COVID pandemic contributed to historic number of students falling below reading benchmark
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The COVID pandemic contributed to a third of young grade school students missing reading benchmarks, which is up significantly from pre-pandemic rates, according to several studies.
A recent Virginia report discussed data collected from The Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) K-2 assessment, a tool used to evaluate students’ risk for reading difficulties that spanned three fall assessment periods in 132 school divisions. The study looked at rates of “at-risk” students K-2, pre-pandemic (2019) to the fall of 2021 when students returned to in- classroom learning.
The report found the number of first and second-grade students who scored below reading benchmarks in the fall of 2021 hit historic highs, at 36.5 percent and 42.2 percent, respectively.
The report found in 2019 the percentage of students in the low-risk group for reading difficulties was 2.1 times greater than that of the high-risk group but by 2021, the percentage of both groups was nearly identical.
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According to the report, students in both high- and medium-risk groups composed over half the population at 54.6 percent in 2019. This number increased in 2021, when these two groups combined represented 65.5 percent of the population.
The PALS data showed higher rates of below-benchmark scores among Black, Hispanic, those with disabilities and those considered economically disadvantaged.
“We would expect to see the development of foundational literacy skills – phonology awareness, phoneme-grapheme correspondence (that’s the relation letters have to sounds) impacted by the pandemic because they are typically established when children are so young and they would be very difficult to target remotely, especially for young children who would struggle to attend to and interact with a device the same way they would a teacher and peers,” Gabriella Reynolds, PhD, CCC-SLP, a speech pathologist and assistant professor at LIU in New York, told Fox News.
Reynolds, who works with individuals dealing with literacy and speech issues, told Fox News that remote learning during the pandemic possibly contributed to the recent reports. “I have worked with phonological awareness intervention remotely and there was definitely a difference in attention between them and those who participated in the intervention in person.”
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Prior to the pandemic, reading levels were on the decline according to reports. Educators said the pandemic exacerbated the problem and steps need to be taken to help students “catch up” with reading and literacy skills.
Nora Palma, a special education teacher in New York, told Fox News, “The literacy gap right now has shown us that we cannot simply “return to normal” because we are dealing with issues that we have never seen before.”
Palma explained to Fox News that teachers are concerned over the reading deficiency reports and fear if they are not addressed at an early age, it could lead to increased dropout rates by the time the students reach high school age. “We feel the pressure to catch kids up to grade-level standards but we are lacking the support and resources that our students need- especially when our data shows that many are 3-4 grade levels behind.”
The special education teacher also said, “Teacher burnout is a direct result of feeling like there is nothing you can do to ‘fix’ these gaps on your own but being expected to. Sadly it seems that students that can catch up will and those who can’t will likely fall even farther behind.”
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Palma said a potential solution is integrating explicit phonics-based literacy instruction, such as a program called Fundations.
“Fundations is an incredible program part of the Wilson Reading Program. I have witnessed illiterate adults learn to read with this program. There is data to support the fact that special ed referrals would drastically decrease if all students were offered a phonics-based reading program. Typically, after 3rd grade, the focus is shifted from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.’ Without foundational literacy skills students cannot access content- if you cannot access content, you can be compliant, but you cannot not engage in learning. What’s the point?”
Laura Seinfeld, Dean of LIU Post College of Education, Information and Technology in New York, told Fox News, “Teachers have always held a critical role in our society and I truly believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the importance of teachers and their impact in meeting the academic, social, and emotional needs of all students.”
Another dilemma fueled by the pandemic facing educators is staffing issues. According to data released this month by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly half (44 percent) of public schools currently report full- or part-time teaching vacancies. The report said 61 percent of public schools with at least one reported vacancy, cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a cause of increased teaching and non-teaching staff vacancies.
In the release, NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr stated, “The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a staffing shortage in the nation’s schools.” Carr also said, “Public schools report they are struggling with a variety of staffing issues, including widespread vacancies, and a lack of prospective teachers. These issues are disrupting school operations. Schools have resorted to using more teachers as well as non-teaching staff outside of their intended duties, increasing class sizes, sharing teachers and staff with other schools, and curtailing student transportation due to staff shortages. Schools continue to face meaningful challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Educators told Fox News they hope school officials will begin training and certification opportunities for teachers and staff, especially in the middle schools, to address the gaps the COVID pandemic has created.