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Students are struggling to read behind masks and screens during COVID, but 'expectations are no different'

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Phaedra Simon, a single mom of three from Opelousas, Louisiana
I’m not trained to teach them how to read. It’s totally different from how I learned.

Simon worked hard to keep her children — ages 9, 8 and 7 — on track when they started the year virtually like everyone else in the St. Landry Parish school district. She even quit her job to give her youngest the attention he needed.

But as soon as the chance came to return to in-person learning, she seized it, even as she continues to worry about their health. “I’m not trained to teach them how to read,” Simon said. 

She’s continued working with them, reading at home together every night. “I’m still nervous, waiting to see their new report cards,” Simon said. 

School looks different for kids and parents during the COVID-19 pandemic

Kindergarteners and their parents explain what school is like a year into the COVID-19 pandemic.

USA TODAY

‘Roll with it’

Nearly a year into remote learning, instilling good learning habits remains a daily mission for Pam Bowling, a first grade teacher at Allen Elementary School in eastern Kentucky. She peppers every virtual lesson with positive narration — “Good job! I hear reading books being opened!” — a management technique usually reserved for kids off-task in an actual classroom. 

Only now, the 6- and 7-year-olds in Bowling’s class log on from their homes, many still donning pajamas.

Pam Bowling, a first grade teacher at Allen Elementary School in Allen City, Ky., reviews sight words with her class during a Feb. 15, 2021 virtual lesson.

Pam Bowling, a first grade teacher at Allen Elementary School in Allen City, Ky., reviews sight words with her class during a Feb. 15, 2021 virtual lesson.
Floyd County Public Schools

“Make sure we’re sitting up,” Bowling trilled at the start of her daily 9 a.m. reading session. “I want you to be comfortable, but I don’t want you to be too comfortable, right? We don’t want to fall asleep. We want to make sure we’re sitting up, paying attention, just like we were at school.”

On a mid-February morning, one perched at a desk, another sprawled on a couch, a third sat cross-legged in her bed, a stuffed Olaf, the snowman from the movie “Frozen,” at her side.

“I’ve got ‘em with hair that looks like they’ve been shot out of a cannon,” joked Bowling, an educator for 25 years. “They’re getting up and their hair is every which way. And you can tell they’re sleepy.’” 

Even for veterans like Bowling, teaching students to read over a video conference call is an unprecedented challenge.

Laura Taylor, early learning professor from Rhodes College
It’s particularly hard for teachers right now. I don’t think you can make the same connections, give the same in-the-moment feedback or at least as often as you might be if you had all of your students in a room and you could walk around to them and listen into them reading for a minute or two.

“It’s particularly hard for teachers right now,” said Taylor, the early learning professor from Rhodes College. “I don’t think you can make the same connections, give the same in-the-moment feedback or at least as often as you might be if you had all of your students in a room.”

In Floyd County, a community of about 36,000 in Kentucky’s rural Appalachia region, Bowling’s pleas for focus and participation are motivated by an unsettling reality: Here, poverty rates are high and educational attainment is low. There is no time to waste.

Except for a brief return to in-person classes in the early fall, Bowling, 50, has been teaching from her dining room, a “focus wall” displaying weekly spelling words and reading skills affixed to a wooden hutch behind her seat.

“I was very skeptical (of remote learning),” Bowling recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know how we’re gonna read through the camera. I don’t know how that’s gonna translate.’”

There was no sign of her early skepticism during the class’ mid-February lesson as Bowling and her students tackled sight words, spelling with the short “e” and nonfiction reading comprehension. Bowling, who said she can be her own worst-critic, said she tries to remember the setup is only temporary.

“It’s just swallowing the fact that ‘Hey, this is what I’ve been dealt with,’” she said. “It might not be the best, it may not be the easiest approach, but — and I say this almost every day to my parents and kids — we’re just gonna roll with the hand we’re dealt.”

The next day, a brutal snow and ice storm would knock out power for nearly 48 hours. Just a few days after that, another momentous challenge loomed: With little time to prepare, Bowling and her kids would ease back to in-person classes on a hybrid schedule, a litany of health and safety routines now added to her charge. 

