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Students like mine are being left behind

Even when they’re back in school, they’re still far from being back on track.

A girl passes a "Welcome Back to School" sign as she arrives for the first day of class at Brooklyn's PS 245 elementary school.Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

I’m sitting with four second-graders at the kidney-shaped table where I teach reading groups. We’re about to read a book about pets. First I hear about my students’ pets: Hugo’s dog and Salman’s rabbit. (I’ve changed the children’s names to protect their privacy.) Then we decode a few difficult words and they read aloud quietly while I go around to listen.

This used to feel mundane but now it feels miraculous. For most of first grade I taught these students reading online. As I listen to Hugo, I think of him on the Zoom grid, frustrated because he couldn’t find his books. He’d carry his Chromebook around his apartment so I could help him look. I picture Salman sitting on his couch, surrounded by siblings and cousins, all on their own Zooms. Now we’re in the same physical space, my corner of the room I share with two colleagues. It’s a little loud with three simultaneous reading groups, but it works. You can’t imagine how well it works until it’s been taken away. I glory in being able to hand kids books, watch them form their letters, talk with them. Yes, we’re talking through masks and we’re freezing with the windows open, but we’re back together.

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And yet “back” isn’t the right word. Recently, I got this email from the principal: “We have no safety officers, secretary or PE teachers today. Stay safe everyone, and please only text or email me with urgent matters.”

Each day I learn something about school I’d taken for granted. Last September, I worked with a group of first-graders on their letter sounds. After several weeks, my students had made little progress. I tried to figure out where I’d gone wrong and realized I’d been relying on a part of the kindergarten experience they usually bring to first grade. The kindergarten classroom walls bear posters of alphabet letters with corresponding pictures. Every day teachers point to the pictures while students join their classmates in singing, “A /a/ apple, B /b/ ball. C /c/ cat, and D /d/ doll.” Last year, kindergarteners still learned the song, but they missed critical literacy immersion while in online school. My students, who attended little online school, missed it all. We started using the kindergarten alphabet pictures and singing the song, and they began making progress.

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Which points to a more problematic truth: Some students are more “back at school” than others. My first-graders and most of the kids I teach are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Many of their parents are essential workers who never had the option to work from home and oversee their online learning. Some have lost family members to COVID. Many were kept in distance learning last spring. They returned last fall, but their parents are still wary.

My school tests for COVID weekly. When a positive case occurred in my student Jemila’s classroom, her mom kept her home for two weeks. Cassia and Marcel’s mom also keeps them home when there’s a case in one of their classes. Their grandmother, who lives with them, is immunocompromised, and their mom doesn’t want to risk it. Other outgrowths of the pandemic keep my students out of school, too. Laila’s 2-year-old brother is in a day care that sometimes shuts abruptly due to staff shortage. On those days, Laila stays home alone to take care of him. Hugo missed over a week of school because of a single instance of diarrhea that triggered the public health protocol, requiring him to get a PCR test or isolate for 10 days. His mom works 12-hour shifts and couldn’t get a day off to take him to the doctor, so he had to wait out the isolation.

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Some of my students haven’t returned at all. Lucia’s mom is undergoing chemo for a brain tumor and doesn’t want to risk getting COVID, so she enrolled Lucia in our district’s small online program. Demarco’s and Jorge’s parents also kept the boys online — each family has multiple children at different schools and decided the combined risk of exposure from elementary, middle, and high school was too great.

Then there are the students who’ve just arrived, surfacing from the pandemic with little school experience. When I showed Nivelle, a third-grader, a first-grade book, she guessed wildly at the words on the page. I pulled out my earliest reader and she gave a sigh of relief. I thought about her in her new classroom, surrounded by classmates reading chapter books. I wasn’t worried about Nivelle’s self-esteem — her teacher is skilled at drawing out each student’s strengths with individualized instruction. But how would she manage that right now? The range in her class was unprecedented: from students learning letter sounds to others reading “Harry Potter.” She was teaching four grades at once, yet the district forged on with pre-pandemic benchmarks and curricular demands, giving her no freedom to adjust.

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Amri, a new second-grader, came to my reading room. We talked for a bit and then I showed him a grid of capital letters. I felt him tense up next to me. “Feel free to tell me if you don’t know any of these,” I said. His face broke into a smile. He found the four letters in his name. “I have no idea about the rest,” he said. He’d never been to school, period.

He asked if I could teach him a few letters right then. As I did, I imagined a world in which I worked with him uninterrupted for six months, or even six weeks. He’d be well on his way. The needs of Hugo and Salman, my second-graders reading at first-grade level, seemed less urgent in comparison. As did those of my first-graders who didn’t know their sounds. They’d be so much further along than Amri was now when they reached second grade. Yet if they didn’t master their sounds soon, most of what happened in class wouldn’t take hold the way it needed to. Working with Amri alone was a luxury I didn’t have. Instead, I ran through our support team’s reading groups and thought about where we could fit him in.

As we walked back to his class, Amri told me about his move across the country, to California. “One thing I didn’t expect,” he said, “snow in the desert.” I pictured his mom, ferrying her three children through the desert, with all of their belongings in a U-Haul. A baby, a 7-year-old, and a 9-year-old. A pandemic exodus.

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Classrooms across the country will be experiencing the fallout from COVID for a long time to come. Students will still be trickling back to school a year from now, and those who are already back will still be recovering from the pandemic’s many disruptions and stresses. Some people might say that students like mine aren’t behind, that the benchmarks by which we measure them are arbitrary. To me, this misses the point. Wherever you place the benchmarks, or even if you eliminate them altogether, there remains a too-great gap between my students and their peers. It’s important to meet students where they are. A second-grader who doesn’t know his letters can’t access much of second grade. Students like mine will be twice punished by the pandemic if we don’t address this gap in their learning with urgency.

I fantasize about a coordinated, multiyear infusion into the education budget. Two assistant teachers per class as students recover from the pandemic’s disruption to both their formal education and their lives. Or in the absence of extra funding, shifting our resources to meet the moment at hand — using money and time now spent on data collection and oversight to help students directly. We don’t need new assessments or curriculum to solve this crisis. We need the freedom to adjust our teaching to respond to our students and the human power to help students like Amri and so many others make up for lost time.

Elizabeth Scarboro is the author of “My Foreign Cities, A Memoir,” and an elementary school literacy coach in Berkeley, Calif.