At the first school board meeting of the academic year, HVRSD administrators reported that students in Hopewell Valley public schools experienced demonstrable learning loss during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, a period that was marked by widespread disruptions to K-12 education. 

Though educators expected to see learning loss because of the shift to remote learning, particularly in younger grades, the results of New Jersey State Learning Assessment (NJSLA) tests administered in the last school year provide quantifiable proof that gaps have persisted among the student body.

Students in the district performed worse in English at all grade levels in tests administered last school year when compared to results from 2019. Students also performed worse in math at most levels, with eighth grade math and high school algebra I being the only exceptions to the downward trend.

“There were certain cohorts of students who continuously did better, so they did well in the previous test administrations and they just continue to do well in the current one,” Vicky Pilitsis, director of curriculum and instruction, explained.

Pilitsis said that there is no comparison data available yet for how other districts in the State performed, “So we’re really looking at this in isolation.”

The reasons for the learning loss are not clear. Board Member Adam Sawicki noted that students may be out of practice from not having taken such exams during the pandemic, and that the results may be reflecting that. Still, he acknowledged the problem, saying, “We know we had some learning loss.”

The results confirm what educators had already suspected: that the disruptions to education and the challenges of the pandemic took a toll on young people and their ability to continue learning during that period. Even as the current school year kicks off with relative normalcy, the Hopewell Valley School District is reeling from the effects of the pandemic. 

One big challenge is staffing shortages, noted Pilitis. Research shows that individualized tutoring can be most effective in addressing learning loss. Pilitsis said the District would like to use available grant funds to offer one-on-one tutoring to students after school, but that hiring people may be a challenge.

The District was unable to fill a part-time Chinese language teacher position this year and had to eliminate Chinese at the sixth grade level as well as reduce the number of classes offered to higher grades. In the coming years, Pilitsis said Chinese will likely be discontinued at the middle-school level and only be offered in high school.

Another way the District is addressing the problem is through the purchase of adaptive learning tools in reading, writing and math that teachers can use to help personalize student learning and assess learning loss at an individual level to better address it. In addition to those tech-based tools, schools will also better integrate data to develop student profiles so that teachers know how best to help each student.

The mental health of students is also an ongoing concern as a result of the pandemic. Counseling and social-emotional learning are key areas of focus for administrators as they formulate curriculum and allocate resources this year, according to Superintendent Dr. Rosetta Treece. The District also is reviewing its disciplinary actions around issues such as drug and alcohol use, shifting from a punitive to a more restorative approach.

“We’re really getting the help that students need to them,” Treece said. “Suspending them and having them home is not the answer when somebody’s struggling with a substance abuse problem.”

Treece also noted that while students are no longer being offered a virtual option if they are home sick with COVID-19, schools will work with them to help them catch up and address any long-term absences.

“I know Zoom didn’t help. I know that being home and in and out for remote learning didn’t help,” she said. “Now is the time for us to meet our students where they are and get to know each other so that they’re willing to take those intellectual risks in the classroom.”

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