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Peter’s Take: APS Must Acknowledge Learning Losses, Adopt Bold Plan

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Over the past 18 months — due to the pandemic — the majority of APS students, particularly minority populations and those with disabilities, have suffered severe learning losses.

APS must adopt a bold plan to remediate these losses which can be instructional, emotional, or mental. The appropriate remedies should also address various shortcomings — whether instructional or administrative — that preceded Covid-19.

Some community members are sensitive to using phrases like “learning losses.” They believe using terms like these will generate further feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness among APS students, or slight our very hardworking teachers. But there are far greater risks than semantics if our Arlington community fails openly to acknowledge this severe problem. Before Covid-19, we talked candidly about the “summer slide.” Post-pandemic learning deficits are far more serious.

Statistical information demonstrates that learning losses are severe

Virginia’s 2021 PALS, which annually identifies students at risk for reading difficulties, revealed the largest group of high-risk students ever in the assessment’s history. The PALS data also indicate that Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged and English-language learners were disproportionately in the high-risk category.

APS’s own earlier statistics at the elementary, middle and high school levels previewed this: “Black and Hispanic students, English-language learning students, and students with disabilities are experiencing the deepest drops.”

These are major problems that cry out for bold solutions.

APS’s flip-flops, silence compounds the harm

To date, APS has been reluctant to discuss these problems or propose solutions. Shortly after saying he was “very concerned” about learning losses, Superintendent Francisco Durán played down even their existence, and then just days ago, made not one mention of this in a 69-slide presentation to APS administrators kicking off the school year. These about-faces are damaging and wrong; the scant published information on how APS will address recovery is at best cursory.

Federal funding was awarded to APS specifically to remediate the impact of lost instructional time. Instead of taking full advantage of these resources using proven superior methods to identify students who need extra help catching up academically, socially and emotionally (as the Secretary of Education has called for), APS has designated the majority of its American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP/ESSER) funds — $11 million — for the creation of a virtual option for the 2021-22 school year. This virtual academy is slated to serve less than 1,000 (or 3%) of students. Sadly, only about $1 million will go toward hiring elementary reading and math coaches — and these funds are only to be spent at schools that are either Title I or have over 650 students. These precious federal resources are being misallocated to a tiny subset of students without any comprehensive, targeted effort to identify the likely many who, after last year, are at risk for academic struggles if not already struggling.

APS’s performance suffers by comparison to Fairfax County, our neighbor next door, which has published a coherent plan allocating 48% of its ARP/ESSER funds to addressing learning losses through multiple platforms, including tutoring, after-school programs and compensatory services for special education students. APS also is far behind other school districts such as Dallas, where entire schools of at-risk students are starting the school year weeks early, or Huntsville, Alabama, whose 64-page learning recovery plan centers on high quality instructional materials and professional development, additional instructional time and other student supports.

Although it has promised to release more information about the use of ARP/ESSER funding at some point this month, APS is already behind after its failure to provide in-person summer school to the full population that needed it. Five days a week of in-person learning is what our students deserve, but many, if not most, need more. APS must release many more details showing how it will meet their needs.

Conclusion

APS must step up its game substantially to address learning losses attributable to Covid-19.

These severe learning losses are not unique to Arlington. They have been documented throughout Virginia and nationally. Let’s not be unique here by burying our heads in the sand:

“We cannot undo the past, but we can recover in a way that is truly different than the inequitable system we should leave behind.”

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC, a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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