Layers of challenges make some educators feel this school year has been harder than last

Published: Jan. 25, 2022 at 9:59 PM CST
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(WSAW) - Kevin Kampmann, the principal at Riverside Elementary School in Ringle said the pandemic and, in particular, the 2020-2021 school year taught everyone to expect the unexpected. However, people still went into the next school year with expectations and hopes.

“I think we had different ideas of what the school year would look like,” he said.

Several educators from around north-central Wisconsin have expressed to 7 Investigates that this school year so far is almost harder than the first full school year in the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason, they say, is due to layers of factors the previous year and existing challenges in education laid before the school year even started, along with expectations that did not pan out the way they anticipated.

“Our students had some very different needs than they had before,” Jon Vollendorf, the principal of Stevens Point Area Senior High said.

“We just have more challenges to make sure we’re navigating everyone’s interests and beliefs and making sure we’re doing what we can to support them,” Kampmann said.

The 2020-2021 school year offered so many challenges districts, students, and families had never experienced before. After the abrupt shutdowns and scrambling to continue education for the end of the 2019-2020 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a renewed sense of appreciation for the job and role schools play in people’s lives.

“The feeling that I got from kids is that they were just so appreciative to be able to be here,” Kampmann said of students going into the 2020 fall semester. “They loved the fact that our school was open. They knew that we had to do some things a little bit differently to ensure safety. But they were just happy to be here.”

“Just happy to be here.”

For those who have repressed that experience, globally, people had to figure out how to navigate in a world evolving its health and safety information. The 2020-2021 school year was filled with uncharted decision-making and many differing viewpoints and perspectives about how to make those decisions. There were arguments to have students remain in physical school buildings to learn, to teach virtually, or some hybrid of the two modalities. There were strong, polarizing opinions about masking and pandemic protocols to keep people safe and education continuing.

People managed either entire schools shifting learning modalities as cases rose or students and teachers having to switch those modalities individually as they faced COVID-related quarantines and isolations. Educators juggled increased workloads as administrators built up technological infrastructures, kept track of and address the individual challenges families faced to have their children participate in school, and teachers prepared dual lessons – teaching simultaneously online and in-person while trying to meet the needs of each student.

Inequities between students’ home lives and personal experiences already played a factor prior to the pandemic, but it also exacerbated those inequities. The additional duties from educators and families during that time caused schools to shift the learning priorities of pre-pandemic years to ensure at least the very basic concepts were taught.

“We knew there were certain things that we needed to ensure that kids were getting, and we really prioritize certain standards and certain things that we wanted to ensure that all kids leaving first grade or second grade had these core solid understandings of things,” Kampmann said.

Then the first full school year in the COVID-19 pandemic ended. Educators took a breath and reevaluated where things stood. Kampmann said while it was challenging, “for many of our teachers, it really actually was a great year. We try to provide as many options as we could for families have in school for those who wanted that virtual for those who wanted that. But all in all, I would say we had a lot of things in place.”

Expectations, hope, and reality

“We knew that there were going to be academic issues that we were going to have to deal with. We knew that there was going to be some social/emotional/mental wellness type things,” Cory Hirsbrunner, the assistant superintendent and director of elementary education at the Stevens Point Area School District noted.

As the COVID case numbers decreased that summer, Kampmann and others expressed some hope that schools might not need as many COVID precautions in place. Many thought the next school year, outside of the issues Hirsbrunner mentioned, would be almost like it was pre-pandemic.

“I was of the belief last spring, as we walk wrapped up the school year that if we could just get everybody back to school five days a week, that things would just kind of comfortably lay down and get back on tracks here, and things would kind of resume as we had known,” Vollendorf recalled. “And that was the farthest thing from the truth.”

The fall semester began. Things were not back to the way they were pre-pandemic, but they also did not look like the past school year. Kampmann said they had a higher COVID positivity rate this past fall than they did the previous fall semester, so COVID precautions were not reverted, though some extracurricular activities were reinstated. Opinions and arguments about what precautions should be in place and what modality students should be taught in continued.

Hirsbrunner said students and teachers adjusting to school routines and expectations also took them off-guard.

