Supporting Delaware’s Students in the Wake of COVID
Whether you are a parent/guardian, a student, or an educator, you have felt the academic and developmental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the spring of 2020 and the better part of the next two years, school was disrupted. And whether a student was learning virtually or in-person, their academic and social experiences were compromised.
Students navigated best they could, given challenging circumstances, shifted norms and expectations. Dances and sports were largely non-existent. As one teacher told us, “Student apathy about any activity that is not tied to their grades may have played an even bigger role on their academic performance than anyone thinks.”
Last year, a winter COVID surge caused mass absences from teachers and students. Teachers at all levels from kindergarten to college noted the difficulty of connecting with and re-engaging students in a post-pandemic world. Today, as a new school year kicks off, younger students are struggling with basic concepts like speech and motor skills, while older ones often struggle through math, writing, and even core skills, like collaborating in a group. At a state and national level, we’re seeing the results play out.
As the News Journal reported in August, Delaware state assessment scores continued to sag below pre-pandemic numbers this past school year.
“The average proficiency across all subjects and assessments is still lower than it was before the pandemic. The average math proficiency across all public and charter schools was just 30 percent in 2022, a decrease of 32 percent from 2019. [DDOE] also reported that 42 percent of students were proficient in English language arts, a 21 percent decrease from pre-pandemic rates.”
The Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) added the caveat: “With most students still learning either virtually or in a hybrid format in 2021, comparing test scores across these two years was not appropriate due to vastly different student experiences.”
Nationally, reporting from The 74 paints an even bleaker picture. American students’ scores on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — often referred to as the “nation’s report card”—showed “unprecedented declines for nine-year-olds in math and generational literacy loss.”
Their framing? “Two decades of growth wiped out by two years of a pandemic.”
Distressingly, these gaps in learning are felt most acutely among students of color and among students from low-income families. We know the economic strains of the pandemic hit these communities harder than others, too.
We realize that test scores aren’t the end-all-be-all indicator for a student’s knowledge or future success. For example, while NAEP is one of the few nationally comparable, long-term measures of student learning available, it’s not perfect. It touches only two subjects in two grade levels—and there is no incentive for students or teachers to perform well on the test.
Assessments are imperfect, but they are a helpful piece of the puzzle when understanding how a student is progressing academically, particularly in math and reading and they help to identify gaps in growth and performance, usually caused by an unequal playing field.
Moreover, these drops in academic performance were coupled with rises in mental health challenges. As the CDC reported, the isolation and stress of the pandemic has led to a mental health crisis among young people nationwide.
So, what is happening in Delaware to help our students accelerate their learning? We know that teachers need support today. Educators describe a crisis in the workforce that needs immediate attention and focus. Schools are still losing teachers and many local districts hadn’t filled all their openings as the school year started.
In the big picture, we can dig in around six common sense ideas:
- Invest more in learning acceleration since many students are a grade or two behind. The state, districts, and charters have invested in high dosage tutoring during the school year, summer and after school, with well-trained tutors showing a strong impact. Research has clearly demonstrated that this works—and investments like the increased K-three basic special education funding will help fund more adults in schools to support early literacy, a key foundation of education. We now what works and what doesn’t, so that’s a start, but we still need to find more people to actually do the work.
- Given the mental health crisis among adolescents, expand mental health supports. Delaware has made progress in this area in the last few years. Just this legislative session, the state added a mental health budget “unit” to its annual slate for elementary and middle schools, while requiring the DDOE to create a comprehensive K-12 mental health program. Another bill, HB 303 requires insurance companies to cover annual behavioral well checks and well visits for children and is supported with $500,000 in funding. And just this week, the Biden administration announced that Delaware would receive $4.8 million through the bipartisan Safer Communities Act that can be used to make our schools safer, in part, by building the holistic, wellness supports that we see at schools like Eisenberg Elementary in New Castle.
- Evaluate our inequitable school funding system now—a process the state has started—so that our schools can support our students and sustain impactful investments made by one-time spending, including mental health and family-facing positions. We do have a temporary influx of federal funds, but those will end in 2024, so before we hit that funding cliff, we need to start designing a more permanent solution. Increases to state Opportunity Funding for low-income and multi-lingual students and expanded mental health supports should help, but likely will not be enough. For example, our neighboring states New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania invest weights of $5,887, $7,390, and $7,469, respectively, more than Delaware per multilingual learner student. Delaware only invests about $600 more per pupil through Opportunity Funding.
- Invest more in early learning so that the next generation of young people are better prepared when they enter kindergarten. Positive early development not only impacts brain growth, school readiness, and later success—but also a child’s immune system and lifelong health; and the threats and burdens of racism. Delaware lawmakers committed historic increases in child care this year, and passed family-friendly bills like Paid Family Medical Leave. Still, we need to continue expanding our approaches and investments in early childhood experiences. Today, fewer than one in five Delaware children are enrolled in state-supported child care, and providers still describe average salaries of under $15 dollars an hour and crisis-level staffing challenges.
- Double down on strengthening the pathway for future teachers at the high school level as they work through K-12 and early childhood Teaching is a tough job with a less-than-stellar reputation for long hours and low pay, and shortages exist throughout the state and nation. Neighboring states like Maryland—which soon will pay teachers significantly more than Delaware—add to the challenge. We’re hopeful about expanding “Grow Your Own” (GYO) initiatives that attract candidates from within the school community. And new legislation, HB 430 provides funding to schools to create GYO programs to improve recruitment, retention, and diversity of educators in Delaware public schools.
- Expand career pathways for our high schoolers looking to transition to work and college. We need to strengthen the paths across the board, but given the particular need in mental health, we should look to emulate the GYO strategies we’re already building in education to bolster this field. As we embark on a new chapter in the expansion of career pathways in Delaware, we will be creating opportunities for early exploration with our middle schoolers, deepening our impact in high school, and engaging more employers through new industry partnerships.
The good news is that we’re making headway on many of these efforts. Delaware knows how to work together to get things done. Now is the time to crank up the urgency to support this generation of young people forced to grow up in a once-in-a-century pandemic.