School closures — in Kansas and across the country — have left tens of millions of students coping with a new pandemic-driven reality. It has also left educators, parents and others wondering how students will fare. Will they be able to keep up in online classes? Will some students fall behind?


“I think this is a real concern. We have students that had not been engaging or engaging in a different way,” said Brandi Martinez-McWilliams, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for McPherson schools. “Students will return to school with a variety of needs. We will need to keep all of that in mind when planning for next year.”


The abrputness of the change has led to concerns as well.


It was mid April when Gov. Laura Kelly announced a shuttering of school buildings, and a massive adjustment to how educational services are delivered. For McPherson schools, it meant remaking instruction in just a few days though the district had an ace in the hole, so to speak..


The closure came during spring break. According to Martinez-McWilliams, that gave the school an extra week of prep and find ways to support students and families as they continued education with the use of school buildings.


“We are currently capturing data that will show us student engagement,” Brandi Martinez-McWilliams said. “I think it is safe to say that there are students that did not engage. We will need to be looking at academic and engagement data to see how to best close these gaps.”


Though long-term effects of distance learning on student outcomes remain unclear, some experts argue such effects as widening disparities in education and a shift in teaching as we know it are likely.


“Students may also have social-emotional needs that need to be met that have not been since school ended. We need to make sure we have supports in place,” Martinez-McWilliams said.


In the immediate aftermath of school closures, the Association of American Educators surveyed hundreds of mostly public-school educators across the country to get an idea for how they were adapting to the new COVID-19 reality.


According to Colin Sharkey, executive director of the association, the survey wasn’t meant to be scientifically representative, but it did provide valuable insight into how teachers view learning during the coronavirus pandemic.


“We just wanted to see where educators were. We really hadn’t seen any other data,” Sharkey said. “What we found was a tremendous amount of concern about how students would be able to keep up with the distance learning or the delay in learning.”


Survey results indicated more than 80% of respondents agreed with the decision to close schools, but 52% of those surveyed said they worried students would struggle to learn in a virtual environment and could fall behind academically.


“In a second survey,” Sharkey added, “we asked, ‘What is the greatest obstacle teachers are experiencing as a result of the school closures?’ No. 1 was ‘student attendance and participation is inadequate or problematic.’ I think that answers some of the questions as to why teachers were concerned.”


Sharkey notes that the current distance learning being delivered by teachers isn’t distance learning in its most workable form. It is “emergency distance learning,” he said — and that makes a difference.


According to Scott McWilliams, superintendent of Auburn-Washburn Unified School District 437, educators had to rush to organize virtual learning this semester. Because of that, many districts had to strip curriculum down to the bare minimum to give all students the best chance of keeping up.


“There was no way we were going to be able to teach everything like we would in the normal, traditional school setting,” McWilliams said.


Educators in his district collaborated to determine the essential elements students would need to advance to their next grade levels, and that is what is being taught now.


Steve Noble, superintendent of Seaman USD 345, suggested focusing on that core learning is an attempt to remain cognizant that school likely isn’t the first thing on families’ priority lists at the moment.


“We’re mindful of our families throughout this entire process, because let’s be clear — there’s things going on with our folks that would very likely make learning not necessarily the priority in their family life,” Noble said. “That’s understandable, because of job losses and COVID-related illnesses, etc.”


According to Argun Saatcioglu, associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Kansas, the narrowing of curriculum is expected. Even with the more narrow academic focus, he said, some students are likely to fall through the cracks.


“Educators are going to have a much more difficult time engaging, supervising and nurturing students — you don’t need to be a rocket scientist (to determine) that,” Saaticioglu said.


Having students participate in online learning, he added, is likely to exacerbate inequities and achievement gaps already present in education.


“There’s always an achievement gap in the United States — both by race and ethnicity and by social class,” Saatcioglu said. “From sociology and education policy and economics and social scientists that look at this, we know that when kids are left to their own devices, and their own families’ devices for learning, the kids who are less fortunate ... tend to fall behind.”


That gap becomes more prevalent, he said, during summer months when schools aren’t in session.


“When school is off, the more affluent kids who have access to better family resources, better household resources, neighborhood and community contacts and so on — those kids either continue to gain more, or they can manage not losing their skills and learning and knowledge,” Saatcioglu said, “compared to the less fortunate kids who tend to lose ground.”


Saatcioglu sees current school closures as an extension, in many ways, of the “summer gap.” Superintendent Noble agreed.


“We know that the reading and math scores come in just a little bit lower in the fall than when they left us in the spring. That’s a normal summer slide,” Noble said. “Because of the COVID-19 and continuous learning, we expect that slide to be even greater.”


“I have been hearing pretty consistently that math has been more difficult content to do online,” Wendling said. “We have some teachers that are doing amazing small group and one-on-one support there. We have been hearing from parents (math) is more difficult than other subject areas.”


To combat that, Noble added, Seaman school district is looking to expand summer school for the first time this year. It plans to offer summer school to all students who have struggled with distance learning this semester.


If nothing changes, Noble expects to be able to bring students back to campus sometime after June 1, though the district is still working through the details.


Saatcioglu added there is another aspect of education students aren’t getting at the moment, one he argues is just as important as the academic material.


“There’s something to be said for being at school,” Saatcioglu said. “Educators, and educational researchers like me, know very well that kids are not at school just to learn instructional material. ... It’s about being there, having a social life there, having friends, interacting with authority, following rules, cooperating, learning resiliency, learning social skills.”


Learning those “non-cognitive” skills is what students are missing right now, Saatcioglu argues.


McWilliams said addressing social and emotional needs is something teachers and administrators are trying to do from afar.


“If school is in session, we certainly know there are some students that need a little extra TLC, care and support to have good days at school,” McWilliams said. “We know that even though they’re not at school, they still need some of those supports to have good days at home, or wherever it is that they’re residing at the current time.”


He said the school district has leaned on its social workers, counselors and school psychologists to ensure students are getting some of the extra attention they may need. The goal, he added, is for students to have “more positive days than negative days.”


“That’s been a key part of this,” McWilliams said. “It’s true the academics are extremely important, but the social-emotional well-being of students is just as important.”


Noble said a point of pride in his district right now is that social workers are actually making better connections with families than they have in the past.


“I think that’s because our families are more open to getting on the Zoom call or taking a phone call from our people and talking to them about what’s happening in our families and homes,” he said. “Our social workers would tell you they feel more connected to families than they ever have. That’s been a pleasant surprise.”


Noble and McWilliams remain optimistic they will be able to welcome students back to their school campuses in the fall.


McWilliams said there is a committee of educators for the Auburn-Washburn district that is going to be working throughout the summer to determine where the gaps in student learning may be. At this point, he isn’t quite sure yet what next school year will hold.


As Noble notes, catching students up may be a long-term effort.


“This is a long-term recovery,” he said, “not just for us economically but also academically and social and emotionally. This is going to be a long-term recovery for our kids, and if we don’t do things to sort of kickstart their learning again, then I think those students are in danger of being behind.”