Many Anchorage first graders who missed out on critical in-person learning moments during kindergarten as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are at risk of not learning to read by third grade.
In winter assessments during the 2019-20 school year prior to the pandemic, a little under 20% of first graders were considered high risk for not being able to read by third grade. But among this year’s class, roughly 30% are now considered to be at high risk, according to school district data.
The overall portion of students who have some level of risk for not reaching that third grade reading goal also increased — from around 54% to more than 60% this year, school district data showed.
“When we’ve talked with schools and teachers, they said that first graders came in this year almost at the same place the kindergartners did,” said Dianne Orr, director of K-12 English language arts in the teaching and learning department at the school district.
This year’s current first graders were at home or attending preschool when schools shut down in March 2020. And when they started kindergarten in August 2020, Anchorage School District classes were virtual given concerns around student and teacher safety during the ongoing pandemic. In-person classes for first graders started up again in January 2021.
The beginning of kindergarten is an important time for students, when they essentially learn how to be students in school, from tying shoes to getting along with peers, said Orr.
“All those things, they didn’t experience because they were at home doing Zoom learning,” Orr said. “So that was a really crucial time for that group to have some missed opportunities for learning because they weren’t face-to-face.”
Beyond the social aspects, kindergarten and first grade are the most important years in the process of learning to read, Orr said.
Children in the youngest grades across the country are facing the same issues, including roughly a third of whom are missing certain reading standards, The New York Times reported last month.
The two years of interrupted learning mean first grade teachers have a big task, said Michael Akes, senior director of assessment and evaluation for the Anchorage School District.
“I think they’ve done a yeoman’s job at bringing this group along,” Akes said. “But we’ve been really putting a lot of emphasis on — are they moving forward? And if not, what do we need to do?”
While school officials did see student reading growth among the first graders, it just wasn’t enough catch-up growth by this year’s winter assessment. Akes said they may see more by the end of the year when they conduct the spring assessment.
The district is also offering summer school to students who need it, and based on assessments, for going into second grade, he said.
That’s important, he said, because without being able to read by the end of third grade, gaps widen for students.
Kids who aren’t reading by the time they finish third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school by high school, he said.
School board member Dave Donley said ASD first graders missing out on critical months of kindergarten and risking not learning to read by third grade is “a huge problem.”
“The board has discussed it extensively, we’ve asked the superintendent to continue to use every possible resource to address it,” he said.
Donley, who is the most conservative member of the school board, characterized the district’s move to go to virtual schooling during the pandemic as a “very poor decision.”
School board member Andy Holleman said that at the time the decision was made to go to virtual schooling, much was unknown about the pandemic. While avoiding remote schooling would have been great, it just wasn’t viewed as an option then, he said. Holleman said without going to remote schooling, the situation in Anchorage could have been much more serious.
“Going back and looking at what we knew at the time and how much uncertainty there was about where things were going, I don’t have any second thoughts about going to remote schooling,” he said.
Holleman said the district can try to identity the students who need extra help and offer it, but all of that needs to fit within the school day, which is a limiting factor, he said.
“We’re trying to make 100% use of that time already, catching kids up on a really significant amount of work is very hard to fit in there,” Holleman said.
Clare Hill, principal at Chugach Optional Elementary, said that the data for first graders at her school track with the district’s — there’s a dip there.
But, she said, there are interventions in place, with teachers doing more small group instruction and providing parents with some ideas for working on reading at home.
“It’s not that they’re going to not get there,” Hill said. “It’s just going to take more intentional work to get there.”