Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

A report from the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury has identified learning loss and struggles with social-emotional well-being as major impacts from remote learning on the more than 40,000 kindergarten to 8th-grade students throughout Santa Barbara County.

It was also determined that math and English language arts were the most difficult for students learning remotely, and caused further learning and emotional deficits for children struggling in those areas. The report notes that the most severely academically affected students were those underperforming in these areas prior to the pandemic. 

The report from the jury was conducted in response to concerns from parents, teachers, and residents across the county. The results are based, in part, on the results of each district’s 2021 Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), which identify each district’s goals, priorities, services, and actions. The jury also interviewed representatives from United Way of Santa Barbara County and United Boys and Girls Club of Santa Barbara County, two major community organizations that assist students in Santa Barbara County. In addition, the jury reviewed end-of-year reports from the Santa Barbara County Education Office and from each of the school districts within the county, as well as current research studies from various educational consulting organizations and articles about the subject from national, state, and local perspectives. 

The learning loss, or learning gap, mentioned in this report refers to the concept that students are not learning content and mastering skills at  the same rate that they typically would in a non-pandemic, in-person learning year. This gap is also most prominent in math and English courses. “Remote learning is not as effective as in-person instruction because it is harder for students (especially younger children) to pay attention and be engaged,” the report reads. “Although they are logged in, students are far less attentive than they are in person.” 

To combat this loss, all school districts within Santa Barbara County will be implementing several changes in the upcoming school year. The district will be reducing class sizes, providing individual and small group instruction to students who experienced the greatest losses, and providing instructional coaches for groups and teachers. Additionally, teacher training programs will be increased, and teachers will have professional learning groups utilizing multiple measures to monitor student success. Lastly, the district will evaluate back-to-school achievement through tests that are measured against a set baseline from the 2020-21 school year.

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Social-emotional well-being among students was also greatly impacted by the pandemic and the subsequent switch to remote learning. Students could no longer have face-to-face interactions with teachers, counselors, or friends. Many students also struggled with their home lives, some made more stressful due to the pandemic and parents juggling working from home with supervising their children. Some students could not find quiet places to listen to lectures, and parents could occasionally exhibit unhealthy behaviors that made it difficult for students to feel connected to their schoolwork or teachers. 

In the report, one school district writes, “We  have seen the research indicating the relationship a student has with his/her teacher as well as their sense of connectedness as having the greatest influence on student achievement.” 

Some ways the county will address these issues going forward include hiring more counselors, school psychologists, and nurses to work with individual students; continuing to use programs used during shutdown and partnering with outside organizations for outreach to relieve stress on students, faculty, and staff; adding emotional health training on how to apply this learning to academics as top priority for each teacher; and administering ongoing social-emotional health testing to determine which students require more intervention.

The report concludes that the county has made great efforts in adapting to the fast-changing circumstances brought on by the pandemic, but more needs to be done to provide relief to students who need it most. The report urges that districts do whatever possible to keep schools open and enable students to make up for the learning they lost during the pandemic. 

“The full extent of the losses will not be known for years to come,” the report reads. “However, Santa Barbara County school districts responded proactively to this unexpected challenge and, going forward, can make use of the positive lessons learned.”

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