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Low-income and students with learning disabilities disproportionately affected by COVID-19 learning loss, Peabody College experts say

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, school closures and the shift to remote learning have disrupted educational progress across the nation, disproportionately affecting students from low-income communities and those with learning disabilities, according to faculty experts from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

“The children we are most concerned about in regard to learning losses associated with learning online during the pandemic are those who have been historically underserved by our public schools and who have less access to resources to support quality online educational opportunities in the home,” said Carolyn Heinrich, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development.

Moreover, Heinrich is concerned that well-intentioned measures to address learning loss may overshadow pre-existing educational inequities that have been intensified by the pandemic.

“The school districts that are most challenged to meet the educational needs of all students equitably during the pandemic are those that have long been resource-constrained and that serve families at greater health and economic risks at this time,” Heinrich said. “These school districts are going to need additional resources to meet health and nutrition as well as educational needs that have been exacerbated by the pandemic as they bring all students back to in-person learning.”

In Tennessee, a special legislative session recently passed new measures to target literacy instruction, with a particular focus on phonics. The legislation also calls for adding new learning opportunities such as camps and after-school programs designed to address learning loss. Yet Peabody faculty members Amanda Goodwin, Emily Phillips Galloway and Deborah Rowe are concerned that initiatives like these may be misguided. “As educators … we know that a focus on ‘catching up’ often translates to literacy instruction that emphasizes rote learning rather than deep thinking, especially for students labeled as struggling readers,” the researchers wrote in a recent Tennessean op-ed. Instead, they advocate for the inclusion of equity-focused initiatives that support multi-lingual students in language and literacy development. Additionally, they implore legislators to increase supports for literacy initiatives, allowing districts to secure high-quality instructional materials and design concrete professional learning opportunities for educators.

Kevin Leander, professor of teaching and learning at Peabody College, is similarly concerned that measures designed to make up for learning loss are too narrow in scope. “Learning to read is a multi-dimensional process, with phonics being only one of those dimensions,” he said. Instead, Leander said, he would advocate for more holistic literacy intervention programs that incorporate meaningful reading and writing, language and vocabulary development, comprehension, and culturally relevant teaching and learning.

Other policies designed to address accountability in the midst of virtual or disrupted learning environments could prove detrimental to at-risk learners, said Ryan Balch, senior lecturer of leadership, policy and organizations at Peabody College. In particular, Balch pointed to a bill passed as part of Tennessee’s legislative session that would hold third graders back if they do not meet specific benchmarks on state testing. “A student’s situation during the pandemic varied by school, by teacher and by household,” Balch said. “Recovery plans for each student need to be data-driven and informed by assessments that can identify the specific academic and social-emotional skills that need to be addressed.”

One element that may be missing in efforts to address this year’s learning loss is the impact on student mental health, said Autumn Kujawa, assistant professor of psychology and human development. She has found that disruption to education has been linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression in adolescents. As schools begin to transition from virtual to in-person instruction and implement learning recovery programs, Kujawa believes that districts will need additional supports to meet student health as well as educational needs that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.