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COVID-19 learning gap: How students and teachers are still playing catch-up after pandemic

ORLANDO, Fla. — We may be leaving the pandemic phase, but the impacts it has had on children and teens are something that continue with them in and out of the classroom.

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The Florida Department of Education released its state standardized test numbers on Thursday. The results show that the gap between those excelling and those failing continues to get wider.

Before COVID-19, English language arts grades showed that about 20% of students needed substantial help. That figure jumped to 24% last year.

Math is where kids are struggling the most.

Math grades have seen the widest impact based on new numbers, going from 21% struggling, to 32% who are struggling.

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Teachers and students said the core classes still have them playing catch-up.

“The first semester was rough,” said Rush Tindell.

Tindell just graduated from Apopka High School. He reflected on when COVID-19 first hit.

“I couldn’t really focus even. I tried. It’s like a full day, which is like seven hours. If I tried to focus for that long, I was beat by the end of it and your eyes start to strain,” he said.

On the other side of the screen, Edgewater High School teacher Ashley Modesto said she has faced new challenges trying to get kids to stay engaged.

“Sometimes they would go and try to fall back asleep or, you know, just like, have a little bit more breaks, little more unstructured breaks than what they’re used to,” Modesto said.

The grades reflected it.

“I took AP calculus. It’s like a college-level calculus course. My junior year I was failing that class miserably when I was online because if you ever try to do it — math on the computer is not easy. It’s not, it’s — it’s very difficult, especially calculus. That’s a whole new ballpark.”

State standard assessment scores show that during the pandemic, 32% of students scored in “level one,” meaning they needed substantial support to move to the next grade.

Only 10% scored a “level 3,″ which indicates complete mastery of a subject.

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One reason is that many teachers are stuck playing catch up.

“Algebra two and precalculus — so much of our stuff is built up of previous years in math, whether it be algebra one or geometry. So we have students who didn’t really do the best that they could do in those classes. Now, what we have to do as teachers is, we have to recover that loss or try to recover as much as that loss from COVID,” Modesto said.

The problem’s deeper than education.

The mental health impacts still affect some.

Modesto said she has also noticed a maturity gap that wasn’t there before.

“My freshmen coming in are like, you guys are 14. You’re acting like you are 11. It’s OK,” Modesto said.

Modesto admits it’s not easy with the extra work involved between parents, students and teachers to get kids to pass.

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More students are in summer school now.

She has also seen more parents getting involved when their kids’ grades fall.

While it could take time to get back to where we were before, Modesto said she thinks kids are going to be OK in the long run.

“They’re pretty resilient. They are. They’re a pretty resilient bunch. There are a lot of them who genuinely want to learn and want to do better,” Modesto said.

A report by Harvard University also found that remote learning during the pandemic was the main driver for gaps in high-poverty schools.

Florida Standards Assessments results show that in younger grades, like elementary school, there was the highest decline in grades, at nearly 30% in three years.

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