Assessments show schools still struggle with the effects of the pandemic

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By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 10-21-2023 4:00 PM

There may be debate among the public about the long-term effect of the COVID-19 pandemic but there’s no question when looking at the state’s test scores, especially the lower grades.

“This is a generation that was back in pre-school when the pandemic hit. They lost all the important early learning – they missed kindergarten, missed their first grade – think of all the important things that children learn there,” said Kathleen Murphy, superintendent of Concord’s school district. “These kids had as much as 12 to 15 to 18 months lost … and they are going up through the system.”

Recently released assessment scores tell the story: Between 2019 and 2022, the district-wide average of Concord students who scored above proficiency level in statewide assessments, one of several methods determining if students are meeting or exceeding expectations, fell by a quarter in all testing areas: reading, math and science. It has shown small signs of recovery in the 2023 results for tests that were taken last spring, but results remain far below pre-pandemic levels.

The situation is similar in the Merrimack Valley School District, where the district-wide average of students scoring above proficiency level fell by as much as one-third between 2019 and 2023, and in Franklin, where the average has also fallen by as much as one-third.

Things are better in Bow and Hopkinton, the two other districts in the Concord region that are mostly self-contained. Both saw their above-proficiency levels fall during the pandemic, but they have largely recovered in 2023. Hopkinton’s 2023 averages in reading and math are slightly above the level they were in 2019.

Murphy said the results from two better-off districts with less diverse student populations reflect how the lockdown and switch to remote schooling had a much greater effect on groups who had poor internet access, or none at all, and English-language issues.

“Concord has a population that’s very diverse. Kids that weren’t in school during the pandemic, and the homeless, they didn’t have access points to any kind of learning,” she said. “As much as we tried to provide those systems, with (internet) hotpoints, we know that some youngsters did not access instruction.”

As for language issues, online-only access made it much more difficult to help families that didn’t speak English at home, she said.

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Concord isn’t alone in facing another problem: Attendance. Although all school districts are back in buildings full-time, there’s a strong hangover from the lost period of the pandemic and it shows up in student attendance.

“Some kids have disengaged from school. Almost two years of that pattern of education has caused some of our kids to really do that,” she said. “Student attendance is down and continues to be down.”

The district’s goal is to get daily attendance rates back to 95%, she said, compared to about 92% for elementary school at the moment and slightly less for higher grades.

Ironically, she said, lessons learned during the pandemic are part of the issue.

“We said if they have a runny nose, don’t send them in,” she said. This has made it more likely that children will be kept home.

There’s also a holdover effect with school buses. “During COVID we said if you could drive them, that would really help us. That has kept up: traffic around the schools is incredible.”

Staff attendance due to COVID also continues to be an issue, she said, worsened by extreme shortages of substitutes and para-professionals.

“I had almost 20 staff members down at one school about a month ago. We kept it open by glue and tape because I wanted the kids to be in school, using shared classrooms and other ways, because I didn’t have substitutes to fill in,” Murphy said.

Combined, all these are putting a huge strain on getting schools back to pre-pandemic status. Still, she said, that’s no excuse.

“Our job is: This is where we’re at – what are we going to do?” Murphy said, pointing to a program to hire additional tutors using a federal grant.