“Getting back in five days a week, full speed ahead has taken us longer than what we had anticipated.”

While school leaders say there are students who are exactly where they need to be in their learning, there are more students than typical years that have been impacted by learning gaps. Elementary school administrators say kindergarten is where those gaps are most noticeable, as some parents opted not to send or faced challenges in having their children in preschool during the pandemic.

“We’re seeing many kindergarteners who do know the numbers, they know their letters, and they have those things in place and some that have had no experience with that at all,” Kampmann explained. “But it’s not just the academic part. There’s also the socialization of how I get along with other kids.”

The not-for-profit educational research assessment organization, Northwest Evaluation Association, better known as NWEA, placed a large focus on assessing and tracking potential academic gaps to help educators address them since the spring of 2020.

They used MAP Growth assessment scores to determine gaps in reading and writing for students in grades 3-8. Not all schools or students take the assessment and there were even fewer students who took it since the pandemic began (the scores from Wisconsin, for example, represent about a quarter of students in third through eighth grades), but there were consistent trends around the country and Wisconsin followed those national trends.

“We made some projections about what educators might expect in that really early phase of the pandemic when schools were shuttered, kids weren’t receiving instruction at all,” Dr. Karyn Lewis, a senior research scientist for NWEA’s Center for School and Student Progress said. “And those projections were based off what we know about what happens over the summer months when kids aren’t receiving instruction, or prolonged absences due to natural disasters, that kind of thing.”

Lewis said in the fall after the initial shutdown in 2020, their projections were overly pessimistic. They expected scores in both math and reading to fall, but anticipated a bigger impact on math scores.

“When kids entered the classroom in fall of 2020, we did see impacts of the pandemic in math, and students’ math achievement was sitting a lower than historical averages, but reading at that point was a bright spot reading did not seem at that point to be affected,” she explained. “But as we tracked kids over the course of the 2020-21 school year, we saw that reading was starting to take the pandemic was starting to take a toll on reading achievement as well.”

She said during the first full school year in the pandemic, students were still making gains, learning was still happening, “but that was a challenging school year for everyone and that’s reflected in the kinds of growth we saw across last school year.” It was lagging behind pre-pandemic averages.

“Now the third school year impacted by the pandemic, we checked in this fall to see how kids are faring. We still see evidence of significant levels of unfinished learning and reading and in math, it’s worse in math, but what we’re seeing this fall is pretty consistent with what we saw at the end of last school year in the spring, which suggests that things might be starting to stabilize.”

Comparing students in grades 3-8 in the fall of 2019 to students in those grades in the fall of 2021, the median math score fell by 10 percentile points and the percentage of students expected to be proficient in math by the end of the year also fell about 10 percentile points. For example, sixth-grade students in the fall of 2019 had a median math achievement score of 58, compared to 48 in the fall of 2021. The percentage of students in that grade for that same time period were projected to be proficient in math was nearly 44% and 34%, respectively.

The same group of students in that time period saw the median reading scores fall by five percentile points and the expected rate of proficiency fell by about six percentile points. So for sixth-grade students in the fall of 2019, the median achievement score was 61 compared to 55 for sixth-grade students in 2021. The expected percentage of students to be proficient by the end of each respective year was 42% and 36%, respectively.

When following the same cohort of students as they progress through to the next grade levels, the median change in achievement for the same time period for math declined by about seven percentile points and the percentage of students expected to be proficient by the end of the year dropped 12 percentile points. Looking at the sixth-grade students in the fall of 2019 who are now eighth-grade students in the fall of 2021, the median math score percentile did not change much, going from 58 to 56. However, the percentage of students expected to be proficient by the end of that year went from 43% to 30%.

For reading, the drops in percentile points were three and four, respectively. So, looking at those sixth-grade students in the fall of 2019 who are eighth-grade students in 2021, the median achievement score went from the 61 percentile to 58. The percentage of students to be proficient by the end of the year went from 42% to 36%.

