended. A 2023 Northwest Evaluation Association study showed that while students have made learning gains, student achievement still is behind pre-pandemic performance.

Students would need an additional 4½ months of math instruction and 4.1 additional months in reading to fully recover, according to the not-for-profit organization's national study. The organization studied 6.7 million students in grades 3-8, comparing pre-pandemic national test scores between the 2016 and 2019 school years to scores during the pandemic school years of 2020-2023.

Florida scores weren't included in the study because of incompatible software.

"We're starting to see some pretty sizable gaps," said Megan Kuhfeld, director of growth marketing and analytics for the Northwest Evaluation Association. Some gaps began closing in the spring of 2023, but "for the most part, students have not caught up."

Of concern nationally were the 2023-2024 eighth graders, the study said. These students would need 9.1 additional months of learning in math and 7.4 months of additional learning in reading to get back to grade level, the study said.

"In other words, when these students enter their freshman year of high school, they will need to accomplish almost five years of learning during their four years of high school," the study said. An updated study, using 2024 test scores, is expected this summer.

St. Lucie's fourth graders — who were in first grade at the start of the pandemic — struggled in reading, Wild said. They were learning letter sounds and phonics when schools went remote, she said, and learning these skills online is difficult. When students returned, they and their teachers were wearing masks, impeding their progress further, she said.

"These are critical years when you are learning how to read," according to Wild.

Seventh graders — who were in third grade when schools shut down — also are behind in reading for the same reasons, Wild said. Then-third graders were making the transition from learning to read to learning to comprehend, something that is challenging with remote learning, she said.

Indian River County students were impacted in math, Moore said.

"You look at math as rungs on a ladder," Moore said. When students missed some of the sequential components, it impacted their skills. "It really made it challenging."

The district had to make sure students had the tools they needed to get back on track, he said.

St. Lucie schools provided students with intensive reading and phonics instruction as well as intervention after school and during the summer, Wild said. Students have the challenge of trying to keep pace with their current grade material while trying to get caught up, she said.

This year, as in previous years since the pandemic, St. Lucie schools offers free intensive summer learning programs that help students catch up while providing fun hands-on activities in science, math and technology STEM activities. Transportation and meals are provided at no cost, Wild said.

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While the summer programs have been successful, this year is the last opportunity students have to catch up on their learning loss. The federal COVID-relief money is ending, which means an end to the fully intensive summer program, she said.

"It's always tough when a major funding source sunsets. We knew this was temporary," Wild explained. The district plans to continue offering a summer program, as it did before the pandemic, but on a smaller scale, she said.

Overall, students are showing more promising recovery, said Kuhfeld.

Districts such as Indian River County dislike talking about the pandemic and focusing on learning loss. The district is moving forward, Moore said.

Third grade student Amaya Torrez, 8, reads about dancing while inside Weatherbee Elementary’s multimedia center on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Fort Pierce. "I like to read about dance," Amaya said. "It keeps me calm and it keeps me focused and peaceful."
Third grade student Amaya Torrez, 8, reads about dancing while inside Weatherbee Elementary’s multimedia center on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Fort Pierce. "I like to read about dance," Amaya said. "It keeps me calm and it keeps me focused and peaceful."
Robin Marmitt, media specialist at Weatherbee Elementary, helps keep third grade students on task inside the school’s media center on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Fort Pierce.
Robin Marmitt, media specialist at Weatherbee Elementary, helps keep third grade students on task inside the school’s media center on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Fort Pierce.
Deniz Keresteci (left), literacy coach at Weatherbee Elementary, helps third grade student Karen Madrid-Portillo, 8, with the story of Cinderella while inside the school’s media center on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Fort Pierce. "We need to read because reading is cool," Karen said.
Deniz Keresteci (left), literacy coach at Weatherbee Elementary, helps third grade student Karen Madrid-Portillo, 8, with the story of Cinderella while inside the school’s media center on Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in Fort Pierce. "We need to read because reading is cool," Karen said.

"We have moved beyond the pandemic," Moore stressed. "We do not use it as an excuse."

The Indian River County district had an aggressive plan to return students early, with restrictions such as mandatory mask policies and quarantines, Moore said. Teachers received training on interventions to help students improve, he said. Instruction was drastically different, as education plans were very individualized to meet the needs of the students, he said.

Intensive programs were implemented to raise the bar academically, Moore said.

"We had to make sure they were getting what they needed," he said.

This year, Indian River was the only Treasure Coast school district to receive an "A" grade from the state. Unlike prior years, learning gains were not considered in the grading formula because the state changed standardized tests and required a baseline year.

Indian River school district gets an A in state rankings; St. Lucie, Martin score B grades

In Martin County, school officials implemented proper accommodations, access and interventions to help bridge any performance gaps, Troy LaBarbara, Martin County schools' assistant superintendent of academics, said in a statement.

"The impact of the pandemic on academic performance varies widely among students. Overall, most of our students have closed the achievement gap caused by the pandemic," LaBarbara said in the statement. "Some students are still struggling with factors like access to resources, support systems and individual circumstances."

Third graders, who were in kindergarten when the pandemic struck, follow a statewide decline in math and reading, LaBarbara said.

"To continue to address this, we have infused a strong multitiered process in our core academic areas.  Summer school interventions will include personalized learning plans tailored to address individual areas of weakness, small-group instruction focusing on essential skills, targeted tutoring sessions and enrichment programs to engage students in accelerated areas," the statement said.

Beyond academics, local school districts had to reteach students the importance of attending school and, in some cases, how to behave.

"(Students) got used to doing their work online," Wild said. "They had to relearn these good-attendance habits."

Students got into the habit of staying home instead of going to school, and turning in work via the computer, she said. While students still should stay home if they are sick, they're again encouraged to come to school because that's where they learn better, she said.

When students returned full-time, some in Indian River County struggled with re-acclimating socially in an environment with behavior rules and dress codes and where they had to engage with others, Moore pointed out. The district implemented strict behavior expectations and made students adhere to a code of conduct.

Part of the district's successful recovery, he said, was getting 60% of its students to return to in-person instruction in that first year back.

"When you have more students return to brick-and-mortar, you're going to see a better result," he said. It's more than just academics, said Moore. Students need exposure to socialization skills.

Colleen Wixon is the education reporter for TCPalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers. Contact her at colleen.wixon@tcpalm.com.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Are Treasure Coast students still recovering from pandemic learning loss?