As a result of over a year of distance learning, younger students have been hit hard by learning setbacks. The Brookings Institute reported that across the United States, math test scores dropped more when compared with students who had experienced other significant disruptions in learning, such as those evacuated following Hurricane Katrina.
Many Berkeley teachers report ongoing struggles with the impact of distance learning as it has changed students both academically and behaviorally.
“Kids who were behind in reading in the lower grades, kindergarten, first, second -grade, they did not get the support they needed. They were trying to do distance learning without knowing how to read,” said Leila Clark-Riddell, a third grade teacher at Washington Elementary School.
Reading scores in elementary schoolers have dropped significantly compared to pre-pandemic levels, with the highest drops in reading since the year 1990 occurring in 9-year-olds, as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
“I’m not someone who thinks we should be stressing this notion of ‘learning loss’ that is largely driven by the for-profit testing industry, but it’s clear that much was lost in the year we were not able to come together on school campuses,” said CAS History teacher Stephanie Schaudel. “For me, the loss of concern is what I’ve already spoken about: that loss of connection, potential for new friendships, and trust-building that happens in classrooms and learning communities.”
A primary outcome of elementary education is not just the development of academic skills but also learning how to socialize. Developing good socialization skills in elementary school leads to higher academic performance in later years. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2015 reported that kindergarten-aged children with better emotional skills are more likely to hold a full-time job 20 years later.
“I know we heard from classroom teachers that there was an academic disparity,” said Mariah Castle, drama teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School. “I was seeing that behaviorally, too. There were some kids that were really ready to be back in a classroom setting and working with a group, and then there were other kids that were really out of practice with that, and it was a lot harder to hold the social awareness of what it was like to be in a small community of 20 to 25 kids.”
A 2022 Harvard study showed that on average during distance learning, younger students had worsened behavior than during in-person classes.
“(My son) did his first year of elementary school over Zoom,” Schaudel said. “You know how hard it was for older children and teenagers to learn effectively and engage over computer screens, and at older ages, students have some deeper capacity to understand what is happening. For five and six-year-olds, it’s a whole other level of difficulty. It required an adult sitting alongside him each day, at least until he was more used to the way school was happening. I, of course, had to keep teaching, now from home.”
According to a presentation by the Berkeley Unified School District’s school board in October 2022, BUSD elementary students have appeared to bounce back in regard to test scores, as post-pandemic proficiency in both math and reading remained close to pre-pandemic levels. Comparing the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years, elementary-level math proficiency rates remained at 62 percent, while English Language Arts proficiency actually increased by two percentage points from 65 percent to 67 percent as reported by the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress website’s dashboard.
While testing may provide some information, students show learning in other ways.
“Last year, my fifth-graders and I wrote a play from scratch, and a lot of them contributed a lot of writing to that. I noticed that their writing was surprisingly strong. I thought it would sort of backslide more, but I was kind of impressed,” Castle said.
However, for some Berkeley elementary school students, their proficiency in these subjects have remained similar to previous years, but nationally, elementary students are still facing significant learning setbacks.
“This year feels closer to normal,” Castle said. “But, I don’t know that it’s ever going to feel like it was. It’s just sort of different now.”