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Summer Slide: How COVID is Impacting Education

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a full episode transcript. The transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Coronavirus is forcing K-12 educators to reimagine school as students face more uncertainty this fall. What big lessons did we learn from the sudden school shutdown in the spring? How are schools going to address summer learning loss in this new environment? Erin Anderson, a professor in educational leadership, shares how the pandemic is impacting our schools, teachers and students.  

Show Notes

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy in the Morgridge College of Education

In this episode:


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Alyssa Hurst: You're listening to RadioEd, a University of Denver podcast.

Lorne Fultonberg: We're your hosts Lorne Fultonberg...

Alyssa Hurst: ...Alyssa Hurst...

Nicole Militello: ...and I'm Nicole Militello. Today we're talking about coronavirus and schools. The virus is forcing educators to reimagine school as K-12 students face even more uncertainty this fall. The big questions that are top of mind: How can we balance student safety while still providing effective teaching? How do we manage the equity gaps students face? And has anything positive come from the chaos students and teachers are dealing with? Erin Anderson is a professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at DU. She has been spending a lot of time gathering data and thinking about these questions over the past few months. We talked with her about the big lessons learned from the sudden shutdown in the spring and how all of this could change the school system moving forward. The best place to start is with summer learning loss, what that typically means, and how it has changed with coronavirus. 

Erin Anderson: Yeah, so summer learning loss, which is also sometimes referred to as summer slide, has been a pretty well researched topic for about 30 years now, and what they found is during those months of the summer people can lose up to two months of learning that they accumulated during the school year. And that this gap is much larger for low income families than it is for other families. This gap is in reading, which has been the biggest focus, but also in math. And there has been some speculation that up to two thirds of the ninth grade gap in learning between students is explained by this summer learning loss. And so where that's really relevant to our current situation with COVID is that we went into crisis, remote learning for the last couple of months of the academic year and from all reports that looked very different across families, across schools, and across communities and so there's a real concern that that summer learning loss is going to be even more amplified by those couple of months of remote learning.

Nicole Militello: There were definitely a lot of lessons learned back in March when schools kinda had to make the shift quickly to remote. Some schools just decided to shut down all together for the year. You were just recently working on a national study kind of looking at the big takeaways from what we learned in the spring, can you just talk a little bit about that study?

Erin Anderson: Yeah, so there's a group of 16 researchers from 16 different states who are each interviewing about seven principals so we'll have over 100 principals in the sample and really just asking them in real time about what it looked like those first couple weeks when they first realized that they were going to be home for remote learning, what it looked like to settle into that remote learning for a few months and what they knew about what was gonna happen in the future.

Nicole Militello: What did they say about the biggest challenges that they faced in the spring?

Erin Anderson: Yeah, so the biggest challenges off the bat—so many were logistical, so it was things like we were talking about just getting what families had in the school building to the families, whether that be medications, whether that be the resources they need to learn, then getting them all the technology that they needed and many leaders have really recognized through that process how many of their families didn't have access to technology that they really didn't realize. 

[Also] finding all of the families. Unfortunately many schools were not able to make contact with every one of their students and their families during that time. So there was just this real quick need to logistically contact everybody, make sure everybody had all the resources that they needed and then from there they really started to be concerned about instruction and what instruction was gonna look like, how were they going to provide it in a way to students that would be workable for families, especially while parents are also still working and working at home. Many educators are parents too, so just how to do all of this in a way that's not too disruptive and that also meets the needs of the students academically. Then, universally what I've heard the biggest concern was mental health and just checking in to make sure that teachers were okay, that they weren't overly stressed, that families were okay. You know people have been dying throughout this, so there's been a lot of trauma to educators and their families and to school communities. And so I heard from many principals that they took their time together as a staff, not to talk about instruction, but just to say how are you doing, to laugh together, to do teacher appreciation and really recognize the heavy lift that teachers were doing to very, very quickly move to a remote environment.

Nicole Militello: Yeah and that's definitely something that we wanted to talk about as well just because this had a big impact on education, but that's not the entire conversation here. You know there's mental health, socialization, [and] access to food that was affecting students and teachers during this time as well. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Erin Anderson: Yeah, that's another really big one that came up. So, most school districts very quickly created a way to get food to families, particularly for lunch, and there's something called free and reduced lunch that some families are eligible for; during this time period, any family could come and access this food. And I was looking at one interview from a principal in a rural area talking about how hundreds of families actually came to the school on a regular basis to get food for not just the kid, but potentially for other members of the family as well, so that was a really big issue. And then yeah the socialization piece—what a lot of teachers did was just created informal time for kids to log on and just talk with them, talk with their friends, do a show and tell, or just find some way to connect because teenagers and younger kids were really feeling disconnected and scared. You know, no group of kids alive right now have had to deal with anything like this, and so I think there's a huge toll that it's taking on kids just trying to figure out what they should be scared of, how scared, and how to mitigate that fear.

Nicole Militello: Looking ahead to the fall have you seen any strategies that schools are using to bridge the equity gap or effectively teach online that you think is really forward thinking and could work out pretty well?

