COVID has created a learning chasm that may rob our children of future potential

Former legislator Mary Moe of Great Falls with her grandson, Jack. (Courtesy of Mary Moe)

As Montana legislators consider school funding for the next biennium, they’ve been hearing plenty about enrollment gaps caused by the pandemic. Because Montana’s school funding formula is heavily enrollment-based, school districts are concerned that dramatic declines in enrollment will result in short-term and long-term funding gaps.

Those concerns are legitimate. As an example, without legislative action to hold school districts harmless for COVID-related enrollment gaps, the Great Falls Public Schools will experience a $1.5 million shortfall next year – the equivalent of 28 teaching positions. It will take several years, not just a biennium, to close that gap.

But the funding gap Montana school districts face is only one facet of the COVID-19 fallout. Far more alarming is the data now being compiled on the learning gap. At its Feb. 8 meeting, the Great Falls school board received a disturbing summary of that data:

  • In the lower elementary grades, Winter 2020-Winter 2021 measurements indicate that students’ growth in reading competencies is, at best, 2/3 of what it would be in a normal year – and at some grade levels it’s worse. Students who are not proficient readers at the end of third grade are likely to struggle academically from then on.
  • In the higher elementary grades, significant declines in the acquisition of math competencies are now evident. School closures in Spring 2020 deprived 3rd-, 4th– and 5th-graders of the instructional experiences they needed to succeed in the next grade. As of January, roughly ¾ of the Great Falls students in these grades need strategic or intensive remediation to be performing at grade level by the end of this year. Students who fail to reach these benchmarks in mathematics at each grade level not only struggle conceptually at the next level, but lose confidence in ways that hinder their learning from then on.
  • Winter-to-winter growth measurements show the same alarming underachievement in grades 7-10. Measures of how “on track” freshmen and sophomores are to achieve “college-ready” scores on the ACT indicate that roughly 2/3 of these students are simply not on track in mathematics and roughly 1/2 are not on track in English language arts.
  • In a district that has prided itself on its Graduation Matters initiative, diligently tracking and counseling students to ensure their progress toward a diploma, a disconcerting number of underclassmen are credit-deficient. That, too, is a problem that snowballs over time.
  • Data for special education students raise the same concerns … and one additional one. The level of anxiety students are experiencing – about the virus, about re-entering the school environment, about re-establishing relationships with others – is pronounced.

The good news, in case you need convincing, is that schooling really does make a difference.  The elementary math scores alone leave no doubt that missing so much school at the end of 2020 put the vast majority of our students behind in a subject that builds competencies, layer upon layer. If you don’t have those foundational layers, you’re on shaky ground until you get them … if you ever do.

This is not a learning gap, but a learning chasm. And although the data I cite is from Great Falls, it’s unlikely that missing so much school and trying to compensate with remote options has produced a different result in other communities. It‘s nobody’s fault – yet.

But it will require a concerted effort, data-based innovations and a significant investment, both immediate and long-term, to close the wound this fall into the abyss has caused and keep it from being permanently disabling.

In what we hope is the wake of a pandemic, we must find a way to fund not just schooling as we used to know it, but schooling we’ve never tried. We have to begin immediately and make a long-term commitment to giving these students the education our constitution promises them, the education COVID-19 kidnapped.

Our constitution promises Montana’s children a free, quality public education that develops their full educational potential. COVID-19 clearly interfered with that promise in ways that jeopardize these children’s future and, through them, our future as communities and as a state. Some promises won’t keep. This legislature needs to act now to ensure that the learning chasm this generation of Montana children experienced does not hold them – and all of us – back for the rest of their lives.

Mary Sheehy Moe is a former state senator who served on the most recent School Funding Commission and vice-chaired the Senate Education Committee. She has also chaired the Great Falls School Board and taught at the secondary, baccalaureate and graduate levels in Montana.