‘It’s making the achievement gap worse’: Parents will need to work hard to get students caught up after virtual learning causes ‘COVID slide’

MADISON, Wis. — The pressure is on parents to find ways to get their kids back up to speed after more than a year of virtual learning. If they don’t find a way to get their kid caught up this summer, their child will likely fall even further behind in the fall.

“They’re calling it the COVID slide,” said tutor Priscilla Gresens. “The virtual learning, it didn’t work.”

Gresens, the assistant director at the Arnold Reading Clinic, is currently tutoring more than a dozen students. She said the group had to hire more tutors to handle the high demand during the pandemic.

“Their confidence is so low. And that’s what I’m seeing among all sorts of kids, that their confidence is low because of COVID, and not being able to do what other students can do,” said Gresens.

She said teachers aren’t to blame because they tried their best. And many parents had to work. But that left students without the help they needed. This led to many students falling behind, especially in reading and math.

“A lot of students virtually can click on to attend and not attend,” said Gresens. “Some of them would play video games all day because there was no parent there to help them.”

She said the Arnold Reading Clinic has some spots open for the summer, but she knows not all parents can afford a tutor. She said it’s important for all parents to find a way to get their kid up to speed before they return to in-person learning next school year.

“It is making the achievement gap worse. We’re going to have some that are way ahead, and some that are way behind. We’re not going to have that middle ground anymore,” said Gresens.

One option for Madison families is the Madison Metropolitan School District’s summer school. This year it’s available in-person or online.

“They come in, eat breakfast. We do some community building, or what we call a morning meeting, so an opportunity just to acclimate yourself back into school with your friends, with your classmates,” said Nicole Schaefer, Director of Summer Learning and Integrated Supports at MMSD.

But students had to be invited in order to attend. Schools invited students who especially struggles with virtual learning and had low attendance.

Almost 4,500 student accepted their invitations for the rigorous 6 week session. If your student isn’t one of those, you can also look into Madison School & Community Recreation’s camps for preschool, elementary and middle school students. There are also Madison-area Out-Of-School Time (MOST) programs at community centers across the city. And there are academic camps run through multiple local organizations.

MMSD is also working to get reading and math programs online for families to work on at home during the summer.

“It could be just part of their routine for the day. Or otherwise just pair up with a friend, do some partner challenges. A lot them are in somewhat of a game like setting which some kids really enjoy,” said Schaefer.

Gresens said the key is working with your child consistently over the summer.

“Read with them. Not just read to them, but set aside time to just sit down as a family and read. Put the phones away, turn off the TV and read a book,” she said. “And do flashcard for math. Because as long as you know your math facts, you can catch up a lot faster.”

Gresens said it will be hard work for parents, but they can help their kids catch up — and they need to as soon as possible. If they don’t, she said it’ll be a “slippery slope.”

“Otherwise they’re just going to keep falling farther behind. And once they can’t catch up, their self worth feels worse. And so then they feel like they can’t do it, and then they just don’t want to do it. And then they end up dropping out of high school because they can’t do it and they don’t want to do it anymore,” said Gresens.

Related: The virtual impact: How the pandemic influenced student enrollment, Failing classes, declining grades: Whether virtual or in-person, pandemic learning has been a hurdle