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We are nearing the end of a pandemic, but some students are being left behind

Student Behind back of books
Student Behind back of books

Students across the state have fallen behind in their academic, social, and behavioral development and schools are trying to catch them up.

In 2023 many people believe that the pandemic is over - but many schools across Illinois are still experiencing the devastating effects of COVID-19.

Experts say the lockdowns, quarantines, and frequent exposures have caused many students to fall behind in their academic, social, and behavioral development. Now that schools are mostly back to normal, teachers are faced with the daunting task of catching these kids back up while keeping the other kids progressing.

Chris Simpson, the Superintendent of the Richland County School District, says it is still up in the air as to how long that will take.

“It’s also difficult to determine how long lasting and how impactful that is going to be. Are we looking to try and address something that is going to be corrected over one or two school years and we can get students caught up or is it something that is going to persist even longer? I think that's a question that still remains to be answered” Simpson said.

While he may not know how long it will take, Simpson says he is still taking action to get students back where they need to be. Richland County has begun increasing staff and lowering the number of students in each class to increase the amount of hands-on instruction for each student. This may help academically, but Simpson has a completely different plan for helping younger students with their behavioral development.

One of the things we have attempted to do is increase the number of counselors and school social workers.
Chris Simpson, Superintendent of the Richland County School District

We have been fortunate that we have been able to have a grant partnership with a local health department that provides some behavioral health services for our students and provides counseling services within the school for some of our students” Simpson said.

Richland County leaders may not know when these plans will bring the kids back up to speed, but some school leaders across the state believe their students are already caught up. The Superintendent at New Simpson Hill Grade School, Joe Nighswander, says their after school tutoring and summer school programs have helped bring their state test scores back to their normal range.

“So New Simpson Hill, we saw the same thing. We had a 32.6 percent in math meeting or exceeding. Then after the pandemic, that dropped to around 21 percent. Now we are back at roughly over 30 percent” Nighswander said.

He also credits the school’s ability to come back to in person instruction in the fall of 2020 with a test-to-stay policy as a massive help to their progress.

“We were kind of fortunate here at New Simpson Hill because we’re a small district. The year after the pandemic, we were in school full session. We didn’t have group A show up one day and group B show up another day. Here we were able to do that and social distance them in the cafeteria, so we had every kid here every day” Nighswander said.

In Johnson County, Vienna High School has also seen lots of success in catching their kids up since they came back to in person instruction in the Fall of 2020. Vienna High School superintendent, Josh Stafford, says their school is now better off due to the pandemic. He says being forced into online learning has helped teachers, students, and administrators learn how to implement it into the day to day teaching at their high school.

“Students have access to these online learning management systems even though they are in the classroom face to face. I can get home, pull out my Chromebook or whatever my device of choice is and pop up the video of the lecture that my teacher gave today. They can pull that out and rewatch that instructor teach that lesson. All of the content is there, the references are there, and their parents have access to that to help support that learning outside of the normal school day. That’s a huge win. We’ve never, our students have never, and our parents have never had that level of access” Stafford said.

This dual instruction has helped students succeed within the high school classroom and their college classroom.

“Out of the southern 52 high schools in Illinois, by percentage, we are in the top five percent of having Illinois state scholars and that continues to be the case. We have over 12 percent of our senior class graduating with their associates degree this year” Stafford said.

Stafford says the pandemic has forced them to become proactive with their students' futures. He says they have hired student success coaches to help guide students along the path to whatever their desired career is.

“Ten times a year is the exposure we are trying to get. Is to say: hey what are you thinking post high school? What is that gonna look like? Do you want to go into a career of journalism? Do you want to go into a career of, fill in the blank whatever it is and whatever that career interest is or those career interests are, what’s a pathway to get there. They’re sitting down and developing a roadmap of what it looks like” Stafford said.

They have multiple career paths including aviation, health occupations, and education. While some high schools are helping kids be prepared for college, many students are still struggling in their early college years. Christie McIntyre, Associate Director and Professor in the School of Education at SIU, says it is difficult to pinpoint why students are struggling.

“So one of the things that has been a topic of discussion for the last year and a half is what support do we need to be putting in place for all students at this time because we do see students that are struggling going through courses. It's hard to pinpoint whether the struggles are due to the modality, meaning online, hybrid, or face-to-face, or are students struggling at times because of social emotional struggles. We do see that more than we ever saw it before” McIntyre said.

McIntyre says a factor in student academic struggles is that asynchronous online courses are not meeting the needs of the students.

“He had done an inventory of how many classes we are offering this semester, how many are online, how many are hybrid, and how many are face to face. Then his question to all of us was: are we meeting the needs of our students; is this what our students want? What we’re finding as far as performance goes is that asynchronous courses are not serving students well and students are telling us they’re not as happy with asynchronous coursework” McIntyre said.

Further down the road, I started being less motivated to do school work. Just staring at a computer all day was weighing on me.
Kiely Corinthian, SIU Student

Kiely Corinthian, a Freshman at SIU, says her online courses have lowered her motivation within the class.

“Further down the road, I started being less motivated to do school work. Just staring at a computer all day was weighing on me. So that, in a way, affected me” Corinthian said.

McIntyre is trying to fix this within her own department but she believes more needs to be done. She says too often, colleges and universities focus on retention - but not specifically how well the students are doing in their classes.

“I think there needs to be a larger faculty discussion about outcomes, learning outcomes related to asynchronous coursework versus synchronous versus hybrid versus face to face” McIntyre said.

This conversation is being had at all levels with many schools in the state making progress towards helping their students after the pandemic. Even with this progress, there is still much work to be done to help kids take their world that was turned upside down and try to make it right again.

Ethan Holder is a student contributor for WSIU Public Broadcasting located at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Contact WSIU Radio at 618-453-6101 or email wsiunews@wsiu.org
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