“We’re just gonna roll with it,” she said.

WATCH: Three third grade teachers, three perspectives

Learning letter sounds behind a mask

When schools shuttered in March, Sydney Tolbert was a preschooler at The Libertas School of Memphis, Tennessee’s only public Montessori charter school, and was just making strides in reading, her mother said.

“She was just right there. And then all of a sudden, we just stopped,” recalled Stephanie Tolbert, who felt relief that Libertas wound up being one of the few public schools in Memphis that offered in-person classes beginning in the fall. 

“I knew that if we could get her back in school, that she would just take off,” Tolbert added. “And you could just see her. I watched her just, like, flourish. It was awesome.”

But in-person learning isn’t necessarily a pandemic panacea, especially for youngsters learning to read. In Sydney’s multi-grade classroom, teacher Toni Sudduth, a classroom assistant and the 15 students practice social distancing and wear masks even when outside. 

Second grader Skylar Tolbert, 7, peers over the shoulder of her younger sister, Sydney Tolbert, 6, a kindergartner at Libertas School of Memphis. The sisters read at home each night after school.

Second grader Skylar Tolbert, 7, peers over the shoulder of her younger sister, Sydney Tolbert, 6, a kindergartner at Libertas School of Memphis. The sisters read at home each night after school.
Courtesy photo

Although it helps that the curriculum is individualized for each student, group reading lessons, like reviewing letter sounds, have had to be abbreviated. And it’s a challenge for students to be able to watch how their teacher’s mouth moves while sounding out letter combinations and words. Sudduth started the year with a face mask with a clear window, but it kept fogging up. She switched to a clear face shield, so she can pull down her mask behind the shield to to demonstrate how the sound is made, then pull her mask up as the class makes the sound together, placing their hands to their throat to feel the sound as well.

Sounding out words is one area where online learning platforms provide an advantage, said Emily Wakabi, a reading interventionist at Libertas. “I used to cue (students) every time, like, ‘Watch my mouth,'” she said, “and that’s not helpful this year.”

Most of Wakabi’s work with about 40 children is done in-person, but she meets online with students whose families don’t want to take the risk of returning to school. During a virtual session in February with second grader Jada Guy, they worked on blending letter sounds to make words, and learning the new letter sound “ph.” The computer froze at one point, and an animated presentation to guide Jada as she pronounced the words lagged behind.

Yet plenty of times Jada demonstrated her excitement over what she was learning, including once after writing down “pamphlet,” a new word with the letter sound she’d been practicing.

“Was that fast, Ms. Wakabi?” she asked.

“That was so fast! You are fast,” Wakabi said, explaining later that building a student’s confidence is a key to reading.

“A lot of times,” she said, “kids need the motivation and encouragement to read just as much as they need the skills.”

Encouraging conversation, confidence
First grade teacher Kristin Bosco, left, works with a small group of students in her classroom at John Sevier Elementary in Maryville, Tenn., on Thursday, February 4, 2021. Bosco allows groups of up to eight virtual students to come into the classroom for in-person English-Language Arts learning from 8:30 to 11:30 in the morning.

First grade teacher Kristin Bosco, left, works with a small group of students in her classroom at John Sevier Elementary in Maryville, Tenn., on Thursday, February 4, 2021. Bosco allows groups of up to eight virtual students to come into the classroom for in-person English-Language Arts learning from 8:30 to 11:30 in the morning.
Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

This Zoom meeting featured more personality than you see in the typical office call. A child sipped water too close to the computer. Another yawned, mouth wide open to the screen. A third sat obscured by his pencil box, which was positioned in front of the camera.

Kristin Bosco no longer gets distracted by such sights. The first grade teacher at John Sevier Elementary in Maryville, Tennessee, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains has 17 students in her virtual class. 

She’s grown accustomed to it by now, even if it might never feel normal to teach reading over a computer screen. While the children read a passage about a king, seeking words with the “ng” sound, Bosco flipped through her Zoom panel to see each face to make sure everyone paid attention.

