More students are failing and disengaged because of online classes during the pandemic.
That’s what the data from more than a dozen school districts across Dane County shows, according to a recent State Journal report by Chris Rickert.
It’s not surprising, given the challenges schools have faced trying to educate students, many of them stuck at home, during the yearlong spread of COVID-19. The virus has killed 7,000 and infected more than a half-million additional people in Wisconsin.
Yet lost learning has become an epidemic all its own. So anything that helps students get back on track deserves priority.
That includes starting next school year before Sept. 1, if that’s what local school leaders believe will help struggling students catch up. Robust summer school and credit-recovery programs for failing students make sense, too.
Students across Wisconsin are now entering the fourth quarter of what in many ways has been a lost school year. Lots of students have lower grades, despite great effort by teachers to try to keep virtual classes engaging. Pretty much every Dane County school district has reported higher numbers or percentages of Fs. Only McFarland had slightly fewer Fs compared to the previous year, the State Journal’s recent report determined.
Madison is the only district in the report that still hasn’t released its data, which doesn’t instill confidence. Being open and honest about how children are doing is the best way to improve performance.
Starting next school year before Sept. 1 is worth trying to boost achievement. The state Department of Public Instruction should grant districts across Wisconsin more leeway on that. State law for two decades has required school districts to start on or after Sept. 1. The law caters to the tourism industry, which says it needs young workers through Labor Day weekend. Tourism has taken a hit during the pandemic. That shouldn’t be minimized or dismissed.
But school must take priority. And an exception to state law allows an earlier start to the school year for “extraordinary” circumstances. A pandemic with chronic learning loss certainly qualifies as that. And depending on how many school districts come back in August and experience positive results, the Sept. 1 law may need repeal.
The last half of August isn’t the vacation season it used to be. Students in fall sports often practice for weeks before classes begin. If sports can come back early in the wake of a terrible pandemic, surely academics can, too.
Starting school early won’t necessarily add days to the school year. But students will be more eager to learn and get off to a stronger start in late August, educators say. They’d gladly trade early June, when it’s much harder to keep students engaged, for late August. And an earlier start to next school year will allow more time for summer school and credit-recovery programs the following summer.
Wisconsin has given local schools districts lots of control over how they teach students during the pandemic. Some districts brought all grades back to school buildings last fall. Others, such as Madison, haven’t had some school buildings open to students for more than a year. Many districts have offered a mix of in-person and online.
If the state is going to let school districts make those decisions, surely the start of school should be a local choice, too.