What suburbs' schools are doing to combat the pandemic learning slide

Schools are offering more academic, mental health support to students

  • Students at Grant High School in Fox Lake had their first day of in-person classes Wednesday. Districts across the suburbs are increasing academic and mental health supports for students coming off a pandemic school year.

    Students at Grant High School in Fox Lake had their first day of in-person classes Wednesday. Districts across the suburbs are increasing academic and mental health supports for students coming off a pandemic school year. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Juniors and seniors pass through Grant High School hallways Wednesday on the first day of the new school year in Fox Lake. Many suburban districts are increasing academic and mental health supports to help students with pandemic learning loss.

    Juniors and seniors pass through Grant High School hallways Wednesday on the first day of the new school year in Fox Lake. Many suburban districts are increasing academic and mental health supports to help students with pandemic learning loss. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 8/19/2021 1:13 PM

Tony Sanders, superintendent of the state's second-largest school district, said from the start the COVID-19 pandemic would change schools forever.

It did.

 

In Sanders' Elgin Area School District U-46 and other suburban school districts, students this year will be greeted by more team learning, social workers, interventionists, psychologists, counselors and instructional coaches, and an increased focus on social-emotional needs and teacher training.

Educators trying to mitigate some of the pandemic's impact on learning are providing additional academic and mental health supports this fall to help students get caught up and reintegrate into classroom settings.

Several suburban districts offered virtual and in-person summer camps, classes, and academic enrichment and bridge programs to stave off learning loss. As full-day, in-person classes for all students resume, administrators are taking lessons learned from teaching during the pandemic to develop better supports for students and teachers this school year.

"I wrote back in the early days of the pandemic that if public education looks the same after the pandemic as it did before, then we have failed," Sanders said.

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Classes resume Monday for U-46's more than 37,000 students.

This school year, the district is launching U-46 Rising, a learning model focused on improving core instruction through the use of student-led academic teaming. Teams of two to five students will work toward a common academic goal with minimal teacher guidance using clear protocols for standards-based learning.

In the first phase, teachers and administrators will be trained on the new practices for students and teachers to gauge progress and learning. Students will learn how to set their own learning targets, self-assess and track progress, and support peers.

Five district elementary schools -- Creekside, Channing, Laurel Hill, Parkwood and Willard -- have been designated "Schools for Rigor and Equity" and will serve as pilot sites for the program. They will receive additional support from leadership and instructional coaches and free before- and after-school child care for families.

The program will be rolled out districtwide over several years.

An Illinois State Board of Education study on how student learning has changed since schools first suspended in-person instruction in March 2020 shows the greatest impact was to students' social-emotional skills and mental health.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"When we return for the 2021-22 school year, we must meet students where they are and understand they will be different upon their return after the traumatic experience of being relatively isolated for more than a year," the report reads.

Schools have reported the youngest learners are seeing the greatest slippage in language and social skills so critical in those formative years. They also are likely to see a disproportionate impact on students of color and students with disabilities.

Social and emotional learning was a key aspect of summer programs and will continue to be a focus this fall, educators say.

Des Plaines Elementary District 62 officials have identified hundreds of students and families needing social-emotional learning and/or mental health supports, including nonclinical and clinical services, said Ellen Swanson, district assistant superintendent for student services.

A majority of the district's roughly 4,800 students return to school Wednesday.

Swanson said the district will use federal funds to offer those social-emotional supports and services this school year and next in partnership with the Kenneth Young Center, a community-based behavioral health organization.

The center's employees will provide nonclinical services, including home visits, homework help or tutoring, mentoring, connecting families to community resources, and training district staff members on compassion as well as pandemic fatigue and self-care. Students and families also will have access to clinical and counseling services.

District 62 also will provide supports to mitigate pandemic "learning slide" in reading and mathematics.

"We have updated our intervention approaches and invested in ongoing guidance and training for our skilled interventionists in both reading and math," said Laura Sangroula, district assistant superintendent for instructional services.

Glenbard Township High School District 87 is launching a new virtual tutoring program this school year to help students with English and math. The district's roughly 8,000 students returned to classrooms Wednesday.

Students can access tutors on three nights each week via Zoom, in addition to existing in-school and after-school academic supports, Superintendent David Larson said.

"Also, we hired four additional social workers to support students who may need emotional support as a result of the pandemic," Larson said.

Many districts still are assessing performance gaps.

"While 'learning loss' is a term being utilized, it gives the impression that students went backward in their learning in 2020-21, which is not accurate," said Susan Savage, assistant superintendent for instruction for Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59. "Students clearly learned last year but not at the levels most districts are used to seeing. (We) are focusing on how best to accelerate learning now that students are fully back in-person."

Classes began Wednesday for the district's roughly 6,400 students.

Students and families will receive a variety of supports, including differentiated universal instruction, group and individual intervention, and in-home resources for students to supplement learning, Savage said.

"Right now, we are emphasizing practices that are culturally responsive and trauma-informed to meet diverse needs in all classrooms, within our social-emotional instruction," she said.

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