December 1, 2021

COVID learning curve

Some students fell behind, but they can catch up

Sarah Bullock/staff reporter

Tricia DiFulvio, a McGraw High School math teacher and instructional coach, calls on Katie Millard, 12, right, while Luke Sauttery, 12, middle, and Ian Teeter, 12, left, listen during class recently.

Jack Heliseva, 14, was an honor roll student until COVID-19 forced him to complete eighth grade at his bedroom computer.

Heliseva’s grades plummeted during online learning.

“He was a straight-A student before the pandemic,” said Bobbi Jo Weaver of Lansing, Heliseva’s mother. “But then he got C’s and D’s and his first F ever.”

Heliseva’s experience is common for students who need face-to-face interaction and parents, teachers and school districts are trying to figure out ways to help kids recover academically.

But it’s difficult to say how many kids are in that situation. Standardized test scores in English language arts and math show stability — and even marked increases — in Cortland County school districts from 2019 to 2021.

However, state education officials warn that comparisons are perilous: The tests were administered differently. And in previous years, where nearly 80% of students were tested, only 40% were tested in 2021.

“We should not be making comparisons, and you should not be looking at this comparison statewide,” Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa told The Buffalo News late last month.

Vermont, however, made those comparisons. It found the number of students who showed proficiency in the standardized tests dropped about 20%.


Heliseva struggled with time management, self-accountability and isolation during remote learning, Weaver said.

“His hard time was staying focused because at home there’s a lot more distractions,” Weaver said. “Being in the school makes it so he’s more focused and more driven to get the assignments done.”

Looking back, Heliseva sees both the advantages of remote learning and the disadvantages.

“It may be easier for some kids because the teachers aren’t watching you as actively so there is less stress there,” he said. “Also kids don’t have to walk to their next class and go to their locker in between classes. It also allows kids to sleep in later because they don’t have to catch a bus.”

Heliseva noticed that remote teaching was a struggle for some of his instructors.

“Another disadvantage is that kids may not be paying attention and playing or doing something else during class with their cameras off so they can’t be seen,” he said. “Some kids may also find it difficult to just sit in one place and listen to people speak for about six hours of their day.”


At McGraw Central School District last year, schools had the classroom space to spread students out so that they were six feet apart and continue in-person learning, said Superintendent Melinda McCool.

“There were very few remote students during that time,” McCool said. “Not all school districts did and had to use the remote model and the hybrid model.”

The district created detailed learning records this year on students and it became obvious that students who had not had in-person instruction suffered academically, she said.

“Overall, it was pretty glaring that our students need to be in school,” said Tricia DiFulvio, a teacher and instructional coach hired last spring to address student learning loss from the pandemic lockdowns.

Using standardized tests, as well as teacher-made quizzes, tests and assignments, DiFulvio created a spreadsheet to show how each child stood academically.

“What is getting in the way of your kid learning right now?” is the question the data can answer, DiFulvio said. And once children master the foundational material, they can get back on grade level very quickly.

“We’ve seen a two-year increase in 10 weeks,” she said. “That makes them say, ‘I am a learner!’”

The McGraw district hired veteran teachers and two school psychologists to help its students and teachers navigate pandemic learning, McCool said.

One of McGraw’s best advantages, she said, is having a small student-to-teacher ratio: 9-to-1, not including teaching assistants.

“That’s huge.” DiFulvio said. “Because you can do so much differentiation.”


Data, district programs and instructors’ opportunities to teach students at different levels within the same classroom will be critical for students now that they’re back to school, wrote Fernando M. Reimers, director of the International Education Policy Masters Program at Harvard University, in his book “Primary and Secondary Education During Covid-19: Disruptions to Educational Opportunity During a Pandemic,” completed last month and to be published next year.

“Given the considerable learning loss experienced by many students during the pandemic, learning recovery programs will be essential,” wrote Reimers, a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Commission on the Futures of Education.

“To identify what needs to be remedied, assessment of students will be necessary as well as differentiated responses by schools and for different students,” he added.

Those responses could include extended learning time longer days or longer academic years — accelerated programs, dropout prevention programs. And even more online teaching.

For the challenges the pandemic brought to educators, and students, it also brought opportunities, Reimers said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic created an education crisis, which robbed many students of the opportunities to learn what they were expected to and caused them to lose skills they had already gained,” Reimers wrote. “Despite these obvious challenges, it is not a foregone conclusion that we should accept these terrible education losses and their dire outcomes as destiny. It is likely that programs can be developed and implemented to mitigate and revert the education losses, and perhaps even to address preexisting education challenges as we seek to ‘build back better’ as part of the response to the pandemic.”


This year, Heliseva is on campus at Lansing High School; he’s doing better.

“Now that he’s back in school, his grades have shot right back up,” Weaver said. And that F in social studies? It’s now an A.

How to help your child

Ways to help your child catch up:

  • Call your child’s teachers and go to parent-teacher conferences.
  • Read to your kids, even the older ones.
  • Model your math skills to your child. Show them how you use fractions to follow cooking recipes and addition, subtraction and percentages when grocery shopping.
  • Ask your child questions that can’t be answered with a simple, “yes,” “no” or “fine.” Rather than asking, “How was school?” ask “What was the highlight of your day?” It helps your child use critical-thinking skills. n Play educational board games with your child.
  • Practice gratitude and model how to focus on the positive, not the negative, to gain emotional resiliency.
    — SOURCES: Melinda McCool and Tricia DiFulvio

What school districts can do

Here are four ways school districts can support students with learning loss:

  • Extend learning time
  • Expand dropout prevention programs
  • Increase the capacity to learn and teach online
  • Enhance accelerated programs
    — SOURCE: Fernando M. Reimers, Harvard University