At the start of this school year, Chicago teacher Chanika Moody decided her No. 1 job was to make her students, mostly middle schoolers at Mays Elementary on the South Side, feel at home. She did a lot of icebreakers as school began and she tries to eat lunch with them in the school cafeteria as often as she can.
Moody said her students needed to feel supported after most learned from home during some of the scariest times of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Soon, they were treating her like a cool auntie they hadn’t seen in months, and Moody was ready to really dive into academics. She expected some learning losses because of remote instruction and the pandemic. Moody also was used to seeing wide gaps in her classes. But it’s worse than she anticipated.
“The results are in and they’re all over the place,” Moody said of her middle school students. “We have some kids on [the] second grade and third grade level.”
And it’s not just in Moody’s classroom. National data shows many students fell behind academically after more than a year of pandemic learning. The losses are most severe among Black, Latino, and low-income students — and that’s the majority at Chicago Public Schools.
Students in Illinois didn’t take standardized tests last year, making it difficult to assess losses overall. But this year, individual schools and teachers have been testing students. Like Moody, other CPS teachers are beginning to understand the extent of the unfinished learning predicted this school year and what it really means in the classrooms.
Chicago Public Schools leaders directed teachers to instruct students at grade level this year, rather than focusing on last year’s material. National experts who promote this approach say it’s not easy. Teachers need time for planning, tests to determine where students need help and to scale back how much material they try to cover in a year. They also say school districts should hire tutors to support teachers in the classroom.
But many teachers are finding it difficult to teach at grade level, especially without extra help from tutors promised by the school district. There are also interruptions each time students are quarantined and switch to remote instruction. There have been about 2,000 reported COVID-19 cases across more than 500 schools so far this year.
WBEZ interviewed several teachers in August before the school year began as they prepared. We then checked in this month to see how teachers and their students are faring.
Teachers at two different schools — one in Englewood and one near the Midway Airport — say their students will have to work harder this year than ever before.
“Focus on what students can do”
Before school began this fall, Patricia Orozco-Rosas made lots of plans for her second grade dual-language students at Azuela Elementary on the Southwest Side.
Going in, she had a big advantage. She taught these Spanish-speaking students last year as first graders. She knows what lessons they missed and what kind of support they need. And before the pandemic, Azuela had a good academic rating from CPS. It’s hard to tell how students are doing now because CPS didn’t give standardized tests the last two school years.
In August, Orozco-Rosas huddled with a group of four teachers around a table planning lessons for the coming months. The goal was to teach students at grade level, even if some material hadn’t been covered last year.
“We want to focus on what students can do, not what they are deficient in,” Orozco-Rosas said at the time. “It’s more of ‘OK, you know how to do this, now let’s move on and do the first step.’ ”
Since then, she’s been trying a variety of strategies to make that happen. “I strategically placed them in their own tables with a person who may need support, and along with a student who may be able to support the student,” Orozco-Rosas said.
She also gives her students individualized support with help from a bilingual teacher while other students work on an online learning program.
Orozco-Rosas says she sees progress, but she also sees how much harder some of her students have to work because of what they couldn’t get to last year. She couldn’t cover some skills in geometry, which students will need eventually as they move forward in second grade math, for instance.
Some also needed help with basic skills.
“At the beginning, there were some students who still had trouble with gripping a pencil,” she said. Others, she said, had trouble using scissors so she set aside time to practice cutting paper.
Orozco-Rosas recently tested her students to better understand their learning gaps. She said some are doing just fine, but she worries about others.
“I do have those students who need a lot more than what we can give,” she said. “That’s what really brings me down sometimes … when I start thinking, ‘Wow, you shouldn’t be scoring, for example, this low or you should at least know how to add this, or you should at least know how to write your words.’ ”
Trying to avoid burnout
At Mays Elementary in Englewood, Moody’s goal, after helping her students feel at home, was to turn to academics.
She teaches math to middle schoolers and third graders. She didn’t make special plans before school began on how to teach her students differently this year. But she and other teachers were trained to use a new testing program so they could understand their students’ academic needs.
That’s the assessment that showed she has some students above grade level, with some several grades behind.
Moody said it’s much more straightforward when students test above their grade level — they get moved up a grade. But when students test below grade level, teachers need to figure out a plan.
“The teacher, at that time, has to make her own accommodations and modifications for that student, again, still exposing them to their grade level material,” she said.
For middle schoolers that means all students receive grade-level instruction for most of the day, and in the last period students break into groups to work on their skills based on their level. At Mays, teachers call this period intervention.
“The grade-level material is what they get in their core classes, but the intervention is where we meet them where they are,” Moody said.
That difficult work is made even harder when classrooms are quarantined and students have to switch to remote instruction. Moody says some of her students were at home for several days while she taught them remotely.
For about two weeks, she had flashbacks to what teaching was like last year.
“I got kids at home, laying down, in the covers,” Moody said. She had to remind them to get up, telling them they were still at school.
Her students are also affected when other classrooms are quarantined — that’s happened to at least four classrooms at her school. If a sibling of one of her students is quarantined, some parents keep the whole family home. This affected attendance, making it that much harder to help her students catch up.
Moody and other teachers say they need more help. CPS promised to hire about 850 tutors this year, but they haven’t reached classrooms yet.
“I don’t want the teachers to be burned out, so tutors would be great,” Moody said. “Student teachers would be great, even for the new teachers that we have here.”
Some middle schoolers have gotten frustrated because they can’t keep up with the grade level instruction, Moody said. In her class, Moody tries to help those students quietly to prevent them from feeling embarrassed in front of their classmates. She gives them assignments she knows her struggling students can complete in order to boost their confidence.
Both Orozco-Rosas and Moody have moments of panic, thinking about how much work they have to do with their students. But they don’t show their fears in the classroom.
Moody works really hard to connect with her students so if they have a problem, they come to her and it doesn’t get in the way of their learning.
In her classroom, Orozco-Rosas moves from desk to desk, helping those who are struggling. She has a calm and quiet approach, but when she gives a compliment, her students know they are making progress.
Despite the challenges, she believes working one-on-one with them in the classroom will make the difference.
“I am very hopeful that everything will turn out fine at the end of the school year,” Orozco-Rosas said. “I feel like … nothing can replace being in the class, and being with a person who can actually be there to support you.”