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Learning loss is inevitable when schools go virtual, experts say

But there are simple things parents can do
school classroom blur
Posted at 6:19 PM, Jul 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-23 14:39:21-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Education experts say it’s a reality we need to accept: distance learning will not be as academically successful for many students as classroom-based learning, particularly for disadvantaged students.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement Friday that school reopenings will be directly tied to pandemic data means both public and private schools throughout San Diego County will most likely start fall classes virtually.

Three experts told ABC 10News that virtual learning will likely be the hardest on young students who require the most adult direction.

“Early grade elementary family environments right now, they’re probably the most challenged and in need of the most amount of help,” said Dr. James Rivet, an educational consultant at SD Kids First.

Younger elementary school students require more focus and attention from a parent, who may be distracted by other responsibilities like a full-time job, according to Dr. Deborah Pontillo, a pediatric psychologist and the owner of SD Kids First.

With young learners, “their independence isn't really developed. Their motivation to learn isn't necessarily there,” Pontillo said.

Virtual learning will only exacerbate long-observed discrepancies associated with the socio-economic background of a family or the education level of the parents, said Dr. Alison Wishard Guerra, an associate professor at UC San Diego.

Children with learning differences or special needs may require even more support than normal, Pontillo and Rivet said.

While certain academic instruction lends itself to a virtual learning model, other subjects will be more challenging, particularly math lessons for young kids, Wishard Guerra said. Those lessons often involve group collaboration with physical objects, or manipulatives, that kids touch.

“They're working with their hands to try to solve problems,” she said. “When we go to virtual, it's really very difficult to do that same type of instruction.”

There are already studies showing kids forget things in the summer, a phenomenon known as learning loss. Learning loss can also occur when students are absent from school. The Brookings Institution estimates the pandemic shutdowns will put some students even farther behind, up to nearly a full year behind in math in lower grade levels.

Students who lose the most during the summer tend to quickly gain back the information after returning to school, but Brookings said this may not be true with COVID-19 distance learning.

Dr. Pontillo is more optimistic.

“Yes, you might see some regression. Yes, you might see some learning loss. Yes, your child may lose motivation to go to school. All these things are happening, but they're temporary,” said Dr. Pontillo.

Dr. Wishard Guerra said students can catch up, and there are simple things parents can do to help.

For parents with younger kids, simply having thoughtful conversations with your child can have a dramatic impact, her research has shown.

“Having rich conversations with children is one of the best ways to build vocabulary. For example, children who have complex storytelling skills early on actually have more advanced reading skills later,” she said.

The experts suggest talking to your teacher about the best at-home learning strategies. You may want to consider a tutor or other outside help.

But maybe most of all, the experts say parents -- and school districts -- should change their academic expectations for this school year.