The Wausau School District, using different assessment tools, also found similar trends in learning loss that they presented at Monday’s school board meeting. While the district declined an interview for this story, it sent a statement saying in part:

Now that students are back in our buildings full-time for the 2021-2022 school year, many students who struggled are catching up; ending up right where they need to be academically. For instance, if we look at our Fastbridge assessment data, we’ve seen moderate growth between the fall of 2021 and winter of 2022 in reading and math for grades 2-9. That’s more growth than we saw last school year during that time - when students learned from home for part of the year. That speaks volumes about the work our staff is doing to make sure students are where they need to be. But, we still have work to do; making sure we see even more students grow year to year academically.

The spring semester of 2022 has yet to finish out the year, but data are showing the learning loss due to the pandemic could be plateauing. Lewis’ hope is this new semester marks a turning point to allow for students to recover from that learning loss. While there is hope, reality dims that light.

“I think we need to prepare ourselves that the levels of declines we’ve seen across the last nearly two years now, these are really staggering losses, staggering levels of unfinished learning,” she stated. “And this is not going to be something that can be easily recovered in a year, particularly when we consider which student groups were most impacted.”

In the Wausau school board meeting, the director of learning and student achievement, Chris Nyman, noted they likely will not hit their district-wide 2023 student achievement goal that they set in 2018.

“We didn’t feel like we should adjust the goal at this point ‘cause though we might not make it, we’d rather struggle trying, than lowering the bar just to say that we made it.”

There were declines in learning across all groups of students, and all schools 7 Investigates spoke to noted there are many students who faired well in their educational learning and are on track with standards. However, the biggest gaps in learning were for groups already identified as having gaps pre-pandemic.

“We see that the size of those gaps is much larger for students in high poverty schools. It’s much larger for African American students, Hispanic students, and Native students compared to white students,” she said.

She noted that the gaps being seen in the NWEA data and most state-level data tracking educational gaps are likely the best-case scenarios in terms of learning loss because the assessment did not reach all students.

“We have been keeping a really close eye on this idea that more kids are missing from testing and assessments than we would expect in a normal year, and it’s not a random group of kids that’s more likely to be missing from the data,” she explained. “It’s the group of kids that have been most impacted by the pandemic.”

When searching for signs of gaps in Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data, a spokesperson cautioned using the school and district report cards and student testing scores, noting that there were changes in how the report cards were scored and that student testing participation was down. Many districts also had not compiled the data about the 2021 fall semester by the publishing of this report.

“It’s different student by student,” Kampmann said anecdotally. “So I can’t say that we have all students who are behind because we have many students who are exactly right where they need to be, but those who are behind might be further behind than we’ve had. So, really making sure we’re getting those interventions and those individual needs in place to try to help support them.”

Having gaps in academic achievement is not a new problem for schools and though imperfect, most schools have systems in place to try to address gaps.

“The challenging thing is there’s (sic) just a lot more students that we have to meet individually on to talk about all of those things. So it’s a lot more reading time for teachers and a lot more collaboration and planning and putting those things in place,” Kampmann noted.

There was a need for more teachers before the pandemic, but it has been further exacerbated during the pandemic. When teachers are out, either for typical reasons or COVID-related reasons, a substitute teacher is needed, but there is a shortage in those positions too. Schools have had to get creative to fill that shortage.

“When we’ve got teachers covering for other teachers during the day, not having – in some cases – their prep or their collaboration time or their lunch, they’re going full speed ahead; they’re working harder than they ever have, so it’s about that sustainability piece through the remainder of the year,” Hirsbrunner said.

Kampmann said to address some of those challenges, the district created new “learning advocate” positions who connect with families, assist teachers in the classroom to allow teachers time to address any gaps and needs. Every educator 7 Investigates spoke with urged people to look into becoming substitute teachers, with some districts, such as Stevens Point increasing compensation to stay competitive.

“When we don’t have the number of staff that we need, then we have to start canceling certain things in order to cover those core items,” Kampmann stated.

That, of course, happened a lot during the previous year as additional expectations were added to teachers’ loads. While teachers have done their best previously and now to, at the very least, meet those core needs, Annie Leffel, a senior at Middleton High School said she has gaps in her education. She gives an example of her going through levels of calculus classes.

