SEVIERVILLE — As the General Assembly is set to hold a special session next week to discuss the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on education, the Sevier County School System is already working to address those concerns.
The 2019-20 school year was disrupted in the spring, as schools switched to virtual learning out of concern the newly discovered virus might spread among students.
While in-person education resumed in Sevier County this fall, the virus continued to impact classes as students at the schools adjusted to new routines and some students continued to learn at home.
Gov. Bill Lee called for the special session of the General Assembly in December, noting new information that showed the impact the disruptions were having on Tennessee students.
That included preliminary data projecting an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading, and a 65% decrease in proficiency in math.
Sevier County schools saw similar numbers early on in their own testing, but they’ve seen the numbers come up as they’ve tried to address the issues since early in the crisis, said Tony Ogle, director of pupil and personnel services.
“These learning gains make us hopeful that with the continued hard work of our teachers, students, and parents, we can close any remaining gaps and keep our children on track,” Ogle said.
School staff were aware in advance of the likelihood that some students would not retain or even lose some skills while they were away from class, he explained.
“We knew learning loss was going to occur,” he said.
In the first days schools were closed, the school system was scrambling to address everything that they knew students would miss, down to providing food to replace school breakfasts and lunches.
But they also were trying to address learning retention right out the gate, with packets they sent home with students at the time.
“To aid with the retention of learning objectives met during the year, our district distributed packets to all of our students to provide them with practice on critical skills,” he said.
Tennessee has never faced a statewide disruption like the pandemic, and few school systems have.
But there have been some — such as schools disrupted for months after Hurricane Katrina — and educators looked to lessons from moments like those as they began planning for the impact of the pandemic, Ogle said.
One of the things they saw is that, when schools tried to go back over materials that wasn’t retained, students tended to stay behind rather than catching up, Ogle said.
For example, if students were six weeks behind, if the schools spent six weeks going back over the materials, the students simply stayed behind
Based on that, the schools started using a technique where they proceed with lessons on schedule, as though there wasn’t a gap, and they would re-teach critical skills as they saw students struggling.
That method matched what the state would recommend soon after, Ogle said, allowing it to mesh easily with the guidelines coming from the state.
With the General Assembly now set to address learning issues in the upcoming special session, they hope to get more aid and more guidance from the state in the coming months.
It isn’t yet clear what all legislators will try to do in the upcoming special session, said state Rep. Dale Carr, who represents Sevierville.
“We are going to address education next week, we don’t have any bills out yet,” he said.
One of the issues Carr expects them to consider will be the state testing programs, which are typically used to make sure students are ready to advance a grade and to hold teachers accountable.
With all the disruptions to teaching over the past year, it wouldn’t be right to use the tests that way, Carr said, but he expects them to still conduct the testing so they can use the data to keep addressing the problems created by the pandemic.
“We need to have a benchmark so we know where our students are at,” Carr said.
Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter at @jeffmtnpress