By Andrew Stein
With the school year now underway, students, families, and schools continue to navigate the unique challenges brought on by the pandemic, such as the use of new technology, lack of social connections with peers, and the challenges parents face balancing their work demands with supporting their child’s distance learning.
While it certainly looks like we will face these challenges for an extended period of time, many will be solved once it’s safe for everyone to return to school. The problem of learning loss, however, is one that we will feel for years to come and we need to mitigate now.
Many people are familiar with “summer learning loss” – the academic slide students experience as a result of the summer break. Similarly, it’s expected that many students have experienced – or will experience – “COVID-19 learning loss,” potentially losing a year or more of academic progress. Unfortunately, these effects almost always disproportionately impact students of color attending systemically under-resourced school districts like Detroit.
Not surprisingly, the demand for tutors these days is through the roof. Tutoring can be a helpful way to catch students up. The challenge, of course, is that not every family can afford a private tutor. Even more importantly, the most effective tutoring (and teaching) happens when academics are coupled with an emphasis on building relationships that attend to students’ social and emotional needs.
At City Year, this is the approach we take with students. Our 116 AmeriCorps members serve as student success coaches for students in 11 Detroit Public School Community District schools. We provide one-on-one and small group tutoring to students in math and English throughout the school year. In addition, because the AmeriCorps members serve full-time, there is a particular focus on building connections with students that help increase their sense of belonging in the learning environment.
A recent study of our program by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, reinforces this holistic approach. The study found a statistically significant and consistent relationship between students’ social-emotional skills and academic outcomes. In fact, the more time students spent with City Year, greater were the improvements in social, emotional, academic, and attendance outcomes. The improvements are significant, with the study showing that making gains in social-emotional skills is similar to gaining an entire school year of achievement growth in math or English.
Heading into this school year, with most students opting for distance learning, a major concern facing organizations like ours was how to connect with students from a distance. We felt limited in so many ways. We aren’t outside of the building every morning to give high-fives and hugs as students walk in; we can’t walk down the hallway with them from class to class; we can’t sit with them during lunch.
While it’s easy to focus on what can’t be done, it’s important that we not lose sight of the creative opportunities distance learning offers to build meaningful connections with students. For example, breakout rooms are a great tool to provide students with individualized attention and differentiated instruction, free from the distractions of the larger class. Morning announcements can be a platform to share motion graphics and incorporate audio and video in a way a PA system doesn’t allow. Creating Bitmoji classrooms allows students to experience creativity and a visual change-of-pace. Activities like icebreakers, warm-ups, and brain breaks can be incorporated throughout the day to help reduce stress and keep students motivated.
These types of activities aren’t a total substitute for the connections that are forged with students in-person, but they cannot be overlooked either. They make students feel connected, safe, and like they belong at school—even if they’re sitting miles away behind a computer. If we can ensure students continue to feel this way, it will only help us make up the academic ground that has been lost as a result of the pandemic.
Andrew Stein is vice president and executive director of City Year Detroit