Since it arrived in Blaine County in March, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected all areas of day-to-day life. As we bask in the warmth of summer, it can be easy for some—especially those without children—to forget what a powerful impact the coronavirus had on schools and students.
With the 2020-21 school year slated to begin next month, though, discussions on how best to serve students in any situation are ramping up for the School District and various community organizations.
Based on historical data from past elongated school closures during natural disasters, students will return to school this fall at a major disadvantage, according to Boise- and Hailey-based educational nonprofit the Lee Pesky Learning Center.
“The expectation is that kids will return in the fall at 65 percent of where they should be had they completed the school year,” said Evelyn Johnson, CEO of the Lee Pesky Learning Center. “That’s the average. It won’t be felt equally across different student groups.”
Those who were already struggling in school for whatever reason will likely be slipping further behind their class.
To address this impending problem, the Lee Pesky Learning Center has partnered with The Community Library to present a three-part series called Creating Pathways to Learning for Everyone. The series will focus on learning challenges, the widening opportunity gap and how parents, teachers, community members and students can all work together to solve them.
The first installment of the series will be streamed live via Crowdcast at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 14. Johnson will join Jenny Emery Davidson, executive director of the library, to discuss these issues and engage in a moderated Q&A.
“Long before school closures were a thing, unfortunately there were some pretty pronounced gaps in reading and math performance across a lot of different populations,” Johnson explained. “That’s not unique to Blaine County—it’s a national issue.”
The Lee Pesky Center has identified demographical opportunity gaps for children of various walks of life within Blaine County. Socioeconomic divides disadvantage some children, and those still learning English when they enter school are pegged back further without always receiving the extra aid they need.
There also appears to be a stark ethnic divide in Blaine County. According to the 2019 Idaho Reading Indicator report conducted by the State Department of Education, some 84 percent of white students met grade level requirements but only 44 percent of Hispanic students did.
“Our aim is to bring this to light, help people understand the problems. It will take a lot more than one summer outreach program, of course, but this is an important step,” Johnson said.
“Reading is like other skills. If you’re a strong reader, you tend to read more and you learn more. Vocabulary grows and comprehension improves,” he added. “If it’s challenging, you tend not to engage. Kids struggling with reading tend not to read on their own, so that gap widens.”
The Community Library, similarly to the Hailey and Bellevue public libraries, uses its summer reading program to promote literacy and get books into the hands of children throughout the county from Carey to Ketchum, ensuring that kids keep reading outside school.
Every year, the library has its own reading program for children and teens and partners with The Hunger Coalition to operate the Bloom Truck, which delivers free books and meals to students throughout the county.
“At its core, the library is an institution that exists to promote literacy,” Davidson said. “We want the library to be a bridge between various resources, working with the School District, private schools and great organizations like the Lee Pesky Learning Center to help provide expertise and skills not being addressed for kids.”
These problems exist every school year. It’s what the Lee Pesky Learning Center has been working to address since 1997 and it’s integral to the library’s mission.
COVID-19 has only worsened and magnified these problems. The school closures came so swiftly, educators had to act just as quickly to adapt to an entirely new way of teaching. In the coming weeks, those same educators will be working to determine how to start a new academic year in the time of a pandemic, when another total or partial closure could come at a moment’s notice.
Creating Pathways to Learning for Everyone will highlight exactly where the gaps lie, how one shaky year can impact a lifetime of learning and how educators can adapt to any situation without any students falling through the cracks.
“It’s a challenging time of learning and adapting,” Davidson said. “What we’re trying to do is create a literacy-rich environment for all kids. In a time of unusual disruption, things are getting reinvented. Everyone is working to figure it out, to understand what the challenges are. The research of the Lee Pesky Learning Center will help navigate those challenges and it will prove important to all players in the process—educators, parents, caregivers, members of the general community and, of course, the students.”
The series is free to join for everyone. Register at crowdcast.io/e/creating-pathways/register.
The first installment, called Learning Challenges and the Opportunity Gap, will begin at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 14. Two other installments will follow on July 29 and Aug. 13.
“When we prioritize reading and literacy development, we invest in our students,” Johnson said.