packet pickup

Students picked up their end-of-year school packets from Payson Elementary School Wednesday along with any personal items left in the classrooms.

Another semester of improvised online learning could impose a heavy burden on children of middle income and low-income families, according to research centered on last semester’s shutdown.

Arizona has postponed school openings until Aug. 17 and the State Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman has suggested even then schools may have to rely heavily on delivering lessons through the Internet.

The state and federal government have both provided added funding to help schools quickly piece together online learning programs, with many districts relying heavily on those approaches last semester.

However, national studies suggest most students lost months of academic progress last semester when state governments shut down most schools and teachers, administrators, students and parents lurched into a massive, national experiment in online learning.

Generally, the studies found kids from high-income households suffered few setbacks from the process – in part because they mostly attended well-heeled school districts with plenty of computers, resources and experience with blended online learning models.

Kids from middle income and low-income families suffered major academic setbacks – especially minority students.

Most rural school districts in Rim Country and the White Mountains have relatively high poverty rates, with 15 to 20% of students lacking access to computers or the internet at home. Studies suggest rural districts were especially hard hit by the abrupt school closures – which now threaten to continue into the coming school year, with COVID-19 cases spiking and the state re-imposing restrictions.

Students in blended models of both online and in-person learning did the best, in which students did much of their work online, but also worked with in-person mentors or tutors to make sure they didn’t get lost.

That’s exactly the model that used at Payson Centers for Success – Payson alternative high school. Even before the pandemic, students at PCS worked through online lessons – but often in a classroom with a teacher or teacher’s aide present to answer questions and keep them on track.

Moreover, Payson has invested some $500,000 in federal money received from the federal CARES Act to buy enough Chromebooks to ensure that when the semester starts – in person or online – every student will have a computer. That still may leave students without the internet at home struggling to keep up.

Two national reviews of online learning involving 300 studies concluded the blended model used by Payson Centers for Success has the best chance of success.

For instance, in Michigan a state-supported nonprofit institute called Michigan Virtual offers online course in languages, the sciences, history and professional development, including 23 different online advanced placement classes. The pass rate was 50% for those living below the poverty line and 70% for those living above it – in line with the pass rate in the public schools for in-flesh classes.

By September, students will have lost on average almost a full school year’s worth of academic gains, according to one national study – with much wider achievement gaps between low-income and upper-income students. The high school dropout rate has also increased and students in grades 1-3 have lost ground in gaining the basic reading skills vital to future academic success.

The studies have proven difficult, since most states like Arizona not only quit holding in-person classes, but also suspended administration of academic testing. That has made it challenging for researchers to pin down a slide in student progress.

However, one estimate suggests the average student will start the next school year having lost perhaps a third of the expected progress in reading and half the expected progress in math, according to a still developing study by researchers from Brown University and the University of Virginia.

Another analysis of 80,000 students compared results on Zearn, an online math program used both before and after the closures. Progress in math decreased by 50% in low-income zip codes, by a third in middle-income zip codes and not at all in high-income zip codes, concluded the researchers from Harvard and Brown universities.

The McKinsey & Company consulting group reviewed a host of such studies and concluded that the average student could fall seven months behind academically and black and Hispanic students by about 10 months.

In many districts, 20 to 30% of the students in the hastily improvised online learning programs essentially vanished, not logging in and not responding to efforts to contact them.

The abrupt transition to online learning varied tremendously from one district to the next, depending on existing use of the Internet, student access to the Internet and computers and whether teachers had previous training in online learning methods.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education surveyed 477 school districts nationally and found only 20% required live teaching over video during the shutdown, with wealthy districts twice as likely to support a full range of online lectures, tests, projects, programs and tools as low-income districts.

In fact, only 27% of rural school districts offered any instruction while the schools were closed. Although most districts handed out assignments, many offered no way for teachers to provide remote lessons and no help beyond what parents could provide when it came to finishing those lessons.

And that wasn’t the parents fault.

In fact, one May Census Bureau survey of families with children found that parents spent an average of 13 hours a week helping their kids with school lessons, with no difference between the poorest families and the richest.

The shutdown and shift to online learning had the effect of worsening the already wide achievement gap between rich and poor in the nation’s public schools.

The gap will grow wider and students will fall further behind overall if the chaotic shift to online learning continues into next year, according to estimates by McKinsey & Company based on the studies to date.

The education consulting firm developed three scenarios, including a return to normal classes with the virus contained, a second wave of closures continuing into next year if the virus isn’t contained and the complete shutdown of school next year to await the development of a vaccine.

If normal class doesn’t resume until January, students enrolled in online programs could lose three or four months of learning with “average” instruction and 7-11 months with “low quality” online instruction. Those with no instruction at all will lose 12 to 14 months.

“Although students at the best full-time virtual schools can do as well as or better than those in traditional ones,” the report concluded, “most studies have found that full-time online learning does not deliver the academic results of in-class instruction. Moreover, in 28 states with around 48 percent of K-12 students, distance learning has not been mandated.”

The consulting firm linked the findings to previous studies linking academic losses to lifetime earning potential.

Those studies suggest that the lost months of academic progress and the projected increase in the dropout rate could translate into a $110 billion annual earning decline for the current generation of K-12 students.

“The numbers are sobering, but they are not inevitable. If the United States acts quickly and effectively, it may avoid the worst possible outcomes. But if there is a delay or a lack of commitment, COVID-19 could end up worsening existing inequities.”

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