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Richmond schools aim to counter learning loss with extra instruction

A teacher leans over a desk while helping a student with their work.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Giordana Brown, a fourth grade math teacher, helps a student during August at Fairfield Court Elementary School in Richmond.

RPS 200 lengthens the school year, but some say the approach isn’t enough.

Many Virginia schools stayed closed longer during the pandemic than in most other states — contributing to a significant loss in learning. Richmond Public Schools stayed closed the longest of all districts in the commonwealth: Students didn’t return to in-person classes until September 2021.

The district has seen one of the largest learning losses in the country, partially due to the duration of school closures in Richmond. According to research from Harvard and Stanford universities, Richmond students lost over a year and a half of both math and reading learning.

Now, in the second full year of in-person instruction since pandemic restrictions receded, RPS is still working to fill the gaps. Students at two elementary schools, Fairfield Court and Cardinal, started school four weeks early to help combat some pandemic learning loss. The pilot’s been dubbed RPS 200.

Giordana Brown, a fourth grade math teacher at Fairfield Court, said students in her class had some of the worst learning losses because they were in the middle of kindergarten when pandemic closures began.

“K through two is your foundation,” Brown said. “They missed a lot of that.”

Brown spent most of her time during the 20 extra days of instruction this year going over those foundational skills. She’s tried to make learning fun for students — often including a game or competition in the drills.

“We had to take it back to the basics, starting with three-digit numbers, then gradually moving up,” Brown said.

She thinks these extra learning days have helped get kids back on track. Most of her students are “gradually getting more proficient when it comes to looking at a number and reading it correctly, as well as identifying the place and value of the digit,” Brown said.

Fairfield Court had to get buy-in from the majority of parents and staff before moving ahead with the RPS 200 plan to add an extra four weeks of instruction. According to district data, more than 90% of both families and staff said they were OK with the extra time.

Sarah James, mother of a 5-year-old kindergartener at Fairfield Court, said she wasn’t opposed to the calendar change because “she can come from school, go to the pool … things were still open,” James said. “She wasn’t missing anything.”

James said she thinks the extra weeks in class have given her daughter a leg up in her learning after missing preschool because of pandemic closures.

Fully addressing learning loss

Experts like Tom Kane, director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, have said that just four weeks of additional learning isn’t going to make much of a dent, given the magnitude of lost learning across the district.

“Who thinks you're going to cover one and a half years’ worth of material in one-ninth of a school year’s time?” Kane told VPM News.

Nationally, the average U.S. public school student in grades 3 through 8 lost the equivalent of about a half-year in math — around one-third the amount of learning loss researchers said Richmond students experienced. Multiple factors went into that calculation: how long districts stayed closed, the percentage of students living in poverty, districts’ demographics and more. Kids who were further behind before COVID-19 are further behind now.

Because of those factors, Kane said it will take more to get Richmond kids caught up. For districts that lost a half-year of learning, he estimated: Districts would have to provide tutors to 10% of its students; provide a double-dose of math instruction to 30% of its students; provide summer school to 75% of its students; and extend the school year by 2.5 weeks for all students to truly address the scope of learning loss.

Richmond would have to do that three years in a row, Kane said. But he hasn’t seen any districts across the country come up with a plan to fully tackle the scope of lost learning their students experienced.

“It's as if people are shooting bottle rockets at the moon,” Kane said. “People are not calculating the thrust that's going to be necessary to actually get to the moon. Instead, they're trying a bunch of undersized interventions that are directionally correct but nowhere near enough.”

Following the money

Richmond schools received close to $200 million in pandemic relief funds, and has about $73 million of that remaining that the district needs to spend by next September.

The school district submitted multiple iterations of plans to the Virginia Department of Education indicating how it planned to use all three tranches of the funds. However, VDOE doesn’t track how districts actually spent the funds.

From the latest round of federal funding, the district planned to spend over one-quarter — about $34 million — on “extended school programs,” which RPS has coded to include everything from reading interventionists, student intervention liaisons, over $6 million on curriculum materials and learning software and more. VPM News requested an interview with RPS to discuss if the funds have been spent as planned but didn’t hear back by deadline.

Kane said even if RPS spent all of its $200 million in pandemic relief funds on addressing learning loss, it still wouldn’t be enough. He estimated it’d cost about 2.5 times what RPS received from the federal government to fully address the problem.

“Any district that lost more than half a year is going to remain far behind,” Kane said.

The losses didn’t just occur in the first two years of the pandemic — but also during the first year returning to in-person learning in fall 2021.

“The reopening, it turns out, disrupted even that third school year,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “Kids are getting used to coming back to school, and the bus routes don't work, and some staff are nervous to show up, some families are nervous to show up, and there’s inconsistent messaging … .”

Reopening for RPS students was messy: The district detailed multiple problems with bus routes and hundreds of families opting to keep their kids at home because of the pandemic.

Fairfield Court Principal Angela Wright said attendance has been perhaps the biggest barrier to learning at her school. Last year, 47% of students were chronically absent. That means they missed at least 18 school days or 10% of the school year.

They’re doing better this year, but she said it’s still a challenge.

“You want the kids to want to come to school; you want the parents to feel comfortable with the kids coming to school,” Wright said. “That means we may have to have home visits; we may have to have pop-up community events. We have a whole engagement team for attendance that helps support us with that.”

During a recent press conference, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons said this past school year, the number of chronically absent students statewide was twice as high as the pre-pandemic 2018-19 school year. She said there’s a correlation between absenteeism and declines in academic performance.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced a new statewide tutoring program, as well as a task force on chronic absenteeism and transportation. He challenged school districts to spend 10% of newly allocated state funds to address chronic absenteeism, 20% to implement the Virginia Literacy Act — a new law requiring evidence-based literacy instruction statewide — and 70% on tutoring for struggling and failing students. But he said districts may have to partially rely on volunteers to find tutors; VDOE has created a volunteer tutor sign up page to aid districts in finding them.

“These tutors will be the tutors that we can attract and find,” Youngkin said. “Existing teachers, retired teachers, trained tutors, pastors … we need people off the sidelines working with our children. Folks, this is an all-hands moment.”

Researchers like Roza point out that high-dosage tutoring — one-on-one or small-group tutoring at least three times a week — has been shown to get kids up to speed the quickest.

“It's also expensive,” Roza said. “And it also can be tricky to get kids to show up or to find the time for it.”

Ideally, Roza said tutoring would take place outside of the regular school day, so students don’t miss out on instruction. But she said many schools have decided to offer it during the day because of low attendance rates after school and at weekend or summer programming.

RPS has spent some of its federal COVID-relief funds on hiring reading interventionists and other programs aimed at addressing chronic absenteeism. The district earmarked $900,000 of the third and final tranche of federal funds for contracted tutoring services in its latest draft plan.

At Fairfield Court, Wright said they have been able to provide extra attention to students who need help getting up to speed — including the offer of some tutoring. During regular staff meetings, teachers come up with a plan to provide more targeted instruction for those students who need it — usually in a small-group setting.

“Whether it's a reading interventionist, whether it's a tutor, we have our reading coaches [in the classroom], supporting,” Wright said. [W]e’re all-hands-on-deck.”

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.