Erin Anderson: Yeah, I have heard more conversation about sort of breaking down some of the traditional structures of like we go to English class, we go to math class, we go to science class. There's an opportunity in this online environment to rely on things like gaming and all of these innovative technological tools that kids are very familiar with to kind of make learning more interesting. So I have heard conversations about how to do that. 

One thing I think is really important to think about is that in the spring of this last year that was crisis mode, so all of a sudden teachers were moving to an online environment and they were having to learn really quickly. Well we actually know a lot about how to teach online really well, and there are some benefits to it. I mean you have to be really organized, you have to have clear objectives; it really helps with planning and really thinking about the ultimate learning goals, and so I think time has allowed educators to learn all of that and I think it's gonna look really different going into next year. They're gonna be prepared. They're gonna know all the tools. They're going to understand a little bit more about how you design online learning opportunities, and I think we're gonna see really, probably very cool, innovative instruction going on. 

And I think funding is a really important part of the conversation. There's been a lot of, I would use the word threats, from the federal level that if you don't go back in person you're not gonna get funding. I just read a super heartfelt opinion piece from a superintendent. There was a teacher in Arizona who passed away while teaching summer school because she got coronavirus, even though she was in a classroom with two other teachers, there were no kids there, they were masked up, using hand sanitizer, all of these things. She passed away, and he was talking about how, if he doesn't go back to school in a face to face environment, the money they will pull from him in a pretty low-income community of Arizona could be enough to not allow the school to function. So he's stuck in this space between protecting his teachers and his kids 'cause he's seen firsthand how quickly this virus can spread in a school environment without kids even being there, and he's really being put into this position that he has to decide: do we have the money to function for the year or do you put people at risk? That's an unfair space to put people in. 

Many teachers, particularly in low-income communities and schools that don't have a lot of resources, have trouble getting paper and pens and books and they're wondering how the school's really gonna be able to afford all of the hand sanitizer and all of the cleaning supplies and all of the masks and all of those things that would be necessary, all of the temperature checks and all that would really actually be necessary for people to be safe.

Nicole Militello: And, like you said, this is unprecedented for this group of kids. What long term implications do you think this will have for them?

Erin Anderson: So you know that's the big question, right? What will be the long term implications? I have faith that teachers and schools will be able to address a lot of the instructional needs that the students are going to have. I think that that's something that they have the means to do. We have that summer gap, they're aware of it, teachers are gonna approach it, they're gonna catch up, they're gonna learn, and they're gonna be fine. I think what I've been hearing is that going back to school this upcoming year, they want to start with the social/emotional piece. They want to start with mental health, with creating structures for community, especially as it's looking like the majority of large urban districts and many, many other districts are gonna be online potentially all of the upcoming 2020/21 school year. So really at the top of their minds are how to create structures to connect kids to each other. 

In many districts, you have a decision between whether you're gonna send 'em either face to face all the time or some of the time or whether you're gonna keep 'em at home, and one of their biggest concerns is that they're gonna fall behind. And I think, in reality, while what we learn in school is very important, I do think you can create that learning environment online. So as a college professor, I had to suddenly go from face-to-face teaching—and I teach sometimes eight hour days—to teaching eight hours in a Zoom environment. And you know what? It worked out. We didn't like that we couldn't see each other and there were some drawbacks, but in terms of what my students learned at the end of both the spring and the summer quarter, they met all the learning objectives that I set out when I would teach them face to face, so I do think it's very possible. I think that it's going to require a lot of very creative thinking, particularly because there might be moving from remote to face to face and back again and there could be a lot of changes over the course of the year, but I think kids are gonna be fine. 

One concern that I do have—and this goes back, in many ways, to the summer slide—is I hear conversations about parents hiring tutors or babysitters or  people to stay with their kids all day and help them with their work, and I worry that we are gonna create an even greater what we often refer to as opportunity gap between those students who have the resources to do those things and the students that don't. And I think that's my really biggest fear. I think as long as you've got your kid engaged and they're reading and they're doing activities and you've got their minds moving on a regular basis, that's enough to probably not really make them learn any less than they were learning before. But it's those situations where somebody's not able to work with a student and not able to help them with their work, that really worries me the most.

Nicole Militello: I love what you mentioned though about how this could be an opportunity for schools to be more innovative and how years down the road when hopefully we have a vaccine and coronavirus is somewhat in our rear view mirror, hopefully this could really have shaped and changed permanently the education system.

Erin Anderson: Yeah, I mean I think it could and I've heard examples of a teacher who created an entire, like almost Dungeons and Dragons, I know there's more modern versions of it, but an entire kind of imaginary world on the internet that he's teaching within. I mean what a cool idea and something you could do in a classroom setting, but you have much more opportunity, I think, to tap into what interest kids. In reality, our current generation—they're pretty hooked into the computer and the internet and we don't want them sitting in front of a screen all day long, but I think there's unique opportunities available to really get creative. And I think when we're also thinking about small groups of students when we could be doing a lot more than 10 kids go[ing to] have a learning opportunity somewhere and then come back into a classroom. I just think we are being asked to meet some demands that might actually in the long run teach us some new things.

