School officials grapple with ‘learning gap’

Extending school year, tutoring among suggested responses to pandemic’s effects on students

By Brayden ZenkerNDNAEF

BISMARCK – As the coronavirus pandemic continues across the country and the world, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler is looking for ways to address a student learning gap blamed on the virus and schools’ attempts to contain it.

On Feb. 18, in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee’s Education and Environment Division, Baesler outlined the scale of that gap and potential ways to address it. She reported that 27-28% of students who had tested at grade level in 2019 for reading, writing and math fell below grade level in 2020. 

Baesler outlined several potential responses: extending school calendars, increasing access to summer school, providing high impact tutoring during the school day and out of school tutoring.

Some responses would require additional funding, and one would require direct legislative action. Under current North Dakota law, K-5 students may only attend summer school if instruction is considered remedial, for students who fall below the 60th percentile on standardized or teacher-developed tests or have a C or below during the school year that just ended. House Bill 1436 would remove the remedial language. 

About 40 educators and other interested parties had provided feedback on the proposals, Baesler said. That group cautioned against a “one size fits all” approach and wanted school districts to have the freedom to develop ways to address the learning gap. 

Several school superintendents and a parent contacted for this story echoed that message.

“I think each plan needs to be customized based on the needs of the students,” said Jill Louters, superintendent of New Rockford-Sheyenne School District. “I would encourage individuals in those decision-making positions to defer to their local districts to make decisions that are right for that district.”

Louters’ district is attempting to close the gap by creating an engagement program during June, describing it as a “fun summer camp.” The goal for the program is to increase student engagement and find creative ways to teach them. 

“Our priority need is re-engaging students and our families and communities in education,” Louters said. “We need to remind ourselves, remind our students, that learning can and should be engaging and fun.”

Louters said the best way for the Department of Public Instruction to support them is to open up pathways for funding.

Erin Wood, a parent in Devils Lake, said she wasn’t surprised by the gap in learning from the pandemic. She has four children who vary in grade level from first grade to a sophomore in college. 

“I don’t think you can have an episode happen like the pandemic and not expect there to be gaps or other situations pop up,” Wood said. 

She has been amazed, she said, by the response of the Devils Lake School District, which is fully open now after starting the school in a hybrid format. 

“As a parent, I have been nothing short of astounded at the way our local school district handled learning with our kids,” Wood said. “They were fantastic with the way they responded.”

She agrees that the district needs freedom in addressing the learning gap. 

“It’s different for every family and every family is going to have to look at what works best for them,” Wood said. “I think it’s up to each individual school district to decide what’s best.”

Beth Zietz, superintendent of New Town Public Schools on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, also advocated for district freedom.

“Our students are unique and our situation here on the reservation is very different from others,” Zietz said. “The whole ‘one-size fits all’ mandate just doesn’t work in North Dakota schools because each school is so different.”

New Town public schools started the school year off completely online and only opened for all students on Jan. 19. 

Zietz said that when the school district went virtual many families struggled due to lack of internet access. The school district provided mobile hotspots called Jetpacks for around 40 families. The school district provided them free of charge and also paid the monthly fees. 

“We also worked with the [MHA Nation] tribe to make sure that each child has an electronic device that was appropriate for online learning,” Zietz said. 

John Barry, the Glen Ullin public schools superintendent, said he wasn’t surprised by the drop in test scores. 

“All scores are going to decline to a certain extent just because there’s not a substitute for in-house learning,” Barry said. 

He said he agrees freedom needs to be left to the districts on how they develop ways to close the learning gap. He thinks eventually the learning gap will close naturally, although he predicts it may take a couple years. 

“Overwhelming [students] and changing their schedule and then adding another program in the summertime, I don’t foresee that being the answer,” Barry said. 

Barry said he already sees progress since students have been able to return to school in-person. He said teachers are able to work with students independently and in small groups to address areas where they are struggling. 

“There’s so much more to academics than just the grades,” Barry said. “The mental and emotional well-being of a child really suffers [from virtual learning]. We all need to have interactions with each other.”

One of the more controversial proposals under consideration would extend the current school year into June and begin the next in early August. Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, the union for educators in the state, said he would be surprised if Baesler were to go that route.

School calendars are created by each district’s local school board, and Archuleta said many boards started developing school calendars in January. 

“It takes them time,” he said. “You have to have your calendar in place so you know what your budget needs to look like.”

Archuleta believes that the learning gap will vary district to district so plans to address it need to be left to those districts. “You’ll have families and school districts that would be upset if that ‘one-size fits all’ plan doesn’t fit them,” he said. “We need to narrowly focus on those students who really need the extra help to get caught up to where they need to be on their academic continuum.”