One of the many heartbreaks of the pandemic has been the way many tired and overworked parents have to watch their children fall behind academically.
Emily Veloza has witnessed the so-called "COVID slide" firsthand. Her daughter Olivia was a middle-of-the-road student who used to be generally enthusiastic about school. Since the pandemic, her grades and her motivation have slipped.
"She hates it," Veloza said. "She absolutely hates school."
The teacher moves faster than she did in regular classes, Veloza said, and her daughter spends more time working independently or in small groups of students. Veloza recently learned that her daughter had not turned in a single science assignment this fall, even though she attends a science academy in Chelsea north of Boston. It was frustrating.
"Sixth grade is that time where you got to pay attention, or you're going to be screwed for the rest of the years that you have left in middle school," she said.
Remote learning has given many parents a front row seat to the learning losses that have resulted since the pandemic upended traditional school. The nonprofit test provider NWEA has esimated that students on average began this year four to six months behind academically, with the biggest lags in math. The consulting firm McKinsey projected that by next fall, students will be behind three months to a year in mathematics.
Making the situation worse, education researchers who also studied the effects of Hurricane Katrina on student learning said the losses were steepest this fall because many students did not have the chance to form critical in-person relationships with teachers that set the foundation for the year's learning.
Harvard professor Andrew Ho, a leading scholar on student testing, said more work needs to be done looking at the uneven nature of the learning loss.
"I think we need to be careful about saying there's 'X amount' of overall learning loss — because to me, that's not the problem," he said. "It's the inequality. It's the inequality, it's the inequality, it's the inequality. That's what's going on in this country right now."
Ho says more research needs to be done on how much learning losses can vary for different individuals, particularly students of color. For example, recent analysis of student testing this fall by NWEA did not include the kids who haven't been attending school in the pandemic or have shown up in online classes sporadically.
"We're seeing the kids who are being tested, who are in school systems," he said. "That's not who I'm worried about. I'm worried about the people who are off the grid."
NWEA acknowledged the limitations of its testing analysis from the start, but the findings still appear significant. Based on scores on its Measures of Academic Progress tests for grades 3-8, the test maker found that students' average math scores dropped five to 10 percentile points. Megan Kuhfeld, a research scientist who coauthored the report, said while reading scores showed little change on average, they declined among Black and Hispanic students in the late elementary years.
"I do think we have to start thinking out of the box on what schools on their own can do [to fix the problem]," she said. "We can't just put them right back in the classroom and expect schools and teachers to catch them up and get them back to grade level."
If parents worried about learning losses at the end of last spring, when many were hopeful students would return to school in the fall, they've become downright panicky. Black and Latino students remain more likely to be learning remotely nationwide than white students. And in Massachusetts, many of the state's largest districts serving the most economically disadvantaged students have been operating remotely for nearly a full year as learning losses mount.
Veloza, a former school crossing guard, says she's at her wits end. The daughter of Portuguese immigrants, she doesn't have extra money to hire a tutor or time every day to work with her daughter while holding down her job as a nanny. She thinks it might help if her daughter repeats sixth grade. She has also tried to make remote school more bearable by letting Olivia work wherever she wants in the home and letting her take TikTok dance breaks.
"[You're] really strategicially picking your battles at this point," she said.
Massachusetts doesn't track attendance until year's end. But in Boston, the state's largest school district, absenteeism is up. School officials said that more than 5,000 students attended school less than 70% of the time this fall.
That level of disengagement doesn't surprise Keri Rodrigues, founding president of the National Parents Union, based in Malden. Some school districts have been offering as little as one hour a day in teaching time on Zoom, she said. Under pressure from parents like Rodrigues, the state recently required that all remote students receive on average four hours a day of live instruction.
The new rule took effect on Jan. 19 and will require communities — including Chelsea — to add more hours of live teaching.
But as many students enter the one-year mark of learning remotely, it's slow progress, Rodrigues said. For Latino boys, like her son, she says data show the side-effects of a lost education can mean poverty or jail time.
"That bill is going to come due," she said. "And who is going to be paying for that? It's not these districts. It's not these teachers' unions. It's going to be my child and it's going to be me."
Local union leaders across the state resisted the state's effort to mandate the number of hours dedicated to live in-person teaching on Zoom. Rodrigues called that absolutely shocking because teachers have been opposed to returning to school in-person as well.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, disagreed. She said teachers have put in long hours to help students, many of whom live in homes where parents have lost jobs, there is too little food or they are facing eviction. The same teachers also needed to learn how to provide instruction in an entirely new digital format. Remote learning needs improvement, Tang said, but it's also made strides.
"It's very challenging," she said. "They know how to teach because they're teachers. But they are trying to balance their own children being in front of screens and learning and teaching other children at the same time."
Some districts, like Lawrence and Springfield, have invested in special "acceleration academies" that bring students back for intensive learning in areas that need focus.
Nathaniel Schwartz, an education researcher at Brown University, said districts could also consider tutoring programs, summer school offerings and nightmarish-sounding "double-dose algebra" courses to make up for learning losses.
But first and foremost, he said, kids need to return to school buildings to form strong in-person relationships with adults.
"The schools that seem to have been most successful across this time period are those that have found ways to provide strong connection and support while continuing to push forward on the academic pieces," Schwartz said. "And that's a tall order. That's why the work is feeling so hard to so many people right now."
The real question for districts, he said, is what will it take to get back to normal?