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At the start of the 2020-21 school year, 73% of the country’s largest 100 school districts were operating remotely. And 2021 has thus far continued the trend throughout the country as the vaccine rollout continues. The result is a growing achievement gap that districts are working to address. 

From significant increases in work volume for teachers who are juggling overhauls, to the existing curriculum in a new learning environment, to estimated free falls in learning retention by students going into the next school year, the sudden and unprecedented challenge of COVID-19 has created a crisis unlike any public-education has seen before. 

How can administrators support students who are expected to have only 66% of the learning gains in reading and 44% of the learning gains in math when they start the 2021-22 school year? How can teachers capture more time in days that have already spilled over boundaries? How do they facilitate new types of curriculum that are technology-friendly and supportive of students who struggle to keep up online? 

Let’s take a closer look at the growing achievement gap over the last year and how some schools are addressing it. 

The Growth of the Achievement Gap During the Pandemic

Before the pandemic, there was already a 25% gap between children of parents with college degrees and those with only high school diplomas. Remote learning and work are likely to exacerbate those numbers, as a majority of those with only high school degrees work frontline jobs – meaning they are out of the house during the pandemic, or potentially unemployed. Those with college degrees have worked at home in higher numbers, ensuring greater availability to support children and ensure they attend class and complete work. 

The gaps are most evident in some of the country’s largest school districts. In New York City, for example, 300,000 students lived in homes without computers at the start of the pandemic. Philadelphia initially opted not to hold online courses in March and April because of that inequity. In Pittsburgh, the start of the school year was delayed two weeks while devices were distributed to those who had no access to technology at home. 

While these school districts have worked to close these gaps by purchasing large volumes of Chromebooks and tablets and partnering with ISPs to offer free or low-cost broadband internet access, gaps remain, and it’s not just in technology. 

For educators, the challenge becomes how to monitor for these gaps, and what intervention and remediation look like if gaps are identified. Specifically, this means:

  • Technology Alternatives – Not all students learn well through technology. As a result, some schools are implementing paper copies of work or packets that can be completed when parents are available to help. In this way, teachers are able to support students who find it too difficult to engage through a device hours at a time. This creates additional work for teachers, however, and needs to be supplemented with additional lesson materials and tools. 
  • Leveraging Technology in Smarter Ways Boardworks is designed to support a flexible approach to curriculum and provide ample resources to teachers with minimal effort on their part. With access to lessons, K-12 teachers can enrich or scaffold instruction while taking advantage of existing platforms such as breakout rooms in Zoom to teach students in small groups.
  • Implementation of Home Visits and Check-ins – Some schools are implementing home visits for those who opt into complete remote learning or who do not engage regularly with the remote learning protocols. Especially in hybrid environments, it’s important to keep these students as engaged as those who are in the classroom each week. 
  • Rebuilding the Future of Education – Some schools are using the current situation as an opportunity to evaluate what works and what doesn’t and take “foundational learnings from the pandemic to continue to reimagine and redesign the current industrial model of education.” While the situation is not ideal, the opportunity to learn what can be changed and how students can be supported in new and creative ways has the potential to leave a lasting impact on education.

While there have been significant improvements across the country from April 2020 to February 2021, with many districts working to close the digital divide and the constant effort to improve the quality of remote learning, the risk of a growing gap continues. McKinsey describes the various actions that states and district have taken to address the gap:

Despite these efforts, an October Census report showed that 9% of households with K-12 students still lack or occasionally lack internet access or the necessary devices to participate in remote learning, and Black and Hispanic households are 3-4 percentage points less likely to have reliable access than white households. And 12% of students don’t have access to live teachers. 

It’s with these challenges in mind that school districts are working to implement initiatives like those above and supplement teacher materials to free up time for live instruction, improve student engagement, and provide real-time feedback to both students and teachers to ensure better learning outcomes. 

Learn more about how schools are addressing the challenges teachers and schools have faced in the last year in our white paper: Supporting Teachers and Helping Students Excel in an Unprecedented Year.

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