‘The whole community pitching in’

Because online instruction — and each child’s access to it — will vary wildly, so too will outcomes.

Some students’ brains are wired in such a way that they’ll learn to decode even if they don’t get huge doses of reading instruction. Others who struggle because of dyslexia or other issues need more direct support. Some of them will manage to get that support over the coming months.

Those are kids like 9-year-old Andrew Knox, a third-grader at Community Partnership School, a private school in North Philadelphia. The school has provided Knox with a reading specialist since first grade — and it’s done wonders for his self-esteem

“He’s doing so much better,” said his mom, Sakora Miller, 29. “But that only comes from a family — the whole community pitching in and working together.”

During the pandemic, Knox has continued to meet virtually with a tutor three times a week. His school also offers an in-person option for families, like his, that want it.

Miller says her son is thriving. She thinks it would be a different story if he was in a school with less support.

“He would have got lost,” said Miller. “He wouldn’t love school.”

Experts worry about those lost kids — the students who most need explicit reading instruction, but aren’t getting it right now. Those could be students with a diagnosed learning disability or those who just aren’t the most natural language decoders.

What happens when they return? Will they have the support and care needed to fight through the accumulated deficits? Or will they drift further into academic frustration?

“Some kids are gonna be minimally impacted. Some kids are gonna be hugely impacted,” said Fumiko Hoeft, a researcher who studies reading development at the University of Connecticut and University of California San Francisco. “And the teachers will have to deal with that widened gap when they come back.”

School districts are trying to measure those gaps, but even that task is complicated. The diagnostic tests many schools use are typically administered in-person. That’s required some to use new tests, which produce results that can’t be compared to prior years.

In a typical school year, says Elizabeth Farruggia of Mastery Schools, they’ve found the average student needs about three weeks after summer vacation to return to the reading level they’d reached at the end of the previous year. They’re not quite sure what to expect now.

That’s why Mastery is using a software system that will take student results from a diagnostic exam and generate individualized reading plans for teachers to follow. The more carefully they can pinpoint each student’s reading strengths and weaknesses, the quicker they believe students will regain lost ground.

“We have to extend the amount of time they need to catch back up,” said Farruggia. “But it doesn’t mean they’re not gonna catch back up.”

Zyiah Satterwhite and her sister Erica
Zyiah Satterwhite (left) attends second grade from her family’s dining room table, which she shares with her sister, Erica, a seventh-grader. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Room for optimism

The silver-lining hope is that COVID will reveal which online reading tools are most useful, paving the way to more options for better instruction when the virus recedes.

And there’s a universe of tools out there. Hoeft, the University of Connecticut researcher, is studying the effectiveness of a digital reading game developed in Finland to see if it can help young children mitigate COVID-related reading loss.

“While [COVID is] creating a divide right now, I’m really hopeful that this will create some good solutions for the future education of our children,” said Hoeft.

There’s also a role for parents. Even if they can’t do some of the more technical reading instruction, parents can help their children build vocabulary and critical background knowledge that feeds reading success.

Shaimaa Mustafa, the recent Egyptian immigrant, recently linked up with a family literacy program that’s helped develop her English proficiency and given her strategies to help her daughter.

After initially struggling during the COVID shutdown, Jumana made big reading gains, her mom said. She’s gone from reading simple picture books to a 100-page chapter book. The nonprofit also showed Mustafa a website where celebrities read books aloud for children.

“I use it every day before we sleep,” said Mustafa.

This constellation of strategies, experts hope, will prevent catastrophic reading regression among the nation’s youngest learners.

Parents like Yolanda Biggers, Zyiah’s mom, hope it will be enough to keep their kids engaged and on track. Biggers is confident that between Zyiah’s cheerful disposition and the support she’s getting from home, she’ll be able to make up for whatever’s lost this year.

“She’s young enough to adapt,” Biggers said. “Kids are resilient.”

For most students, it may be hard to notice the imprint left by COVID on their reading ability.

“You’re not going to likely have a whole group of kids who can’t read at all,” said Bogoni with Read by 4th. “You’re just going to have kids whose reading skills are less good than they should be.”

What happens when kids read maybe 10% worse than they otherwise would have? It’s an impossible question to answer, but a scary thought.

It’s the kind of thing West Philadelphia mom Sarina Baker, 36, thinks about with her son, Roman — who just started kindergarten.

Roman is a bright kid, but he’s struggling with the basics of letter and sound recognition. Just before the pandemic, Baker got a tutor for Roman through a shelter where they had been living and he started to embrace the challenge of reading.

But when school went online, Baker felt her son’s progress stall.

“This pandemic definitely slowed down the progress that we were making,” said Baker. “Now we’re kinda back to the attitude. He doesn’t wanna do it. We’re working on it for hours.”

As Roman’s enthusiasm drops, so does his mom’s self-esteem.

“It makes me feel like, ‘what am I doing wrong?’” she said.

Baker knows Roman will learn to read. That’s not her fear. Her fear is that he won’t learn quickly enough to thrive in school and unlock his other gifts.

“Now I feel like he’s just gonna [learn] just enough to get by,” she said. “I don’t want that for my child.”

Roman is only 6 years old. He still has his entire academic career ahead of him.

But at least when it comes to reading, the clock is already ticking.

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