(Getty Images)

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‘COVID slide’: Academia adjusts to student-achievement decline

Their grades and test scores tanked during the pandemic. Now local schools and colleges aim to help.

In educational circles, it’s called “COVID slide,” and it refers students whose academics took a turn for the worse during the pandemic.

Students’ grades or test scores declined due to the pandemic or the challenge of adjusting to virtual learning.

Although many schools have returned to in-person instruction, some students are still struggling.

Kim Chapman, vice president of instruction at Edmonds College, saw her own son slip into a rut, overwhelmed by the change in his school routine.

“His 10th-grade year was fully online,” Chapman said. “He slipped into depression. He worried about his grades.”

She felt isolated, for a time. She wondered if other students were under a similar strain.

When Chapman found the courage to speak to other parents, she heard the stories: straight-A students whose grades fell off a cliff; students her son’s age struggling with depression.

She was not alone.

“So many students have experienced this,” Chapman said. “It’s pretty universal.”

Now parents and students are asking, what’s next?

What plans have local school districts set in motion to help students boost their grades and, even more importantly, their self-confidence?

How are colleges, universities and post-secondary schools viewing student applications and transcripts that exhibit a precipitous decline in grades during the pandemic?

Chapman is seeking answers, but she is optimistic. Edmonds College is fully aware of the isolation students have felt, she said.

Re-engaging students academically and socially is part of the discussion, Chapman said. “We’ve been talking about how to literally get students back in the classroom but also back in the game.”

The Edmonds School District, the district her son attends, is helping him and his friends, she said.

The district has made an effort to identify struggling students and ramp up summer school offerings.

“The school districts want to help them, the colleges want to help them,” Chapman said. “They’re not immune to how the pandemic has impacted students. I want more parents to know that it’s OK.”

Here’s what some local school districts are doing to help:

‘No fault of their own’

• The Lynnwood-based Edmonds School District is preparing for a busy summer schedule, said Greg Schwab, the district’s assistant superintendent.

Normally, the district’s summer school serves 300 to 400 high school students. This year, summer school enrollment is up 100%, and the district expects to offer instruction to some 800 high school students, Schwab said.

He sympathizes with their plight. “The first Zoom class began at 8 a.m. and the last Zoom class ended at 1:30 p.m. That was schooling for the better part of a year,” Schwab said.

“Students identified as successful before the pandemic have struggled through no fault of their own,” Schwab said.

Despite a return to in-person schooling during the 2021-22 term, the academic year was plagued by interruptions.

“We were closing classrooms daily,” Schwab said. “Kids were getting quarantined for 10 days, and then there were staff shortages.”

More courses and more tutors will help, but academic decline can’t be adequately confronted without addressing students’ well-being, he said.

“Mental health continues to be an issue,” Schwab said. “We’ve added social workers to our support staff and added drug and alcohol counselors. There’s been a significant uptick in kids experiencing these issues.”

Finally, parents should speak up. “If the school district doesn’t know your child is struggling, let them know,” Schwab said. “Students are resilient and will bounce back, though it may take some time.”

Summer school

• The Mukilteo School District has expanded summer school.

“Last year was the largest summer program we’ve ever had,” said Diane Bradford, district spokeswoman. Enrollment is expected to swell this summer, as well.

The district is offering free online tutoring to middle- and high-school students through a company called Revolution Prep, Bradford said.

“Any middle- or high-school student in our district can drop in or reserve a time slot with an instructor online at various times of the day, evenings or weekends and receive academic tutoring and homework help,” Bradford said.

The district sends bi-weekly alerts to families of secondary students who aren’t passing one or more classes or are in danger of losing credits. Bradford said faculty and staff have reached out to students wrestling with academic and personal challenges and offered help.

”Staff worked hard to connect with students and even went to their homes in some cases to support them by delivering needed technology, school supplies, and to check in,” Bradford said.

Emotional intelligence

Everett Public Schools is paying greater attention to mental health, said Dave Peters, director of student support services.

Social well-being, emotional health and academics are inextricably linked, Peters said.

“Emotions affect aspirations, confidence and our ability to concentrate and interact with others,” Peters said.

To help students identify and cope with stress, the district is rolling out a program developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, called RULER. The acronym stands for the “five skills of emotional intelligence” — recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating. It aims to increase emotional intelligence among students in grades K-12.

The district is offering credit recovery courses through its high school summer academy and Online High School. Summer programs are free to in-district students. Transportation and meals are provided.

