Students in second grade class at A. F. Ames Elementary School in Riverside in April of 2021. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

As expected, a year of mostly hybrid or remote learning impacted student achievement in Riverside Elementary District 96 during the 2020-21 school year. That was the message delivered by Angela Dolezal, the district’s director of teaching and learning, school board during a Nov. 3 committee of the whole meeting.

Although the results of student performance on state-mandated tests won’t be released until Dec. 2, data from the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test used in District 96 showed academic growth was less than normal last year.

Dolezal said that was not surprising given the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on education since March 2020. During the final three months of the 2019-20 school year, students had less instructional time and less direct contact with teachers due to the switch to remote learning, something that lingered into 2020-21.

As a result, Dolezal cautioned against comparing student achievement data to previous years.

“Our instruction was different and our social-emotional needs were way different than what we’re experiencing right now,” Dolezal said.

Dolezal estimated that in 2020-21 students had half the amount of contact time and half the amount of direct instructional time with teachers compared to previous years. While typically District 96 students get 80 minutes of daily instruction in math and English language arts, that was cut dramatically last year to accommodate a hybrid schedule.

“We did our best to get through the pandemic,” Dolezal said.

In reading, District 96 students fell short of expected academic growth at all grade levels, with the biggest shortfall occurring with last year’s sixth-graders. Dolezal noted those students were navigating the challenging transition to middle school under very unusual circumstances.

“They were the group that was at a pivotal transition point,” Dolezal said.

The average percentile reading score fell nearly 25 points for District 96 sixth-graders, more than double the state average decline.

Math scores for District 96 sixth-graders also dropped by more than the state average. But math scores for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in District 96 actually increased in percentile terms last year while percentile math scores for fourth- and seventh-grade math percentile scores fell by less than the state average.

Dolezal and other educators say that the time away from the typical school experience has affected student behavior and their social-emotional needs. Those impacts are most apparent in the primary grades and seventh and eighth grades, Dolezal said.

“We are seeing a high social-emotional need,” Dolezal said. “We continue to remind our teachers that while data is important and it does help us show where we are going, we do need to address our students’ social and emotional needs before we’re able to have them actually learn the academics.”

Children in second grade and below had never experienced a normal school year until 2021-22 since schools shut down for in-person learning due to the COVID pandemic in March 2020 when today’s second-graders were in kindergarten.

Kids have to get used to the expected norms of school behavior after having so much time alone at home during the pandemic when they could more easily just do what they wanted when they wanted to. 

“Social interactions have been difficult, kids being able to socialize respectfully with each other have been somewhat hard, possibly because of the fact that they weren’t around groups of people — just being able to, as we call it, do school,” Dolezal said.

As a result, District 96 is putting a focus this year on addressing those aspects of the educational experience.

“We have to address our students’ social and emotional needs, otherwise they’re not present mentally to be able to learn academics,” Dolezal said. “We are seeing a high social emotional need for our students.”

Academic gaps and shortcomings as a result of the pandemic will take some time to close.

“I don’t think we’ll close the gap within a year,” Dolezal said.

District 96 plans to keep on the 1.5 full-time equivalent math interventionists it hired this year with federal pandemic relief money to try and close the learning gap that developed during the pandemic.