From Algebra to Writing, Pandemic Learning Gaps Remain, Teachers Say

Students work on math problems on white boards. Photos by Olivia Brown.

When history teacher and ninth grade dean Abraham Pachikara introduced the Freshman Research Paper to his students this year, he realized that he needed to teach skills that he had not gone over in the past. 

“There’s a basic understanding that you come into ninth grade knowing how to write a paragraph with a topic sentence, evidence and all that stuff,” Pachikara told the Bit. “I noticed this year that students aren’t the best at these basic skills and that they need extra practice.”

The GDS community has largely returned to normal life with a year of in-person school and most COVID precautions lifted. But, according to GDS teachers interviewed by the Bit, the residual effects of virtual school on students’ academic abilities and knowledge remain: Students cannot complete work at the level that GDS high schoolers did before the pandemic.

“Students were less prepared for my class than previous years,” science teacher Polly Martin said. “It’s almost like they were going from eighth grade to tenth grade,” she added, referring to her chemistry students. She also mentioned their lack of experience with labs, which has forced her to spend more time teaching basic chemistry skills.

All ten teachers who spoke with the Bit said they changed their curricula this year due to pandemic learning losses. They added more review of past content, cut certain topics to ensure that they covered the ones most essential for future courses, simplified their material or took multiple of those approaches.

High School Principal Katie Gibson said that she does not like to “frame the entire distance learning period as if it was a loss.” Many students developed useful skills in virtual school, such as better navigating online platforms, organizing school work and managing their time, she said.

“Part of what schools are seeing is that kids are coming back with certain skill sets that they’ve developed a lot, and others that have been lacking,” Gibson added. 

From mid-March 2020 to the end of last spring, GDS ran school virtually or with a hybrid learning model. Classes met for less time than they do currently or did under the high school’s prepandemic schedule, which provided the most hours of the three.

Students did not practice math as much over Zoom and retained less content, according to Math Department Chair Lee Goldman. “I’ve seen evidence of less math that happened last year. Some of the older students have literally forgotten all their algebra,” she said in an interview.

Goldman added that the open-note assessments math teachers gave over Zoom allowed students to study less than they had before. “While that’s great for getting a good grade, it’s not so good for retaining content,” she said.

Freshmen work in history class.

Freshman Isaiah Lewis told the Bit that an inadequate pre-algebra course at his old school, the Annunciation Catholic School, left him ill-prepared for his high school math class. “I’ve had to relearn a lot of old concepts, and I feel like I wasn’t prepared,” he said. “Almost everyone in my class is the same.”

All seven students interviewed by the Bit for this article described changes in their classes that teachers told them were made to help students recover from virtual learning. 

Junior Daniel Farber said his Upper Level Chemistry II class spent the first quarter reviewing topics that would typically be covered in depth in the previous chemistry course but were not during the pandemic. Farber said that Greg Dallinger, his teacher, told the class that they would not have done that review before COVID.

Across subjects, students have struggled to do work at the standard that would be required of them in a normal year. Teachers have noticed gaps in comprehension ranging from Spanish vocabulary and writing structure to human anatomy and algebra.

“In my class, when we’re reading texts, the expectation is that students come in having read and annotated them,” Pachikara said. “I’ve realized that students need practice doing that, which has never been the case before.”

Sophomore Hudson Brown noticed the greatest negative effects of virtual school in Spanish class. “The way you get better is by talking and practicing in person, which is something that we could not do over Zoom,” Brown said. He mentioned that many students may have not only learned less in their language classes since the pandemic began, but also forgotten information they learned in past years, so the extra review this year has been helpful.

During the virtual State of the School address in January, Head of School Russell Shaw provided an update about the effects of distance learning on GDS students and what the school was doing to address them. Borrowing a psychologist’s metaphor to describe the learning loss that GDS students have experienced, Shaw said, “We have eleventh graders with ninth grade muscles trying to lift eleventh grade weights.”

The school’s student support teams placed an emphasis on providing teachers with methods to help students catch up, including teaching students how to study, write notes and take assessments, Shaw said.

At the beginning of this academic year, the learning services department focused its annual presentation to teachers on how to support students who struggled due to virtual learning, according to Kim Palombo, who chairs the department.

However, most of the learning services team’s interaction with teachers is about individual students, rather than tackling learning loss from the pandemic as a whole, Palombo told the Bit. “Department chairs are responsible for understanding what’s going on in their departments,” she said.

GDS’ learning specialists have focused more on addressing learning loss in the lower/middle school than in the high school, according to Palombo, in part because high school students had been in school longer before the pandemic. “I would say the high school has been the least vulnerable, from my perspective, to academic-related challenges,” she said.

The brunt of the learning specialists’ work during the pandemic has been helping some students who contracted COVID manage work and create schedules while they were sick, which has significantly increased the number of students that they deal with overall, Palombo said. 

“We need to take it easy on the students in terms of the number of assessments and amount of material,” science teacher Bill Wallace told the Bit. “I think there’s stress among the students, and I think some of that stress is coming from the high expectations that we have as teachers to recover from the time that they were away from the school.” 

The teachers interviewed by the Bit speculated about when the effects of virtual learning will be gone, but there was no clear consensus, except that it would take at least another year. 

“Whatever sixth graders learned last year, they learned less than they should have,” Goldman said. “Now they’re in seventh grade, and they’re trying to catch up but then they’re learning less seventh-grade material. The same thing would happen in eighth grade,” Goldman said. “So it’s a good question: When does this bubble of pandemic learning effects end?”

Wallace predicted that teachers will return to normal instruction once none of their students will have missed parts of an in-person GDS high school education. As for students, Wallace theorized, “All kids will need to have experienced the full ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades for them to fully recover.”

Palombo had no exact estimate but recognized that it would take multiple years for teachers to see students’ abilities rebound. “There are so many things that our kids have less experience with,” she said. “The effects will be long-lasting.”