Even students with well-trained teachers have had far fewer hands-on hours with them than before the pandemic, which has been defined by closures, uneven access to online instruction, quarantine periods and — even on the best days — virus-related interruptions to regular classroom routines. Now, schools are under pressure to boost literacy as quickly as possible so students gain the reading skills they need to learn the rest of the curriculum, from math word problems to civics lessons. Billions of federal stimulus dollars are flowing to districts for tutoring and other supports, but their effect may be limited if schools cannot find quality staff members to hire.
At Capital Preparatory Harbor Lower School, a charter elementary school in the working-class coastal city of Bridgeport, Conn., about half of the first graders did not step foot inside a classroom during their crucial kindergarten year. Though the school building reopened in January 2021 on a hybrid schedule, many families, concerned about the virus, opted to continue full-time remote learning.
At the beginning of this school year, when all students returned to in-person learning, more than twice as many first graders as before the pandemic tested at kindergarten levels or below in their literacy skills, according to the administration.
Teachers started with the basics: how to orient and hold a book, and where the names of the author and illustrator could be found. The school is using federal stimulus dollars to create classroom libraries filled with titles that appeal to the largely Black and Hispanic students there, like “Firebird,” about a young, Black dancer by the ballerina Misty Copeland, and “Hair Love,” about a Black father styling his daughter’s hair.
The stimulus money is also paying for a new structured phonics curriculum called Fundations. Given the depth of many students’ struggles with reading, the work has taken on “a level of urgency,” said Garensha John, a first-grade teacher at the school. “Let’s get it done. As soon as they know this, they’ll excel.”
From the start of the pandemic, when schools abruptly shuttered in March 2020, math skills were clearly affected, while some early research suggested that students’ reading skills were holding steady, perhaps because more parents read with their children at home than practiced math.
But now, “What we’re seeing is that there are a lot of children who didn’t get the stimulation they need” during the pandemic to adequately develop early speech and reading skills, which are closely linked, Dr. Hogan said.