Recently the first studies on the impact of COVID-19 on childhood learning were published. The results are concerning. In August, the Associated Press reported that some students lost “about half of an academic year of learning.” In October, the New York Times shared that the National Assessment of Educational Progress – known as “the nation’s report card” – revealed declines in both math and reading. In reading, only about 1 in 3 students met proficiency standards.
So, how are Weld County students faring?
“What we know is that some of the growth that we had accomplished prior to the pandemic, we have seen some steps backwards. We’re now working to get kids back on track,” shared Dr. Deirdre Pilch, who has been superintendent of Greeley-Evans School District 6 since 2015. “A lot of the children in our district never had preschool, some have never had formal education. So even before the pandemic, our work has always been about closing gaps for kids.” Deirdre further offered that the most recent data shows students are back to making gains.
Johan Van Nieuwenhuizen, superintendent of Weld County School District RE-1 (Platteville/Gilcrest/LaSalle) since 2019, highlighted the demands that the pandemic put on teachers. “In a matter of days,” he remembered from 2020, “educators had to change from a traditional in-person teaching environment – from what they’d always known and mastered – to one that was online,” which for many was new and out of their comfort zone. From hybrid online/in-person teaching options to inconsistent attendance, “all these things had an impact on learning.”
As in-person classes have resumed, the challenges have shifted again. Schools are seeing a drop in student’s ability to engage in all-day learning, and a loss of attendance in middle and high school students. Many are experiencing anxiety as they return to busy hallways. As such, school leaders are paying careful attention not only to academic progress, but to staff and student’s well-being as a whole.
Yet to hear how Weld County schools are bridging the gap is nothing short of inspiring.
Robust after-school programs have started up at most Weld County schools. Some have added extracurricular activities – like a skateboarding club – to keep students motivated and engaged. Parent advocates are educating younger children and their families about the importance of attendance and grades, while high schools now have attendance advocates for older students. And for the first time, elementary schools have counselors on-hand to help young students’ total well-being, with every District 6 school having at least one half-time social worker to support students, families and staff as school resumes.
Much of this has been made possible by COVID-19 relief dollars, which are set to expire in 2024. These funds have also helped schools provide new programming for staff, like therapeutic services, legal and financial advice, child care and even pet care options. Plus, the addition of cloud-based reading and math intervention programs are giving teachers more tools to help their students get back on track.
When asked about the future of learning for Weld County students, both Deirdre and Johan, who are also United Way of Weld County board members, used the same word for what they feel: hope.
“My predominant feeling is hope,” Johan said, noting the importance of what the pandemic helped us learn about education. “We realized that teachers have a special skill set to help students through the learning process. The pandemic highlighted how, especially for students who struggle with reading, technology alone is not going to get them there. Students need human connection.”
“I’m very hopeful,” Deirdre echoed. When she recently met with a group of high school seniors – who were in 9th Grade when schools went remote – she was impressed by their resilience.
“We have the resources,” Dierdre offered with energy. “We have data that shows these interventions work. Our educators do so much, and as a result, we’re going to see a big difference through the work we’re doing, no doubt.”