Nicole Militello: And you recently wrote an op-ed that was called ‘Could Coronavirus Change Our Obsession With School Testing and Accountability?’ Could you tell us a little bit more about why you think now is a good time to rethink this?

Erin Anderson: Yeah, well so we've had a really big push for accountability and testing and testing as a way to evaluate students and teachers and schools since the passing of "No Child Left Behind" in the early 2000s. We have had 20-some years of that legislation and we haven't really found that this push to accountability is improving academic outcomes and certainly not improving engagement or happiness for teachers or students. So, they couldn't do tests at the end of last year because of the disruption to learning, and I don't think that they're gonna be able to probably do them at the end of this upcoming year either. And so I think it's a really interesting opportunity to put a pause on the obsession with testing and really think about what are other ways we can evaluate if schools and students are doing well and if they're feeling successful? And I think there are more measures than just the test, and there's a very large body of research that shows that testing really is just measuring your parental education level and how much money your family has. It's not actually a very good measure of what you know. And I think this is just a great opportunity because the testing is not there. We have to rethink how we know if students are prepared or not, and so it gives us an opportunity to really think more about formative assessments, to think about multiple measures of learning, and to really reevaluate the approach that we have been taking.

Nicole Militello: And there has been a lot of talk about the negative impacts that coronavirus has had on education, but in your opinion what do you think the best thing has been to come out of this chaos for K-12 schools?

Erin Anderson: One of the things that's really been sitting with me a lot is that I think that COVID has really helped us to understand what some of the structural and institutional racism looks like in our country, and it's been found that COVID disproportionately affects communities of color in the United States. Prominent reasons are the type of jobs more people of color are working in wage positions, and we also know that people of color disproportionately suffer from heart disease and diabetes which are diseases that the coronavirus affects more aggressively. So these conditions are really linked to structural racism in our society. 

Schools are a microcosm of our society, so if communities are being disproportionately affected, the children are being disproportionately affected as well. And I really think between coronavirus and the George Floyd protests, racial equity is at the forefront of people's minds. I think that the general public is entering a conversation that educational researchers and educational professionals have been having for a long time about the role that race plays in schooling and the negative impacts of some of our systems. And I just think this is our opportunity to seize that attention, to seize that interest and really, for the first time, put some structures into place that really are anti-racist and that will provide better opportunities for our students of color in our school system. 

So, to me, recognizing all of that is uncomfortable and concerning and upsetting, but it's also an opportunity, similar to testing, for us to really take a look at what we're doing and how we can restructure it. I was saying to my sister the other day who has kids in the school system and was concerned about online learning that there can be a kid sitting in a classroom that nobody notices isn't engaging and isn't doing the work. But if they're not logging on to a computer ever, then you really have to figure out where they are and find them. And so, in some ways, there might be students that were slipping through the cracks of our system before that we can't ignore at this point because if their face is not logging on to a computer ever then we need to go find them and their family and get them logged on. And I think that is becoming something that we're seeing as more of a community effort as well.

Nicole Militello: And that just sparked a thought for me too because my sister is a teacher as well. When we're talking about teachers in this conversation in terms of the pandemic where we hear a lot about the frontline workers, the people in the hospitals, but the teachers are really on the forefront of this for the students, too. Can you just talk about what it is like to be a teacher during this time for them and having to go through all of this?

Erin Anderson: Yeah, well I think what's been really hard for many teachers is they haven't had a break. For many people, spring break got skipped, they've gone into the summer with all this uncertainty, and as a teacher the summer is usually the time where you get a little time to relax and take care of yourself, but also to start planning for the upcoming year. With all this uncertainty, it's been really hard, I think, for them to know what the next move is. But at the same time, constant communication is coming in [and] it's like they're working 24/7. As if they weren't already. I think that this really brings attention to the full spectrum of responsibilities of teachers.

Teachers, first and foremost, are sort of there to instruct and to teach the standards and the curriculum that they've been asked to teach, but they're also providing social/emotional support, they're looking out for student well being, they're settling disputes between kids on a regular basis, they're watching out for what kids might have food insecurity, they're keeping kids safe while their parents are at work. So they have all these other roles that they play in kids' lives, and they're very aware they play those roles, and they feel a really big disconnect. If they had their way, every teacher would be back in a classroom with children. They want to be able to hug a kid who's having a hard day. They want to be able to interact with them face to face. And so the teachers that are pushing back on going back in person aren't doing it because they don't want to be back in school—that's what they want more than anything. But they're being asked to put their own lives and the safety of their families at risk for what often can feel like economic reasons and, I think, that's a really big ask of people.

Nicole Militello: To read Erin Anderson's recent op-eds on equity gap and testing, see our show notes at Be sure to subscribe and review our podcast. Alyssa Hurst was our executive producer and mixed our sound for this episode. James Swearingen arranged our theme, and Tamra Chapman is our managing editor. I'm Nicole Militello and this is RadioEd.