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Collateral damage

By Staff | Mar 11, 2022

Those who predicted that children would be among those least affected by COVID-19 were both right and very, very wrong.

The virus that spurred the worldwide pandemic did, thankfully, medically affect children the least but it has, nonetheless, made kids COVID longhaulers, possibly for life.

Call it COVID-slide, call it learning loss, but recognize the collateral damage the pandemic has wrought on our school-age children for what it is:

Little Johnny and Jenny can’t read.

Nor are they — along with more than half of their young elementary school peers — able to do grade level math.

The shortened school year as the pandemic opened followed by a non-traditional school year that included distance learning, followed by the current school year fraught with absenteeism, staff shortages and the need to play academic catchup have, well, caught up to our kids with the potential for serious long-term effects.

According to an update presented to the Lee County School Board this week, with key assessment tests rapidly approaching, 56 percent of second graders — kids who never got the benefit of a “normal” school year — are performing at a kindergarten level in reading basics.

The result?

Teachers are having to start over with fourth-quarter kindergarten phonics with these struggling little guys because, as Teaching and Learning Director Dr. Bethany Quisenberry succinctly put it, “You need phonics to be able to read. What we are seeing with first and second grade students is they are still unable to read.”

These children are not the only ones at risk.

Lee County schools — and schools across the state — are seeing significant drops in the number of children who are meeting grade-level goals in reading, math and other subjects.

As measured by scores on the Florida Standards Assessments test for language arts for third graders — a key education benchmark as third grade is when students stop learning to read and begin reading to learn — the number of children hitting the minimum “passing” achievement level of a 3 or above dropped a whopping 8 percentage points between 2019 and 2021 here in Lee County.

The percentage of children earning a 3, 4 or 5 on the state standards test went from 58 percent hitting the minimum standard or higher in 2019 to 50 percent in 2021.

That means half of third graders failed to hit the minimum standard of a 3 — which is a “satisfactory” — and scored either at a 1 — inadequate, highly likely to need substantial support for the next grade/course — or a 2, below satisfactory, likely to need substantial support. A 4 is the level at which a student is determined to be proficient in the subject. A 5 denotes that a child has mastered the subject and is highly likely to excel the following year.

What this means is that half of our third graders were not reading anywhere near grade level in 2021 with additional declines in the numbers expected this year.

According to Department of Education numbers, these third grade test results for subject proficiency are not unique to that grade level.

Overall numbers for grades 3-10 for language arts dropped from 53 percent of students earning a 3 or above to 49 percent hitting satisfactory or better; in grades 6-8, the number fell from 53 percent to 49 percent; and for grades 9-10, the number dipped from 50 percent to 48 percent.

Declines may be seen the math side as well, according to district officials.

A couple of things.

No, we never thought the pre-pandemic proficiency numbers were acceptable. Combined “below satisfactory” and “inadequate” achievement scores in the high 40s denotes a system failure from the state level down to underperforming districts of which we have previously said Lee is one.

But the district can’t fix this one on its own.

What it’s going to take is additional learning time in the classroom and at home, during school, after school and, for many, summer school.

We’re not talking about “homework” but putting kids into seats in front of those qualified to teach. The numbers also show that’s how to mitigate the learning loss as children who learned in on-campus classrooms scored higher.

Qualified teachers, the money to pay them, and a unified commitment to support their efforts are key.

It’s going to be a long road ahead but we’re all — emphasis on all — going to have to walk it.

These second graders who can’t yet read? They’re more than half the would-be Class of ’32.

We need to make sure they get there.

The alternative would be devastating.

They, and their peers both older and younger, will come to be called our lost generation.

And the fault won’t be due to COVID.

The fault will be ours.

— Breeze editorial