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‘Canceling’ the Pandemic Learning Gap

As I entered the third video call of the day, I was greeted by the teacher and 14 little faces, with adults sitting at each student’s side. As the principal, I would periodically visit these virtual classrooms to experience the chaos that had now become education. As I prepared to read the class a story, nothing in my 30 years of experience had prepared me for a virtual Kindergarten class. Just imagine 14 little 5-year-olds on a virtual call—and yes, it is as energetic as you can imagine and as educationally humorous as it sounds.

Parents, let’s face it. It has been a hard year. Many of you have been thrust into the role of educator, child sitter, and parent, all at the same time. Daily, you joined one Zoom call after another, desperately trying to do your job remotely as you sat beside your child, trying to bring order to chaos, ensuring “Johnny” was paying attention (which is no small accomplishment for the parent of a young student). Daily, you multitasked between saying the alphabet and leading a conference for your office—praying that something did not happen in the background that would be broadcast to your child’s class or embarrass you with your coworkers.

Nothing could prepare any of us for the experience of virtual learning, and in most cases, we had no choice. As teachers worked to reinvent and relearn their trade, parents became more than spectators; and truly, day in and day out, they became partners and co-teachers in their child’s daily education—both groups working desperately to ensure that no matter what, each child, each student, continued to learn and grow.

Yet with every change, and every new path, there are hiccups. Each time something new is tried, some things work, while others do not. This year was “trial and error” as we all worked to keep our children learning and growing. Impacting these results were technological issues, political battles, student attention (or lack thereof), learning curves, and the unique new world and form education had taken.

For some, this change was easy and ideal; for some, it was hard; for others, it became impossible. No matter the response though, research is showing that learning gaps occurred. In studies, news reports, and even anecdotal stories, we see more and more students struggling to meet the learning goals needed to continue to grow and advance in school—all due to this learning loss.

This is not an indictment of educators or parents or students. In most cases, each one worked very hard to ensure that learning continued. Each poured in everything possible to help these children on their educational journeys, and each should be praised for these efforts to so quickly change absolutely everything about the educational process. This gap is merely a byproduct of being forced to try to do new things—some of which worked, and some of which did not.

This gap is also the byproduct of different resources being available to different groups. In some areas, technological and other resources abounded; yet in other areas, these were in short supply. How do you remotely teach a student who has neither a computer nor wireless access? How do you remotely teach a student who does not have a parent to assist him or her? How do you remotely teach a student when you, as a teacher, have never been trained for this? How do you remotely teach a student who does not even have the resources for basic necessities? These are the very real struggles that parents and teachers faced, and worked to overcome, each day during this pandemic.

As we finished last year and began this new school year, educational gaps became more evident. As high school and graduating students attended recovery classes to reclaim credits previously failed, as students received grade reports showing these deficiencies, and as teachers and parents saw student progress stalled, these gaps became more pronounced.

The point of education involves facing new challenges and learning new ways, not only to educate, but to overcome these challenges. This “new challenge” in education is not hopeless, but it is yet a new opportunity to help our children succeed and grow. Every generation has faced challenges in education, and this happens to be ours.

At the start, these opportunities can seem overwhelming, but they are not insurmountable. If we all work together, we can—to borrow a popular term—“cancel” this learning gap and help our children succeed. By taking some basic steps, we can mitigate this challenge and begin to erase these deficiencies. Here are 10 goals:

  1. Strengthen the partnership. Remember, we are a team, working together for these children. The more we can strengthen and make this a partnership, the better it will be for our kids. Remember, it is not us against them.
  2. Research current expectations. Take time to know what your child needs to know. First, check with your child’s school for a list of skills he or she should have. Next, you can find many online resources to help with this, such as Verywell Family, GreatSchools, BabyCenter, Time4Learning, and many other sites. In this case, Google can be your best friend.
  3. Honestly evaluate where your child is educationally. This can be scary for parents but admitting there is a deficiency is not the end of the world. Ask your child’s teachers what they are seeing, and/or evaluate this yourself. You cannot begin to fix the problem until you know and understand what the problem is.
  4. List key educational needs. Believe it or not, not everything children learn is as important as everything else. Work with the teachers and schools to develop a list of what is most critical and focus on that. If you try to tackle everything at once, it will only overwhelm you, the teacher, and most importantly, your child.
  5. Together, develop a plan to address and strengthen learning. This is not the time for a “Lone Ranger” approach. Only together can this be accomplished. Parents and teachers absolutely must develop a plan that accomplishes the goals in the most logical and beneficial way possible. Don’t be afraid to also draw on extra help and services.
  6. Implement strategies and activities to close the gaps. Begin, step by step, to implement the plan needed for success. Don’t get overwhelmed: simply take it one day, one step, at a time. If needed, again, bring in extra help and services—maybe a tutor or family friend—to help the learning process along. If you do this, little by little, your goals will be accomplished.
  7. Make it fun, not punitive or stressful. If you are stressed, your child will be too. Find fun ways to accomplish these goals (there are literally hundreds of sites and apps that will help reinforce these skills). Don’t make your child feel like he or she is being punished. Make it something everyone can enjoy.
  8. Give your child an incentive and something to work toward. No, this is not bribing. It is simply helping him or her work toward a goal. Don’t we all like to be rewarded or have a benefit for the work we do? Why should it be any different for your child? Have your child work toward a reward, incentive, or even payment (just like a paycheck), and reward him or her for hard work. In reality, your child will be the one working for it.
  9. Become an active partner and advocate for your child. Parents, you cannot sit on the sidelines and expect your child and teacher to do it all. Education is our responsibility as parents, and we cannot afford not to be involved. Constructively advocate and be involved—these are not bad words and should be the norm.
  10. Regularly reassess and adjust learning goals, plans, and needs as necessary. Regularly, with the teacher, assess progress, and if necessary, redevelop and rework the plan. Do this to ensure that the most pressing needs continue to be met.

Remember, it took us over a year to get to this point; and it will not be, and does not need to be, corrected overnight. Patiently and diligently work together with your child and his or her teacher, as a team, to accomplish these goals. If you do, before you know it, these goals will be accomplished, and this learning gap can be “canceled.” If nothing else, this can be a new model for how we, as parents, can better work with and support our children, their teachers, and their schools—and once again be on the same side of this battle. When we do, it will no longer be us against them, and the true winners will be our children.