Across the nation for much of the past 18 months, educators have wrestled with the questions: How much learning would be lost amid the pandemic? And what would be the best ways to get students who slipped along the way back on track?

As the new academic year begins this week in Jefferson County, local teachers and administrators are considering those questions more urgently—not because they're new, but because they have new federal funding in hand to support their responses.

Jefferson High School is slated to receive about $520,000 total over three rounds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, aimed at helping districts reopen and sustain safe operations. Of that sum, at least 20% must be spent on staff, programs and technology that address learning loss. School districts were required to submit plans by Aug. 24 for allocating the newest, and largest, ESSER tranche, part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

But the actual effects of learning loss due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to local school administrators, have not been profound.

Jefferson High says results of MAP—or measure of academic progress—Growth tests administered by the Northwest Evaluation Association showed a performance decline last fall, as students were still recovering from the effects of all-virtual instruction the previous spring. But by last spring, Principal Mike Moodry said, when most students had returned to in-person instruction, average test results had rebounded to 2019 levels.

Likewise, the Whitehall School District didn't see "any significant regression" in student performance across grade levels, according to Superintendent Hannah Nieskens.

And among the minority of students affected by learning loss, patterns have been inconsistent. "Some weren't affected at all, and others fell off the map," said Jefferson High Superintendent Tim Norbeck.

Nieskens said test results did not reveal a significant difference between kids who came to school last year and those enrolled full-time in remote learning. "Learning loss was more dependent on the specific circumstances in a home—there was something occurring in their lives or home that they weren't doing the work," she said. "There's a story for each student and how it occurred."

At JHS, just 18 students were learning remotely full-time by the end of the spring term, Moodry said. But many more had their education disrupted temporarily by quarantines when they, family members, or friends tested positive for the coronavirus. One student, administrators said, was quarantined five times over the course of the year, missing a total of 18 days. "You can imagine for kids who are already having trouble, how that affects their schedule," Norbeck said.

That experience mirrors emerging national trends. While research from the Northwest Evaluation Association, for example, indicates that student performance dropped, especially in math, in the fall of 2020, more recent testing points to less severe effects.

The ESSER funding is geared both to help support students who fell behind in the last year and a half—and to anticipate learning loss caused by future disruptions from the pandemic. How best to do that, however, is a matter of debate among educators: While learning loss from summer breaks, for example, is well understood, the fits and starts that teachers and students have experienced during the pandemic are unprecedented. Evidence is only starting to emerge as to what sorts of responses to that disruption have actually been effective.

Both Jefferson High and the Whitehall School Districts are allocating the new federal funding to strengthen existing programs and resources aimed broadly at learning loss. Jefferson High, for example, will return this year to enrichment periods on Fridays, when teachers work with students who need or want individual attention. Friday enrichment periods were suspended last year, Norbeck said, because teachers already were tasked with teaching both live and remotely. "We thought asking them to come in Friday was too much."

Some ESSER funding, Norbeck said, will be used to pay teacher stipends for the Friday sessions and to run buses for students on those days. Nieskens said that, in Whitehall, ESSER funds will be combined with other grant money to support after-school instruction for students who are struggling, and for training of faculty to ensure effective intervention. "We're trying to maximize this [funding] by using existing faculty and giving them better tools," she said.

Both schools also are investing in broader application of technology that helps teachers identify and bridge gaps in students' learning. Jefferson High has purchased additional Chromebooks — a sort of tablet computer—laptops, and wireless hot spots to support students who have to, or choose to, work remotely, ensuring that instruction will be less disrupted if kids have to stay home.

The school also is expanding its use of EdReady Montana, a computer application developed by the Montana Digital Academy, a state-supported program housed at the University of Montana. EdReady offers online assessments that pinpoint areas where students are behind—and provides self-paced online instruction targeted at those weaknesses, helping students to make up lessons or recover lost credits. And teachers can track their progress, providing in-person support where needed.

This year, some of that support will come from Jeff Guay, the school's first dedicated intervention specialist. Guay is not new to Jefferson High: He worked there as a paraprofessional in the 2018-19 school year, then taught at Boulder Elementary School before moving last year to Capital High in Helena.

Guay actually has two roles: He will support reading to meet the objectives of the school's separate grant from the Montana Comprehensive Literacy State Development Project. And with Fay Conway, a paraprofessional whose salary also is supported in part by ESSER funds, he'll work with students who have fallen behind in their studies for any reason, COVID-related or not.

Guay said he's had experience teaching reading intervention, but he's still working to get his arms around the specifics of the broader role. Part of the work, he said, will involve working with students to set learning goals, and then communicating with parents in ways that position them to reinforce those goals and provide support for their children.

Just as important, Guay said, may be confronting students' and families' needs outside the classroom.

"You can imagine the difficulties that last year presented to some students," he said. "We are dealing with a situation where maybe social and emotional needs need to be addressed. A lot of students and their families may feel a lack of confidence as to whether they're on track."

Restoring that confidence, Guay said, "starts with relationships—between teacher and student, and with families, building up a trusting foundation for learning." Beyond that, "it's just a matter of patience, understanding, and trying my best to be available for what comes up."

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