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COVID challenge is to help kids catch up on learning

Each day, the Tennessee Department of Health provides several metrics to the public that summarize the spread of COVID-19 in communities across the state.
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths reflect the heart-wrenching toll on families across Northeast Tennessee and the state. This week, Carter County reached 116 deaths and the number of cases Thursday had reached over 5,000.
But, what about the toll on our youngest Tennesseans’ minds? For the Tennessee Department of Education and its schools, what happened to the “school day” during the pandemic? A mix of hybrid and virtual settings aimed to keep pace with so many moving parts — enhanced cleaning, students without internet access, staggered dismissals, and hardest of all, families who have lost loved ones.
The disruption has left students to navigate unprecedented challenges without the routine of learning in a classroom with classmates and a trusted teacher.
This week, a special session of the Tennessee Legislature was convened with its entire focus on the education of our state’s children during the pandemic.
Gov. Bill Lee at the opening session put it plainly: “We’re meeting today because it’s time to intervene for our kids who are staring down record learning losses, that in the short-term, mean an inability to read at their grade level or understand basic math.
“But in the long-term, those learning losses mean higher incarceration rates and poverty as adults.”
Nationally, data shows a 50 percent drop in reading proficiency and a 65 percent drop in math proficiency with third grade students.
Kids do better in school. We all know that.
To help students catch up and be prepared for the next grade, the governor is proposing “a third-grade reading gate which means that we make sure students are prepared before we pass them through to the fourth grade.” Also, with this proposal, kindergartners through third grade will be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction.
“When we stop the cycle of passing without preparation, we give kids a better chance at succeeding in middle school and beyond,” the governor noted.
Instruction in grades 1-3 is designed to teach kids to learn to read, so that from fourth grade on they read to learn.
We agree with the governor. It’s time to evolve. With two vaccines in motion (the speed at which they’re moving aside) and more possible options on the way, the mindset must shift from caution to action.
At the start of the pandemic, the wise thing was to close school. Masks were hard to come by. Social distancing was hard to adjust to. The severity of the virus was hard to fathom, and the decision to close just made good sense.
Without brick-and-mortar buildings, school divisions pressed forward with virtual learning. If we can pay our bills, buy our groceries and telework in certain jobs, why not educate our kids online as well? It was a reasonable proposition and a well-intentioned goal.
The rhetoric was the easy part. The execution proved to be much tougher. Students, parents, teachers, administrators and school support staff were thrust into exhausting, unstable situations.
Tennesseans are in desperate need of peace of mind during this pandemic. State leaders have to deliver on COVID-19 vaccines, and they have to help reverse the damaging effects of this public health crisis on public education.
Keeping our schools open, helping our students learn, and making sure they are prepared for the next grade is just as important as getting more shots in arms.
The governor and his staff have proposed changes designed not only to stave off a monumental crisis but to forge a new path which will actually educate our kids better in the future than we did before the pandemic.