Athens County schools are working on multiple fronts to help students recover from pandemic setbacks

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ALBANY, Ohio (WOUB) — “OK, let’s blend this together.”

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Shauna Kostival sits at a pint-sized table in the reading intervention room at Alexander Elementary School in Athens County.

She’s working through a phonics lesson with three second-grade students who need some extra help with their reading skills.

The students are among many throughout the county, the state and the nation who fell behind their grade-level benchmarks in English, math and other subjects when the pandemic forced schools to close and go remote for a year.

Many are still trying to catch up, and schools are offering a variety of programs — before school, during school, after school and over the summer — to help them.

Kostival and other teachers at Alexander have spent the past school year doing reading intervention with small groups of students five days a week. Each session lasts about 30 minutes.

Kostival says all the extra work is paying off.

“We have seen great gains from the beginning of the year till now,” she said.

But for many students it will take more than a year to recover from the pandemic setbacks. Alexander plans to keep doing these intervention sessions for the next two school years.

“You can’t fix it in one year and I think that’s what we’ve all realized,” said Lindy Douglas, superintendent of the Alexander School District. “We’ve lost a lot … over the past two and a half years. It will take more than a year to close the gap.”

To make this recovery work possible, Alexander hired five teaching fellows, all graduate students in the education program at Ohio University. They spend half-days at the elementary school, sometimes working directly with the small intervention groups, or taking over classrooms to free up the teachers for this work.

The cost for this extra help is covered by federal Covid relief funds.

“It’s allowed us to do what we wanted to do and we knew we had to do,” Douglas said.

Elementary schools in the Athens and Federal Hocking districts are also offering academic intervention programs, some in the early morning before school and some after school, for students who slipped behind during the pandemic.

These recovery efforts won’t end with the school year this week. The districts are all offering summer programs and encouraging students who have more catching up to do to attend. And it’s not just for the younger kids. Summer programs are also being offered to help high school students with credit recovery.

“At the high school level we had a lot of students that are credit deficient due to Covid,” Douglas said. “They didn’t participate in class, they weren’t a remote learner, they didn’t complete the work.”

“So it’s picking up where they left off and helping them finish courses so that they get credits towards graduation,” said Athens Superintendent Tom Gibbs.

Schools have been working with students on credit recovery throughout the school year. Athens High School has been offering Saturday sessions to help students catch up. Alexander used some of its Covid funding to create a full-time position for a teacher whose job includes helping students with credit recovery.

“They might be so credit deficient that they’re a junior or senior in high school and they need 21 credits to graduate and they only have seven or eight,” Gibbs said. “I’ve seen a couple that only had three.”

This is tied to another problem schools throughout the country have been struggling with: Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a significant increase in the number of students who are not coming to school regularly.

In many cases, Gibbs said, these are “students who were already … struggling to some extent, maybe already had some poor attendance and then just didn’t transition well to the online and kind of stopped attending completely. And then trying to get them back to school now is becoming even more of a challenge.”

Gibbs and others say it’s critical to understand the importance of routine and how much that was disrupted by the pandemic, especially when the schools closed.

“It was sort of a change in the culture for students,” said Federal Hocking Superintendent David Hanning. “I just think that a lot of kids got to the point where if they didn’t want to go to school, they just didn’t go to school, and we’ve been struggling with that.”

Hanning said some of the students in his district have missed 30 or more days of school.

“It’s so difficult and time consuming and frustrating for teachers when they don’t get to see their kids every day,” he said. “And then the kids get behind and then everybody’s in a perpetual state of we’re trying to catch up, and it’s part of the reason why teachers are getting burned out.”

Federal Hocking and Alexander have both hired a full-time attendance officer to reach out to students and their families, making phone calls, sending letters, knocking on doors, and in some cases getting Athens County Children Services and the juvenile court involved.

“We’re trying to pull out all the stops to get these kids to come back to school,” Hanning said.

For all the challenges schools and students are facing from the pandemic, Gibbs said it’s important to keep in mind that there’s a certain arbitrariness to grade-level benchmarks. Education is not linear but instead a spiral, he said, with teachers each year returning to and building on concepts from previous years.

“So, are we working to get students to where, quote unquote, typical students are at any grade level? We are certainly doing that,” Gibbs said. “But it’s really important to note though that overall … children are very resilient and they pick up more than we give them credit for.

“I just think it’s important that we communicate more from a position of hope, that we have a bright future ahead, than it is to constantly dwell in this kind of negative perception that the sky is falling because Covid occurred.”