“We were doing calc. BC, which is like the second calc. class and they’re like, ‘OK, this is something you should learn and like, worked on last year,’ and we were like, we didn’t work on that last year. And he’s like, ‘Well, you learned this two years ago,’ and we’re like, ‘No, we didn’t, there was COVID.’ And so now we have to catch up for two years on the basis of that subject – vectors, by the way, don’t like them – and that was supposed to be learned over time. And now it’s like, oh my gosh, we have to learn the fundamentals. And now the complex stuff?”

She explained she gets good grades and is typically at the top of her class, and while she completed her assignments last year and was present for the lessons, “I feel like I have so much less mastery, I have so much less memory of what I learned because I was just so focused on trying to survive that I couldn’t focus on really developing myself as a learner.”

Social/emotional/mental challenges

In order to allow kids to be able to learn, they need to have their social/emotional needs met and be mentally well enough to learn too.

“The main focus we’ve had right now are those social/emotional needs, helping students feel safe and comfortable at school, building connections with staff and each other so that they want to be here and they’re enjoying being here,” Molly Demrow, the principal of Jefferson Elementary School in Stevens Point said those are some things they are focusing on this year.

“That’s our job is to meet kids where they’re at,” she said. “So you know, I think we all want our students to be meeting all of the benchmarks and our standards, but we also know we can’t just– we have to start where students are and that’s what we’re doing.”

“We have some students who have social/emotional gaps. We’re seeing some students coming in with anxiety. There are students who are having separation anxiety from mom and dad. They’re very used to being around them and all of a sudden now they’re not so it’s looking at that we have some students who have anxiety about COVID. We have some students who have anxiety about being behind on something,” Kampmann noted.

Leffel participated in the Department of Health Services’ Office of Children’s Mental Health surveys and research groups to help provide the state insight into the youth experience and mental wellness. She said she understands that anxiety well because she struggles with anxiety around grades, academics, and perfectionism, which only intensified over the pandemic.

“I more often than not use them as a judgment of my worth, which, as you may know, is not a healthy mindset,” she said. “And so it’s how did we get here and how do we get out here? So many people need help.”

She said she is privileged to be able to have support when she needs it, but even she has struggled over the last year and she has noticed it in her peers.

“I saw a lot of my friends completely lose motivation. They couldn’t ask teachers questions, they couldn’t make social connections.”

“While students may be perpetually connected via social media and their phones and other things like that, it’s a very, very different connection than being in the same room with someone,” Vollendorf said, noting that he has seen an increase in anxiety and dependence on devices in his students.

“We lost a lot of our outside-of-our-family support system and for people who don’t have the best families, that was really devastating,” Leffel added.

In October 2021 a coalition of children’s mental and physical health experts declared a national emergency for children’s mental health, urging policymakers to address the crisis. The OCMH noted that declaration fit anecdotally as it gathered Wisconsin data on the topic. It reports anxiety, depression, and lack of belonging were increasing amongst students generally before the pandemic, partially due to more mental health awareness, but now it is even higher.

“We know that most of that anxiety is really coming from their parents,” the OCMH director, Linda Hall said. “Kids who are in families where parents are struggling to meet the basic needs to pay the rent, food on the table. Those are the kids that are suffering more.”

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey reported that almost half of Wisconsin parents who participated in the survey reported frequently feeling down, depressed, or hopeless.

In the OCMH annual report for 2021 Hall wrote, that they found children “ages 6-12 are lacking the critical skills of how to build and maintain relationships at school and at home. As we went up the age scale, we noted that this lack of relationship skills is likely contributing to the sadness and lack of belonging experienced by youth ages 13-18, which in turn is likely contributing to the rising youth suicide rate.” She also noted that they learned many young adults ages 19-26 have “considerable anxiety and life skills deficits that prevent them from achieving a healthier, more solid footing for their young adult years.”

Since the pandemic, Hall said in one study, Wisconsin was among the top five states in the country for the number of children going into the emergency room for self-harm. Nationally, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found between when the pandemic hit in March through October 2020, “mental health emergencies rose by 24% for children ages 5-11 years and 31% for children ages 12-17 years,” compared to the same period in 2019. “During winter 2021, ED visits for suspected suicide attempts were 50.6% higher among females compared with the same period in 2019.”

