By Alex Rohr, NDU Communications

While teachers, paraprofessionals and education staff rose to every challenge they faced this past year with a heroic commitment to serving students and communities, the unprecedented shifts in learning structure meant some of the most vulnerable students may now be struggling more than ever.

What’s referred to as a “learning gap” or “unfinished learning” became apparent as swift changes to education meant most students and teachers worked remotely or on staggered hybrid schedules, at least for a time. These fluctuations occurred while many students encountered new stresses at home or in their communities, including the economic and cultural repercussions from a pandemic that killed more than half a million Americans and put roughly 100,000 North Dakotans out of work.

The new stresses reverberated across every part of society and made canyons out of cracks that don’t always draw enough attention from the public, including in education. Where inequality or a lack of opportunity and access existed long before COVID-19, the pandemic expanded the divide.

The gaps are clear in data collected by Dr. Ellie Shockley, an institutional researcher at the North Dakota University System. The trends show the groups most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic were those who already experienced barriers prior to COVID-19, in particular low-income students, Indigenous students, students who receive special education, and English as a second language learners.

“Part of that is that’s always what happens,” said Shockley, an ND United Public Employee, Local #4660, member. “COVID just exacerbated the existing disparities. That’s just kind of the trend we see in general. COVID didn’t create these disparities. Students who live on the margins for one reason or another are already just more vulnerable. If you’re already vulnerable, then bad things happening hits you harder.”

Shockley compiled the best North Dakota data available to examine ongoing concerns around the COVID-19 learning gap. The issue has received national and statewide attention, including targeted funding for states and localities to address it through President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which also featured assistance for working families in challenging economic circumstances that affect learning every day.

Although analyses involved only a sample of students because the pandemic led to the cancelation of 2020 state assessments, Shockley juxtaposed winter 2019-20 interim assessments prior to COVID-19 shutdowns to comparable assessments made approximately 12 months later. The result is a snapshot the Department of Public Instruction can use as a guide for the challenges that students and educators are facing together and how the state and districts can support them.

“If they’re not addressed, it could cause some real struggles down the line,” Shockley said.

One sociological through line across vulnerable groups is poverty and economic stress. Among low-income students who previously performed math at grade level, 34% now perform below grade level, according to Shockley’s report.

“A kid raised in poverty may be more likely to have neurological or behavioral struggles,” Shockley said. “There are just all these social forces that are really deeply entangled. Students are just going to need more support to even have the hope of catching up.”

While there may be new attention to the learning gap, the problem is likely to persist unless state leaders recognize these disparities have been here all along and that a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. That includes providing teachers, paraprofessionals and schools with the support they deserve and need as part of addressing the longtime educator recruitment and retention crisis.

Special education concerns

Krisanna Peterson, a member of the Mandan Education Association, is a paraprofessional who serves students with disabilities. She’s also the mother of a son with special needs, including autism and asthma.

Of special education students who previously performed writing at grade level, 63% now perform writing below grade level, according to Shockley’s report.

Peterson is more concerned about the loss in socialization some children are experiencing from being away from other kids their age, especially those with longer stints learning from home.

“It could be more stressful because they’re not used to that stress at school, and it was kind of a dramatic change for some kids,” Peterson said. “I think we shouldn’t judge kids the way they are right now. We just need to accept them. We’ve all gone through this trauma together, and we’re figuring out the best way out of it.”

Students who transfer districts often need to catch up on skills when they move to a new school using different grade-by-grade standards than their old one, she said. However, helping students with disabilities meet their potential often involves a lot of trial and error and personal attention, she said.

“Working with each kid is so different. They say if you’ve met one kid with autism, you’ve met one kid with autism,” Peterson said. “We just need to find them where they’re at and work with them.”

Recruitment and retention

This legislative session North Dakota United successfully advocated for 1% increases for each of the next two years for public education, including a provision that requires 70% of new state money to go toward raises for teachers and support staff. But there’s still a long way to go, even with new money coming from Washington, D.C.

“We know that we are in fierce competition with other states for high-quality teachers at a time when fewer individuals are choosing teaching as a profession. The answer to recruiting and retaining teachers is not to lower our standards and make it possible for just anyone to teach. The answer is to invest in the profession and give our educators the respect, autonomy, and supports they have earned,” said NDU President Nick Archuleta.

North Dakota United has long supported local control and solutions along with state funding and policies to make district-by-district problem-solving possible.

While educators are among those most concerned over bridging the pandemic-related learning gap and other disparities, they were also asked to go far above and beyond over the last year, adding new pressure on the teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

Even before the pandemic, North Dakota universities and colleges were graduating enough teachers, but schools have not been able to attract enough of them to the classroom or keep them in the profession for a variety of reasons. Signs of stress were even more apparent this year as teachers did everything in their power to serve their students, schools, and communities while experiencing the same external COVID-19 challenges as everyone else.

A North Dakota United member survey early this year showed that 83% of those polled said when they became a teacher, they intended to retire from the profession. At the time of the poll, only 50% say they were likely to retire as a teacher, a dramatic drop which could exacerbate the challenge of recruiting and retaining teachers. Of particular concern is that the shift was strongest among younger teachers who also have significant experience. Members between the ages of 30 and 39 shifted from 82% planning to retire as teachers to only 38%.

“While we believe the best solutions to address disparities in education are made at the local level, the state must continue to improve its policies and funding for public education and educator support, especially in light of the pandemic. Teachers know better than anyone that many students need specialized support and do their utmost to provide it. But we cannot continue to draw from the same well that is running dry. Our state must invest in its teaching professionals and hire more teachers to decrease class sizes,” Archuleta said.

Support for Indigenous students

While part of bridging the learning gap must feature investments in educators, paraprofessionals and support staff, other resources include access to early childhood education and healthy food as well as curriculum that incorporates children’s unique abilities, experiences and culture.

Sashay Schettler, Bismarck Public Schools’ first full-time Indian Education Director, is developing the district’s Indigenous Education Program. She said for most of these students and Indigenous students specifically, COVID-19 ramifications and systemic issues, including racism “can’t be divorced, they’re just so connected.”

“Every time something big like this hits, Indigenous peoples are hit harder,” said Schettler, who is a citizen of M.H.A. Nation.

Among Native students who previously performed writing at grade level, 61% are now writing below grade level, according to Shockley’s report.

Throughout the pandemic, many districts allowed students to choose virtual learning from home. And with that option available, Indigenous students were more likely to choose distance learning, Schettler said. Their decisions were influenced by a longstanding lack of sense of belonging in their educational environment as well as a virus that did disproportionate damage in Indigenous communities, including higher death rates and greater impact on young people amplifying longstanding disparities.

“Our students should be able to see themselves every day. They shouldn’t have to put their identity on the shelf when they walk into Bismarck Public Schools, and as a former graduate that’s what I had to do,” Schettler said.

Bismarck’s Indigenous Education Program is early in the planning stages, but the process will and must incorporate Indigenous voices, including parents and students, Schettler said. It should also include teaching contemporary examples of Indigenous success to balance a longstanding narrative.

“We know that we can’t have community collectively without a common history, without our common values, and a lot of these overlap,” Schettler said. “I think that strength can be found in collaboration and community. The work that needs to happen is about all of us, and when we are able to address these issues and heal, we will be able to move forward and create a community that looks out for each other.”

NDU organizer Alex Rohr can be reached at alex.rohr@ndunited.org.