Louisiana public schools grapple with learning lost to pandemic surges and storms

Masked students at the Arthur School return to in-person learning after being impacted by Covid-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida. Photo by Taslin Alfonzo

PBS NEW ORLEANS: For April Vincent and her four young kids, trying to keep up with schooling has been an educational crisis, one calamity after another that has cost her family dearly.

Vincent quit nursing school and her job in March 2020 to get her kids through remote school, and watched as debts piled up. One of her daughters, then in fourth grade, struggled to learn virtually through a screen. Her two youngest children were suddenly without daycare, and distracted the older two from their work.

“It was very, very abrupt … you have to put everything you’re doing to the side,” said Vincent, a single mother.

When school returned, the difference in learning for her daughter, now in sixth grade, became clear. She’s thriving, Vincent said. But she worries about what her kids have lost. Her 4-year-old is having accidents during her naptime at school, and is struggling with what Vincent believes is anxiety — she’s afraid she’s going to get sick all the time.

“I am worried that they are behind. Playing catch-up, for all of us, will be really, really hard.”

“I am worried that they are behind. Playing catch-up, for all of us, will be really, really hard. I’m just trying to keep them feeling secure and feeling safe,” Vincent, 30, said.

It’s a story that is playing out for many parents in this phase of the pandemic — where some normalcy has returned, but so much has not — and is far from over yet. In Louisiana, pandemic challenges have been compounded by catastrophic hurricanes, flooding, and COVID-19 surges that have been among the country’s worst. Schools were caught off guard. They closed, and opened, only to close again. Nearly two years of classroom turmoil, virtual learning, and school closures have upended education for nearly 700,000 children enrolled in public schools across the state, in ways big and small.

April Vincent’s son graduated from kindergarten during the earliest part of the pandemic — a Zoom ceremony followed by a drive-by-celebration. Photo: Vincent Family Photo.

One of Vincent’s children graduated from kindergarten during the earliest part of the pandemic — a Zoom ceremony followed by a drive-by-celebration. That same son would not set foot on school grounds until the second grade this fall. Vincent knew he and her other children were missing out on more than memories. They were missing out on mastering fundamental reading and math skills that could have significant consequences on the rest of their lives, especially for Black children like hers. Experts say the pandemic further illuminated racial disparities in education as well as for students with disabilities.

Educators publicly debate whether to call the past year and a half a learning loss or a learning disruption. Regardless of terminology, one thing is clear: The impact on kids’ futures is a big unknown, and academic setbacks continue to unfold.

A report from McKinsey & Company estimates students, on average, were five months behind in math and four months behind in reading by the end of the 2020-21 school year. For Black students and low-income students, the effect was greater. Black Students lost an average of six months of math and reading, according to the report, which analyzed assessments from more than 1.6 million elementary and middle school students across the country and compared them to performance from similar students before the pandemic.

Students enrolled at The Arthur School participate in class. Photo by Taslin Alfonzo

“We saw a noticeable drop in our proficiency levels over two years. No surprise there given the challenges,” State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, told the PBS NewsHour. “Frankly, I’m not aware of a state that has faced the multitude of challenges that we have faced. Still, our educators are resilient. We continue to get back up off the ground and keep moving.”

According to the Louisiana Department of Education, Louisiana test scores nose-dived 5 percentage points during the pandemic. The number of students achieving mastery on the test fell from 34 percent in 2019 to 29 percent during the most recent statewide testing conducted this spring. State tests were cancelled in 2020. Statewide, only one school district improved overall: Jackson Parish, located in Northern Louisiana, which grew 1 percentage point. In addition, state data showed a 15-point difference in outcomes between students who attended school fully face-to-face compared to those who attended entirely virtual.

“It speaks volumes. Our children failed, and that means their needs are not being met. If they missed any benchmarks, it’s only fair to revisit the lessons and get another opportunity. But, unfortunately, in the future, it will hurt them,” said Melissa Francis, a grassroots parent organizer with Step-Up Louisiana; a parent-powered non-profit focused on economic and education justice in the South.

“Before the pandemic and before [Hurricane] Ida, our children were not getting their needs met. Black and brown children have always been last and have always been at the bottom of the priority list with decision-makers,” she added.

The results present a significant step backward amid unprecedented stops and starts in classrooms, especially for a state that consistently ranks at the bottom in education nationwide. Educational leaders in Louisiana believe they must act swiftly to redress the harm caused to children’s education, especially for young students who saw some of the biggest declines.

“That’s why we’re doubling down on so many of our literacy efforts and more spending in the foundational years. We know that if we don’t invest aggressively there now, it’s going to be a lifetime of challenges,” said Brumley, who arrived at the top state education post in the early stages of the pandemic.

While the decline in this year’s results showed up across all grade levels, subjects, and subgroups, Brumley notes Louisiana schools did not dip as much as other states. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2020 report card, Alabama and West Virginia had the largest decreases in fourth grade math scores. And as schools move forward during the pandemic, Brumley boasts a high annual test participation rate. For example, 97.5 percent of students took the critical Louisiana Educational Assessment Program assessments (LEAP 2025) last May, giving the Louisiana Department of Education rich data to plan recovery initiatives.

“These are foundational years where there has been a constant disruption. So if we can’t figure out how to get them on grade level by the time they’re exiting third or fourth grade, it will be a big concern,” he said.

High costs of academic recovery

The Louisiana Department of Education announced in May the additional