Between tasks, the children talk with each other, something Bosco said she believes is important for their social growth. Learning this way has given her a window into the children’s home life that she didn’t always have. She hears about — and often sees — the children’s pets and learns things like when a parent switches jobs.

Conversations like these are an important foundation to literacy, helping children build vocabulary and practice what they’re learning on the page.

“Allowing children to talk more is really important,” said Holmes from UL Lafayette. “Teachers are trained to get children talking to each other. They’re not learning that original, authentic language otherwise.”

After the class reading, students broke up into groups based on their reading level. Teacher’s aide Kim Wood worked with one group, while Bosco stayed with another. Two groups occupied themselves with independent activities. The groups rotate each day.

Bosco worked with two boys who need the most support, taking turns with them reading a digital book about ice cream. One boy, Kian, told his teacher how much he loves ice cream, making a connection between it and the smoothie he has every night.

Anjenette Holmes, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Picard Center for Child Development & Lifelong Learning.
Allowing children to talk more is really important. They’re not learning that original, authentic language otherwise.

Kian’s mom, Adrienne Schwarte, said virtual learning has allowed her to witness more of the learning process than she might otherwise see. Schwarte, a college professor, and her husband recently added a reading nook to their home to give Kian and his brother opportunities to read.

“We’ve seen his confidence level really grow with reading,” Schwarte added. “I would say Kian was probably a little bit of a slower reader at his grade level at the beginning of the year compared to some of the other students, and he’s really picked up over the last three or four months.”

‘Expectations are no different’
Lisa Gemar, a third grade language arts teacher at Northside Elementary School in Clinton, Miss., monitors her students virtually as they work on an end-of-the-week assessment Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Gemar treats her students as if they are in the classroom: building relationships, upholding accountability, watching for any difficulties and working extra with students who need it.
Lisa Gemar, a third grade language arts teacher at Northside Elementary School in Clinton, Miss., monitors her students virtually as they work on an end-of-the-week…
Lisa Gemar, a third grade language arts teacher at Northside Elementary School in Clinton, Miss., monitors her students virtually as they work on an end-of-the-week assessment Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Gemar treats her students as if they are in the classroom: building relationships, upholding accountability, watching for any difficulties and working extra with students who need it.
Barbara Gauntt/Clarion Ledger

At the start of the school year, third grade teacher Lisa Gemar was asked to be one of 11 virtual teachers needed for children who didn’t want in-person learning at Northside Elementary School in the Clinton, Mississippi, school district. It was an adjustment, but she was up to the challenge.

“The expectations are no different,” Gemar, a 10-year teaching veteran, said of leading a class in a Zoom session. “I’m still able to pick up on what they’re struggling with and we’ve built a really great relationship even virtually through a screen.”

Just like their peers who are learning in-person, the virtual students take weekly assessments so teachers can review what areas students need extra work in. Students who need more help meet daily with an intervention specialist for 30 minutes.

The transition to virtual learning was eased by Clinton’s eight-year track record as a one-to-one district, meaning every student gets their own laptop or tablet.

In the Madison County School District north of Jackson, Mississippi, some technology issues have meant more students need additional intervention, said Christyl Erickson, the district’s curriculum director. 

“Some (students) are coming back that were — unfortunately, because they had no internet and even hotspots that we provided did not help — some of these children were packet learners,” Erickson said. “Their parents taught them. Now, we did have very few of those, but that’s still a gap we have to close for these kids.”  

This isn’t a surprise to the experts, who fear the pandemic will only widen achievement gaps.

“Knowing what we know about how education inequity works I would think it’s more likely that we’re going to see larger gaps between schools, between districts, because of those different kinds of financial resources,” said Rhodes College’s Taylor. “I hope that our national conversation around that is focused on the different types of resources provided to those groups rather than to look at them as individual failings.”

If early readers get the resources in time and attention that they need, UL Lafayette’s Holmes is optimistic they can overcome the pandemic’s challenges.

“Children are strong and can bounce back quickly, sometimes a lot faster than adults,” Holmes said. “With consistent routines in place, whether learning at home or at school, I have hope that they will catch up.”

Early childhood education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from Save the Children. Save the Children does not provide editorial input.

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