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Green Bay area kids lost months of learning time during the pandemic. Catching them up could cost millions.

Green Bay Press-Gazette logo Green Bay Press-Gazette 8/17/2022 Danielle DuClos, Green Bay Press-Gazette
a person riding a skateboard down a sidewalk: Bay View Middle School students return to school wearing masks in September 2020 in Howard. When schools shut down as COVID-19 cases surged later in the year, students in the Howard-Suamico school district lost nine weeks of math instruction and four weeks of reading instruction according to Edunomics Lab, a research center at Georgetown University. © Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Bay View Middle School students return to school wearing masks in September 2020 in Howard. When schools shut down as COVID-19 cases surged later in the year, students in the Howard-Suamico school district lost nine weeks of math instruction and four weeks of reading instruction according to Edunomics Lab, a research center at Georgetown University.

GREEN BAY — The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning for months, and educators, district leaders and researchers are still trying to figure out how much learning students lost and how to get them caught up.

Some districts did online schooling for a few months while others taught their students virtually for over a year. While online learning was better than nothing, it wasn't the same as having students in a classroom.

Test scores dropped across the nation and in Wisconsin during the 2020-21 school year.

So how much might that learning loss cost schools? 

The Press-Gazette analyzed data from the Edunomics Lab, a research center at Georgetown University, that estimated how many weeks of learning Green Bay area students lost and how much it would cost to recoup that time. 

The Green Bay School District lost an estimated average of 18 weeks of math and 15 weeks of reading instruction while Ashwaubenon lost 14 weeks of math and nine weeks of reading. 

Howard-Suamico and De Pere both lost nine weeks of math and four weeks of reading, while West De Pere lost eight and five weeks, respectively.

Predicted tutoring costs were used to measure the cost of catching students up. Tutoring is considered to be an effective, high-impact academic intervention to improve students' academic performance, according to the lab's director, Marguerite Roza.

"Tutoring is one (approach) that historically produces a larger effect on student outcomes — larger than many other interventions like smaller class sizes or things like that, which are actually quite small," she said. "Because the learning gaps are so large with the amount of time that kids spent in remote schooling, school districts will need to use interventions that will have a likelihood of remedying the gaps."

Using an intervention like smaller class sizes is unlikely to produce an effect on student learning and achievement that is large enough to address the magnitude of the gaps students are experiencing, Roza said. 

For the Green Bay School District, it's estimated that the district would need to spend upward of $43 million on tutoring to fully catch kids up. In comparison, it would cost Milwaukee Public Schools over $224 million for tutoring to make up 23 weeks of math and 22 weeks of reading instruction.

The cost for the Madison School District, the second largest district in the state, would be over $54 million. It lost an estimated 18 weeks of math and 12 weeks of reading.

The data also included the amount of federal COVID-19 relief funding schools received, known as ESSER funding, that could, in theory, go toward covering these costs. 

However, given budgetary constraints, some districts in the Green Bay area are using part of that funding this year to supplement their operational budgets. 

For example, the Green Bay School District is using $18 million of its ESSER funding to balance its budget. 

Inflation and frozen school revenue limits — the caps on how much revenue districts can collect from property taxes and state aid — don't leave schools with much of a choice, said Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

"Schools right now have no choice but to use the federal money if they have increased costs," he said. "... The only exceptions are those districts that have passed a referendum to increase their revenue limit spending."

Individualized tutoring recommended

But Roza thinks providing individualized tutoring should be the highest priority, even if that means forgoing giving teachers a full inflationary salary increase or repaving a parking lot, she said.

"I think really by any means necessary we have an imperative to make sure that our younger generations don't bear the entire burden, or such a large portion of the burden, of this pandemic," Roza said. 

There are three limitations to providing that level of support, Rossmiller said: time, money and people. 

"I think that you can only do the high-impact tutoring if you have people available to do the tutoring and that you can afford to hire them to do that," he said. 

Individualized or small group tutoring is costly and labor intensive making it infeasible for the Green Bay School District to do it for every student as outlined by the Edunomics Lab analysis. 

"Obviously, we understand that one-on-one tutoring is probably the best thing you can do to catch them up to speed," said Gina Zacharias, director of teaching and learning programs for the Green Bay School District. 

Green Bay School District uses targeted interventions

But the district has offered targeted interventions over the past year to catch students up.

By offering full-day summer school program options for the last two years, students got some one-on-one tutoring in the mornings and then applied those skills during enrichment activities in the afternoon.

During the school year, the district offers "intense interventions" for students who are behind in reading or math. 

They work in small groups or one-on-one with a teacher who will help them practice the skills they need help with.

Last school year, the district also provided an after-hours call center where parents could talk with a teacher about how to help their child with homework.

The call center would then follow up with the child's school so the teachers there could provide further help during the school day.

The call center won't continue in the upcoming school year. 

While student achievement improved slightly last year, the learning loss students experienced won't be solved in one year, Zacharias said. 

"I think this is going to be one of those (things) that is a multiyear process," she said. "We started to see a small growth, but we need to keep that momentum and acceleration."

Here's how much learning Green Bay area students lost

Here's how much math and reading time Green Bay area students are estimated to have lost during the 2020-21 school year and how much it would likely cost to catch them up:

Green Bay School District: 19,171 students in 2020-21

  • Weeks of lost learning: 18 math, 15 reading
  • Estimated tutoring costs: $43,805,144

Howard-Suamico School District: 5,913 students in 2020-21

  • Weeks of lost learning: 9 math, 4 reading
  • Estimated tutoring costs: $5,638,005

Ashwaubenon School District: 3,276 students in 2020-21

  • Weeks of lost learning: 14 math, 9 reading
  • Estimated tutoring costs: $5,353,489

De Pere School District: 4,525 students in 2020-21

  • Weeks of lost learning: 9 math, 4 reading
  • Estimated tutoring costs: $4,304,335

West De Pere School District: 3,587 students in 2020-21

  • Weeks of lost learning: 8 math, 5 reading
  • Estimated tutoring costs: $3,213,558

Pulaski School District: 3,739 students in 2020-21

  • Weeks of lost learning: 10 math, 6 reading
  • Estimated tutoring costs: $4,232,226

Denmark School District: 1,550 students in 2020-21

  • Weeks of lost learning: 7 math, 4 reading
  • Estimated tutoring costs: $1,228,356

Danielle DuClos covers k-12 education in the Green Bay area as a Report for America corps member. She is based at the Press-Gazette in Green Bay. To contact her, email dduclos@gannett.com or call 907-717-6851. Follow her on Twitter @danielle_duclos

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Green Bay area kids lost months of learning time during the pandemic. Catching them up could cost millions.

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