Leffel said she has heard more students “joke” about wanting to kill themselves over the course of the pandemic as well.

“It’s hard. I hate to see my friend struggling and I hate to see my friends saying these things and it’s a really difficult situation to tell, OK, at one point is this a “funny joke” and at what point is, like, who do I reach out to? Can I reach out to your parents? Are they supportive? It’s difficult.”


Taking action

While Hall said there are not enough counselors to support the needs of students around the state, Leffel has been happy to hear about the number of resources that schools offer. However, she said schools need to be more vocal about those resources and not just target them towards students who outwardly show signs of mental health distress. She and other students as part of the OCMH’s youth listening session’s recommendations for action included that as well as having more adults be willing to discuss mental health, recognizing it as part of regular wellness. See the full list of recommendations here. Hall said ensuring the social connectedness of youth is the effort they have identified as being “the one thing” that will make the biggest difference in youth mental health.

“We know that these things make a difference in kids’ anxiety and depression, their ability to make relationships and trusting relationships are important for life and for learning. And they also contribute to less risky behavior,” risky behavior meaning self-harm, Hall said.

In January, OCMH launched a new advisory council to keep a pulse on the problem and work on finding solutions. It also pushed for policy in the biennial budget, with half of its recommendations making it in the final budget for 2021-2023, “from increased funding for mental health support at school to increased Medicaid payment for mental health therapy.”

The DPI also launched a resource in January 2021 to help make kids resilient. Gov. Tony Evers announced grant opportunities for resources outside of school in April 2021. Gov. Evers announced in Dec. 2021 that $110 million in federal COVID aid would be allocated to help schools address pandemic-related impacts. A parent of a student in the D.C. Everest Area School District created a new organization, ‘Inspire Possibilities,’ to help teens struggling with mental health.

SPASH has a youth-led Coffee Connections group that meets Monday-Thursday from the end of the school day through 4:30 p.m. to allow students to connect with each other, to get some academic assistance and support and tutoring, or to connect with psychologists, social workers, and counselors.

In the case of the schools in the D.C. Everest district, Kampmann said they have been working closely with their school counselors and the Marathon County Mental Health Consortium to provide some of those additional supports. Kampmann said, as in all school years, they are making concerted efforts to make learning fun and providing extra support for students when needed.

OCMH urges adults to look to those youth recommendations for mental health, formulated by OCMH listening to students from around the state. Youth are asking for more adults to be open to talking about mental wellness and the daily experiences youth are going through, even just asking how they are doing.

“We want teachers who will listen,” Leffel urged. “We want teachers to understand we went through a traumatic experience and need patience.”

They want to be understood and not dismissed.

“What you remember to be high school – you’ve gone through so many harder things since high school. We don’t have anything to compare that to. To us, high school is the hardest thing so far, middle school is the hardest thing so far. I hope that gives people some perspective that because it’s small to you, doesn’t mean it feels small to us.”

They want more education about mental wellness and resiliency strategies early in life, meaning in elementary school.

Demrow said reading with your children will help both with mental wellness and academic growth.

“We try not to send a lot of homework home because the students are really working so hard all day and so we want them to have that time with their family, but reading together is really important and it builds a love for reading, which will help all of our students no matter what grade they’re in.”

Vollendorf said as a high school principal who is also a parent to high schoolers, he has this advice.

“I would just encourage them to continue to be patient, continue to listen to them, while at the same time continue to have, you know, real open expectations about the need to get back and the need to keep moving forward and the need to engage in that learning process. Because this is not going to last forever and we have to move forward.”

“Our parents have been very supportive and very connected,” Kampmann smiled. “And we need that now more than ever. I think that parent-school relationship and that connectedness of here are things that we are working on in school and here’s how you can support those things at home. And just that communication has been fantastic and would love to see that continue.”

“We’re starting second semester and our students need us and we’re going to be here,” Vollendorf promised, “and we’re gonna be here for them. We’re gonna be here for our teachers, and we’re gonna, we’re gonna see it through.”

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