School districts consider starting next school year early to offset learning gap

Posted at 6:32 PM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 17:34:01-05

Starting classes earlier this fall could be an option to help children in Wisconsin catch-up, after a pandemic learning loss.

“Districts are now figuring we need to understand how far behind our students are, compared to what they would have been otherwise, then decide what to do about it,” said Dr. Curtis Jones, who studies and evaluates Wisconsin’s education system.

Dr. Jones says there’s no real data yet for our state when it comes to knowing specific achievement gaps created by the pandemic.

“We know it hasn’t been good, but we don’t know how bad it’s been,” he said.

Dr. Jones points to a national study done by the Northwest Evaluation Association, a non-profit that tries to help school districts improve learning.

“They estimated that students are developing their reading skills two-thirds as fast as if they would have been in person,” he said. “It’s been even more impactful in math, where students are developing skills about half as fast as they would otherwise. That's the best guess of roughly where we are in Wisconsin, but also realizing that students and families who are more marginalized to begin with typically bear the brunt of the negative impact. Meaning low-income students, children of color, underserved populations.”

One possible solution being thrown in the mix affects when kids return to school after summer break.

“A possibility might be making sure next year that we start early,” Gov. Tony Evers said at a luncheon Tuesday. “We have to do whatever we can to help kids, and make-up for the pandemic, which was no one’s fault.”

Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction has long established Sept. 1 as the first day of the school year for state public schools. Evers says they could change that temporarily. But it would be up to each school district to decide whether to bring students back to class earlier than Sept. 1.

“I think giving more districts local control, and allowing them to make the decisions best for their students, is really promising,” said Paru Shah, Shorewood School Board President.

Shorewood is considering making changes to next year’s school calendar.

“We have a medical advisory group that has spoken to us a little about their recommendations for starting early, so we can use the outdoor space more, take advantage of the fact that it's warmer in August,” Shah said.

Better weather means the ability to keep school windows open for more ventilation. But starting the school year early could impact summer plans and scheduling for a lot of families.

We expect to hear what some districts, like Shorewood, within a few weeks.

We also asked Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services about this during their COVID-19 update on Thursday.

Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk says DHS is really focusing on vaccinations so that Wisconsin is in a better place come fall. By the end of this month, she says every teacher in Wisconsin will have at least received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

By mid-to-late April, the deputy secretary says every teacher will have received both doses. She also pointed to how all of the vaccine companies are working on studying vaccines for school-aged children and young adults.

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