Already at-risk Florida students face greatest learning gaps due to coronavirus school closures

Report details difficulties closures created for parents, student

South Florida students return to remote learning after spring break
South Florida students return to remote learning after spring break

Students who already face disadvantages in traditional school settings will likely be disproportionally impacted by the months of virtual learning due to the coronavirus, a detailed reopening plan by the Florida’s Department of Education shows.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday the state plans to have school campuses fully operational by the fall semester despite the ongoing pandemic.

A 143-report from the Florida Department of education details how the state plans to return schools to full operations by August when the 2020-2021 school year starts as well as the hurdles students will have to overcome due to the extended time away from in-classroom learning.

School closures have affected at least 3.3 million students across Florida, according to the Florida Council of 100.

Parents have carried the greatest burden of the school closures due to the coronavirus becoming a caregiver and teacher, the report shows.

[SEE FULL PLAN: Reopening Florida’s Schools and the CARES Act]

“Nearly two-thirds of employed parents of minor children in Florida say that school closures and/or lack of childcare have either somewhat (41%) or greatly (23%) hurt their ability to fully perform their job responsibilities during the pandemic," according to the Florida Council of 100’s April report on The Impacts Of Prek-12 School Campus Closures.

Even more so, working mothers have reported the closures have been difficult. According to the report, 71% of mothers said juggling childcare and working has somewhat or greatly hurt their performance at work, compared to 44% of fathers.

Distance learning has also proved difficult for students in low-income and rural communities due to internet access, and the report indicates this lack of access was found to be greatest when measured by race or ethnicity.

“Too many students in low-income and rural communities don’t have internet access: 35% of low-income households with school-aged children don’t have high-speed internet; for moderate-income families it is 17%, and only 6% for middle-class and affluent families," according to an April 14 Economic Policy Institute report. "When measured by race and ethnicity, the gap is greater for African American and Hispanic families.”

Florida’s DOE report also expresses concern about students whose first language is not English and students who face homelessness. English language learners often do not have access to learning devices or the Internet, according to Education Week.

The report addresses the potential for learning gaps or regression in some subjects students due to virtual-learning.

“As we open the discussion for determining the best possible means of assessing the gap and planning for remediation, it may also be prudent for us to consider the potential regression across multiple areas of development that will collectively impact academic success across grade levels,” 2020 Orange County Teacher of the Year Melissa Pappas said. “These areas may include social skills, behavior, and functional skills (including levels of independence).”

Florida’s reopening schools plan includes steps to address learning gaps in literacy and why it is so critical students are reading proficiently by the third grade.

Nearly 90% of students who failed to earn a high school diploma were struggling readers in the third grade, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on helping children at risk of poor educational and economic outcomes.

This again affects minorities and, specifically, low-income minorities. Black and Hispanic students not reading at the third-grade level are six times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate high school. For low-income minorities that drop-out rate jumps to 8%, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation report.

DeSantis on Thursday announced a $64 million plan using federal CARES Act funds that will include month-long summer programs for kindergarten to fifth grade students who have been identified as poor readers. Money will also be provided to districts to buy supplemental teaching materials for kindergarten to third grade classes and to train 2,000 reading coaches statewide. The goal is to have 90% of students be proficient readers by 2024.

DeSantis said the “funds will provide a four-to five-week summer program on school campuses to students from K-5th, who are identified with a substantial deficiency in reading based on assessment, and teacher recommendations plan also focuses on an intensive effort to improve student reading proficiency.”

The state plan calls for the need to build a system that allows schools to screen for student progress and take corrective actions to help students succeed.

High school seniors working toward transitioning to higher learning or career life post-graduation also suffered due to the coronavirus. ACT and SAT testing was delayed causing some students to miss application deadlines. The deadline to apply for Florida’s Bright Futures scholarship was extended for this reason.

Families who felt the greatest economic impacts from the coronavirus might not be able to afford the hundreds of dollars needed for college acceptance deposits or fees, the report shows.

The state plan recognizes that some families may be hesitant to allow their children to return to campus come August. Schools will need to work with these families to make sure those students don’t fall further behind.

“If some families still do not return in August, districts and schools must work to close any potential gaps in learning for those students,” the report reads.

Florida’s youngest students under the age of six, 46% who live in poverty, according to the state, will also require greater attention to make up for critical lost time in school.

“Because of the pandemic, none of Florida’s 2020 incoming kindergarten students will have had a typical prekindergarten experience. Many will be unfamiliar with the academic language, routines and expectations of the more formal setting of school,” the report reads.

Overall, Florida’s reopening plan indicates if the state can get its students back on track this will also help with the economic recovery.

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