Disruptions in the teaching process caused by the pandemic left huge gap in students’ education

Angel Hope felt completely adrift as she stared at the arithmetic test. He had recently graduated high school near the top of his class and had been awarded scholarships from a number of famous colleges. But on this test — an examination given by the University of Wisconsin that determines what newly enrolled students have studied in high school — he had no choice but to speculate.

It appeared as though the chaos brought on by the pandemic was all of a sudden catching up to him.

Hope’s high school experience was cut short by nearly a third because she spent that time at home, participating in online lessons that were difficult to understand and simple to ignore. On occasion, he was absent from school in order to put in additional hours at his workplace. On certain days, he joined his brother and sister in playing games together. On the other days, he did nothing but lie in bed.

Even though he paid little attention to Algebra, his teachers continued to give him decent ratings even though the school as a whole was moving toward being more lenient.

“It was like school was optional. It wasn’t a mandatory thing,” said Hope, 18, of Milwaukee. “I feel like I didn’t really learn anything.”

There are uncountable numbers of people who are similar to him all around the country. After spending more than half of their high school careers dealing with the disruption caused by a pandemic, tens of hundreds of thousands of recent high school graduates are enrolling in colleges and universities this autumn. They persevered through a jarring shift to online education, the stresses brought on by a shortage of teachers, and significant upheavals in their everyday lives at home. And it is claimed that many of them are substantially behind in their academic work.

Experts in the field of education predict that colleges will experience an increase in the number of students who are not adequately equipped for the rigors of college-level work. Beginning at a lower level than others can increase the likelihood of dropping out entirely. And this can have a negative impact on everything from the long-term profits of an individual to the health of the workforce across the country.

Allison Wagner, while reviewing applications for All-In Milwaukee, a scholarship program that provides low-income students, such as Hope, with financial aid and college counseling, became aware of the scope of the problem as she worked her way through the stack of applications.

Wagner, the executive director of the organization, witnessed surprising numbers of students who were given permission to spend half of the school day working part-time jobs during their final year. These kids typically worked at fast food chains or grocery stores. In addition, she observed a greater number of students than ever before who did not enroll in mathematics or scientific programs during their final year. This was frequently the result of a lack of available teachers.

“We have so many students who are going on to college academically malnourished,” Wagner said. “There is no way they are going to be academically prepared for the rigor of college.”

Her organization is increasing the amount of money it allocates to tutoring and will pay the cost of any program participants who wish to take math or science programs during the summer. Nevertheless, she is concerned that the setbacks would force some students to finish in more than four years, or even worse, quit school altogether.

“The stakes are tremendously high,” she said.

According to the findings of the researchers, it is undeniable that pupils of color, particularly Black and Hispanic students, had significant academic setbacks as a result of receiving instruction remotely. There is still reason to believe that schools in the United States will be able to quicken the pace of instruction and reduce the achievement gap for kids in elementary and secondary school. However, experts are concerned that a significant number of students who have graduated within the past two years would have difficulty.

“Bridge” programs, which offer summer classes and are typically geared toward students from families with lower incomes or students who are the first in their families to attend college, have been expanding at colleges and universities from New Jersey to California in preparation for an increase in demand. The programs that were once merely considered orientation are now taking on a more rigorous academic focus, with an emphasis on mathematics, science, and study skills.

Wallace State Community College, which is located in Hanceville, Alabama, is bracing itself for an influx of students who are not academically prepared by establishing its first summer bridging program this year with funding from the state. In order to avoid having to attend remedial sessions, students have the option of participating in accelerated math and English instruction for a total of three weeks.

The school had intended to have as many as 140 kids visit campus, but just ten of them actually signed up.

The aid provided by the federal government for the epidemic has been utilized by institutions in other states to create summer programs. Officials of Kentucky, which contributed $3.5 million to institutions in support of the initiative this year, referred to it as a “moral necessity.”

“We need these people to be our future workforce, and we need them to be successful,” said Amanda Ellis, a vice president of Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education.

After the pandemic struck, Angel Hope increased his work hours at his employment with a local charity help agency to as much as twenty hours per week. In light of the fact that no one was paying attention in his online lessons, he reasoned that the time he spent away from school was justified by the financial gain. Because his parents were gone all day at work, he frequently had feelings of isolation, to the point where he would go days without using social media and eat ramen noodles for dinner.

“I think isolating myself was a little bit of my coping mechanism,” he said. “I was kind of like, ‘Keep it in a little bit and you’ll get through it eventually.’”

According to Rey Saldaa, president and CEO of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit organization that places counselors in public schools in 26 states, the pandemic caused a significant number of high school students to disengage from their education during a time when they would normally be preparing for college or careers.

His organization conducted work in some school districts where hundreds of pupils simply did not come back once school had resumed following an absence. According to Shakaka Perry, a reengagement coordinator for Communities in Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, the attraction of continuous wages kept many children away from school even when in-person classes began. This was the case even though the students were aware that school would restart.

During the previous academic year, Perry and her coworkers focused their efforts on encouraging students to return to class and preparing them to graduate. However, when she considers whether or not they are prepared for college, she has some reservations: “It’s going to be a rude surprise.”

After slogging through his math placement test for a couple of months, Hope decided to enroll in a summer bridging program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The program lasted for six weeks and consisted of intensive classes. He remedied his deficiencies in high school mathematics by enrolling in a course that addressed the material, and he plans to pursue calculus in the coming semester.

In addition to this, he revitalized his fundamental study abilities, which had become dormant throughout his time in high school. He went to the library to get started on his studies. It didn’t take long for him to adjust to the routines of school, which included having homework every day and tests every other week. He rediscovered what it was like to take pleasure in his academic pursuits.

Most importantly, he claims that it altered his mentality, and that he now believes that he is at that location to learn, rather than simply to survive.

“After this, I definitely feel prepared for college,” he said. “If I didn’t have this, I would be in a very bad place.”

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