Morris Jeff Community School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Several New Orleans schools are preparing for annual summer school, but researchers say they could be up against greater learning loss now and next fall after extended COVID-19 school closures.

Rolling school closures to help stop the spread of the virus have now stretched into summer break in many states. That’s true in Louisiana too, where Gov. John Bel Edwards first ordered public schools to close on March 13 and reopen this month. The order was extended to May 15, but is intended to cover the remainder of the academic year

Summer school, a time for students to make up work due to poor grades or absences may include more students than usual this year, if the pandemic affected a student’s academic performance, they lacked needed resources or were busy working or taking care of children. About 60 percent of New Orleans’ charter schools plan to offer summer school, according to a state survey. Some are making plans for virtual summer school, while others are hopeful they can host students in-person in June. 

Two researchers from Northwest Evaluation Association, often known as NWEA, projected what learning loss might look like after. They published a brief in early April examining what learning loss may look like if ‘the summer slide,’ a term used to define academic regression during summer school break, extended back to March 15, when many schools began closing. 

NWEA offers fall, winter and spring benchmark testing that schools across the country use, including many in New Orleans. One of the researchers, Beth Tarasawa, explained that they looked at the datasets of five million students in 2017 and 2018 to project a COVID-slide. 

“We could model what is actual data and we could also simulate summer loss and walk that slope back to March 15 … and we know there’s tons of caveats and disclaimers that COVID is likely going to be different than summer, but we could get some estimation of what we might see come fall,” Tarasawa said in an interview Thursday. 

“What we found is that if these projections hold in reading, kids on average would return to school with about 70 percent of the typical gains that we would see under normal conditions,” she said. “And with math that’s closer to 50 percent of the typical learning gains.”

Not only does student achievement in math have a steeper loss in the summer, but also throughout the school year, she said. “So it’s not only that loss, but a lack of instruction these last few months of school that makes math bleeker.”

However, they cautioned against drawing firm conclusions from their projections. While the COVID-19 closures do share some characteristics of summer break there are many other variables. On the one hand, some schools are providing supplemental coursework, while on the other hand COVID-19 has also presented myriad challenges for families. 

Remote learning

All New Orleans public schools have been providing some level of remote learning, the NOLA Public Schools district confirmed earlier this spring.

In fact, Tarasawa suggested some students may benefit from the remote environment if they have good one-on-one interaction and quality time with teachers. 

“But I think most people would believe that’s not the majority of kids,” she said. 

“Despite heroic attempts of internet providers and other entities that are trying to bridge the technology divide, even if families all have access, that impact of technology would still be uneven and we know that home environments are even more unequal than the technology,” she said. “If you add the layer of all the social-emotional learning needs with the crisis, it just points to all signs being that the COVID-19 could have really different impacts on different communities.”

NOLA Public Schools district charters all agreed to provide remote learning for students during the closure. But that brought up questions of access to technology, both computers and internet service. Initial district survey results showed a great need which the district tried to address by providing 10,000 laptops and 8,000 hotspots to the city’s 45,000 students in its schools. 

Closing the digital divide is the first issue to tackle, the researchers wrote. But even though the district acted fast to allocate money for the technology — the same day Edwards first announced the school closure — it took a month in some instances to get those devices to students. And still, some students have taken on household duties in addition to their schoolwork as many parents working at home are simultaneously trying to be teachers

At the request of state education leaders, who argued flexibility was crucial for families, students and educators, Edwards waived several key educational requirements. Minimum attendance law and state exams aren’t required this school year and school letter grades won’t be produced in the fall. 

While those waivers addressed hardships, they could mean there are not clear standards for high-quality remote learning. Still, many educators have said the waivers are appropriate in light of the pandemic. 

Tarasawa said based on their data, existing inequalities will likely be amplified during the COVID-19 closure. 

“We present averages and we know that this is going to likely exacerbate long standing inequalities that pre-existed prior to COVID.”

The ‘summer slide’

The ‘summer slide’ is a commonly used term to describe academic loss over annual school summer break. Some schools assign summer homework to keep students’ minds active, other schools have adopted nearly year-round calendars to spread out learning over the year. 

In response to a state survey, The Lens reviewed answers from 73 New Orleans charters, covering nearly all schools in the city. We found that about 60 percent planned to do summer school, and 27 percent were considering starting next school year early. 

Some local schools are hopeful they can provide remedial lessons in-person while others are preparing for online-only. 

At New Orleans College Prep, which runs Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep and Walter L. Cohen College Prep, CEO Joel Castro said when school closed, staff sent students home with “packets to cover core instruction through the 4th quarter grading period.”

They, like many other schools, also provided online resources during the closure. 

“These efforts were in anticipation of an extended school closure and to attempt to mitigate the effects of both the combined school closure and the summer slide,” Castro wrote in an email this week. 

Castro said his team is developing plans for face-to-face instruction this summer that could begin in June and he hopes they will be able to open the schools. 

“However, we are simultaneously preparing to deliver instruction virtually as well in the event that the Governor orders schools to remain closed,” he wrote. “In either scenario, we will target students for summer school who were struggling at the end of the 3rd quarter grading period and who will benefit from remediation.”

He estimates 30 percent of students will attend. 

“We are also identifying sources to procure masks and other needed safety supplies in the event that a return to the school building is announced for June,” Castro wrote.

FirstLine Schools CEO Sabrina Pence said the network plans to expand its summer offerings. FirstLine has been offering paper packet work during the closure, but Pence said they wanted to expand.

“We are working to figure out how to offer distance learning to all kids,” she said earlier this week, hopeful they could pull off such a program. “I think we’re closing in on a plan where we can do that, because we know there’s so much summer slippage.”

On Thursday she confirmed this. “We are planning to offer summer school to all students virtually.”

NOLA Public Schools told the state that a small handful of charter schools it oversees under its district umbrella would provide summer school. Many charter schools in New Orleans operate as their own district, but not all. Some smaller ones still operate within NOLA Public Schools’ to utilize shared food services and special education services. 

Asked if the district would be providing summer school for Mary D. Coghill charter school, which it is set to take over directly on July 1, a district spokeswoman said, “We are working with Coghill through their transition on this and a number of items at this time, as is part of the process.”

She did not answer a question explicitly asking if the district was offering any summer school. 

The city’s two largest charter networks, KIPP New Orleans Schools and InspireNOLA, will offer remote summer school. 

InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely said summer school would serve as both a grade make-up and remediation. It will begin May 18. 

“Grade make up for students who will receive an [incomplete] due to health/family concerns and lack of response,” he wrote in an email Thursday. 

Returning next fall

No one knows quite what school will look like in the fall. In Denmark, schools are opening with extreme social distancing requirements, including bans on assemblies and field trips, desks spaced feet apart and students eating lunch in their classrooms. Other states are considering similar measures for reopening campuses. 

Tarasawa thinks the model that many U.S. school districts operate under will be challenged, especially strict grade levels and curriculum content based on them.

“I think it’s throwing everything up in the air,” she said, noting the lack of spring testing this year. “There’s going to be a real need to understand where kids are when they return.”

“I also think it’s really thinking about how we structure schools and kids and if it’s really limited on grade level content — what does this mean next year?”

That’s something Castro at New Orleans College Prep has been thinking about. 

“Our academic teams are now revising our 2020-2021 instructional programs to include significant attention in lesson planning to reviewing 4th quarter material from the 2019-2020 school year and to address deficits, and to keep pace with state curriculum requirements,” he wrote. 

Kids will also be able to play catch-up after school in the fall, he said.

“We will be providing a more robust after-school tutorial program to support students.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...