Pandemic Kindergartners Need Extra Support in First Grade

Teachers need more help to be able to provide the individualized attention they say children in the early grades need to recover from the time they missed in school.
Blog Post
May 13, 2022

In a January speech, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, touted the $130 billion in federal funds that schools across the country should now be able to access to help with Coronavirus recovery. He called on local districts to invest in strategies to make up for lost instructional time, such as high dose tutoring, family engagement, and professional development for teachers and paraprofessionals. While reopening schools and keeping them open is critical, Cardona said that, on its own, is insufficient.

In interviews, educators across the country report that children—particularly Black and Brown children and those from families with low-incomes— are behind on academic benchmarks and that widespread interventions are needed. Research shows the pandemic has widened existing achievement gaps. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed $500 million over five years to train and hire literacy coaches and specialists, so all students can have access to well-trained teachers and “rich literacy environments.” In Texas, last year the State Legislature passed a new law requiring schools to offer extra hours of targeted instruction to students who are behind on state testing.

Yet despite these new federal funds and calls from state leaders, teachers on the ground say they still don’t have the support they need to provide enough individualized instruction.

Elizabeth Scarboro, an elementary literacy coach in Berkeley, California, wrote about coming back to school last fall in the Boston Globe. Though elementary schools reopened in person in Berkeley last spring, not all students returned. And this school year, due to remaining concerns about the virus, Scarboro writes “some students are more ‘back at school’ than others.”

For her students who are economically disadvantaged, many attended little online school at all during the 18 months school buildings were closed. Parents who were essential workers were not able to supervise online learning at home and some of these same parents remain wary of the pandemic to which they have lost family members. Scarboro reports some of her students are still being kept home this year when cases rise in a classroom, for example, or when they are needed to care for younger siblings. Some have not returned to school at all.

The New York Times reports that chronic absences have skyrocketed since the pandemic, affecting children’s ability to learn and exacerbating existing inequities between children from families with low-incomes and their more advantaged peers.

Scarboro is seeing this firsthand in Berkeley. First graders, she said in a follow-up interview, who had not attended much online school in kindergarten, have struggled this year. “They can’t really fully participate in what’s happening in class,” she said. For first grade students who are just mastering letter sounds, Scarboro said, it can be challenging for them to be in class with other students who are already reading words. Students get frustrated and develop feelings of anxiety about lessons and lose confidence in their own abilities, all of which may have long-term consequences for their journey through school.

Scarboro is working closely with teachers to try to give children the individualized, targeted attention they need, but with staff shortages it has been difficult. The school district pulled non-classroom teachers to cover classrooms at various points in the year when teachers were out sick—using district employees and even administrators when possible to preserve support for classroom teachers. But schools need more well-trained educators to support their most vulnerable students. Though more interventions are planned in Berkeley Unified, Scarboro said that the teachers she works with have not yet seen the large influx of tutors or extra staff in classrooms they were hoping for.

“We are all realizing there is no quick fix,” she said.

EdSource has been reporting on how districts in California are spending their COVID relief funds. According to their analysis, districts have plans to use the funds for everything from tutoring, to more mental health services, to summer activities, to covering existing budget deficits. Districts also used funds for virus mitigation like air filters and protective gear. But it can take a long time for this money to actually be felt on the ground in classrooms and researchers say school districts should make sure that the “scale of their catch-up efforts matches the magnitude of their students’ losses.” And in California, like many places, teacher and staff shortages are further hampering school districts' abilities to meet existing needs. Many positions remain unfilled.

Maggie Berger is a former first grade teacher and now a reading specialist in San Antonio, Texas. Her school serves immigrant families from Central America, Mexico, and Afghanistan. There were many families in her district who continued to choose online learning even after classrooms had opened, Berger said. And when students did come to school there was not always a physical teacher in the classroom. This school year, Berger said, has been very challenging.

“We have many kids who are still playing catch up,” she said. Most of her first graders are still working on their letter sounds. “They did not get what they needed in kindergarten. They don’t have handwriting. They don't know how to form letters.”

As the only reading specialist in the building, Berger is stretched thin with her support duties, while at the same time being pulled to cover classrooms when teachers are absent. The district has invested in a new reading curriculum, but she said more training for teachers is needed.

Berger is concerned teachers at her school don’t have the training they need to meet the moment. Many of them were new teachers when the pandemic started, she said, and now are “out of habit with how to teach in person.” She is seeing “a lot of sitting, a lot of videos, a lot of worksheets,” which she notes is not how research shows young children learn best.

Educators say they desperately need more time to train and to plan alternative ways of structuring their classrooms and schedules to meet the needs of students in this phase of the pandemic. Kids came back to school last fall with a myriad of different academic needs.

Scarboro said she wishes there was more acknowledgement of the diverse developmental levels and learning needs in each classroom. “Everybody is now teaching a multigrade class,” she said, “and no one has been trained to do that.”

Whit Hayslip, an education consultant and former assistant superintendent of Early Childhood Education for Los Angeles Unified School District, says that classrooms have always had a variety of developmental levels, but COVID has really magnified those differences. Teachers today need support to be able to individualize learning to each student’s needs.

One solution, some experts like Haylsip believe, is to take a more developmental approach. While we should have high expectations for all our children, “how do we do that in a way that honors the differences that kids bring to us?” Hayslip asks. The pandemic, he said, “is an opportunity to get us away from [rigid] grade-level expectations and instead to really look at and support the developmental continuum.”

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