The district has expanded its Homework Help program. “Students who need more help, especially from their own teachers, can set up specific times and days during the week when they can get the extra help they need,” said Jeanne Willard, the district’s regional superintendent for extended learning options.

Paper Tutoring, a program for ninth-graders, provides homework help, writing feedback and tutoring through live chat and is available in English, Spanish, French and Mandarin, Willard said.

The return to in-person instruction is a blessing, Peters said. “Students were struggling and getting close to the edge. Being able to come back to school and the support of friends and adults have made a big difference.”

Higher ed’s unique challenges

Colleges and universities, too, are aware of COVID slide.

“A lot of students are going through trauma,’” said Chapman, Edmonds College’s vice president of instruction. “We’re looking at ways to supports students so they can be successful. We’ve all had a rough go of it,” Chapman said.

• About half of courses at Edmonds College are hybrid, a combination of in-person classes and remote learning.

The college plans to expand its “high-flex” offerings, which combine in-person, virtual and on-demand lectures that can be accessed at any time.

Students whose family or work schedules prevent them from full-time, in person attendance are expected to benefit, Chapman said.

Students who didn’t earn the grade they wanted can retake the class and replace their old grade, she said. The college is beefing up Spanish-language GED and English as Second Language (ESL) courses.

Officials at colleges and universities such as the University of Washington branch campuses and Western Washington University in Bellingham recommend students address any shortcomings in their application.

EducationWeek recently reported that “the average high school junior who took the ACT college-entry test in spring 2021 fell from the 50th to the 46th percentile across English, reading, math, and science — compared to performance in 2020 and 2019.”

ACT is the non-profit group that administers standardized college admissions tests. Based on scores from about 600,000 students from nearly 4,000 schools in 38 states, “Students of all racial groups and across rural, suburban, and urban schools showed significant declines in test scores,” EducationWeek said.

• At Western Washington University in Bellingham, “Activities, challenges and experiences can tell us much more about a student’s ability to succeed in our learning environment than grades or test scores alone,” Shelli Soto, Western’s associate vice president for enrollment management, wrote in an email.

“We welcome students to share with us details about their life and experiences,” Soto said. Standardized test scores at Western are now optional.

• At the University of Washington Bothell, COVID dip isn’t the first time the university has seen an erratic or unanticipated grading period on a student’s transcript, said Scott James, vice chancellor for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs. “So that’s something that we look for regularly. Obviously, this is on a much larger scale,” James said of the pandemic’s impact on academic performance.

”If a student’s grades or GPA don’t reflect their potential, we would hope the student would have addressed that in their application or personal statement,” James said.

If it isn’t addressed, “We would usually reach out to the applicants to ask them for clarifying information — ‘Hey, what was going on?’ Sometimes we’re able to connect with guidance counselors in high school to understand what might have been going on with an individual student,” James said.

• At the University of Washington’s main Seattle campus, Paul Seegert, admissions director, Seattle said the university’s application review process is designed to “consider many different kinds of students with different grading patterns and backgrounds.”

Because it is a holistic review, it is able to assess a student’s entire high school career, Seegert said.

If there are variations in academic performance, reviewers can take personal issues and other struggles into consideration, he said. However, if a student’s grades or test scores declined for a period of time, “we do like to see that they’re recovering,” Seegert said.

“We’ve definitely have seen more students who have had challenges,” Seegert said. “We’re able to take those into consideration.”

Washington State University Everett offers programs for junior and senior level college students.

The university does not ask for a personal statement, said Alberto Vazquez, associate director of student services.

If a student or applicant has experienced hardships, they are “strongly encouraged to reach out to myself or anybody in the student services department,” Vazquez said.

“If their grades have dropped, they can come in and chat with us for help in getting back on track or for help passing the classes they need for their major,” Vazquez said.

If officials do notice a dip in grades, “We’ll reach out and have a conversation with the student about what’s going on and what kind of solutions can we come up with to make the application stronger,” Vazquez said.

WSU Everett is taking steps to help bring students back to class, noting that many community college and college students took a break from school or college during the pandemic, sometimes for a year or more.

Some of those students, said Vazquez, just couldn’t make the switch to virtual classes. “They told me they flunked every class because they just weren’t used to it,” Vazquez said. “Now they’re looking to jump back in and want to apply to WSU. That kind of situation is very common.”

Janice Podsada: 425-339-3097; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @JanicePods.

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