Online School

S.F. schools see learning gaps widen during pandemic

Written by Mamie M. Arndt

Black, Latino and Asian students in San Francisco as well as those from low-income families have lost significant academic ground compared with wealthier and white students during the pandemic, according to new data released by the school district.



a screen shot of an open laptop computer sitting on top of a bed: A fourth-grader sits at a computer in San Francisco in October. The pandemic has challenged all students and led to more learning disparities.


© Kate Munsch / Special To The Chronicle 2020

A fourth-grader sits at a computer in San Francisco in October. The pandemic has challenged all students and led to more learning disparities.


Black and Latino students were also more likely to be absent at least 60% of the time during the fall semester.

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Asian students overall, while losing more academic ground than whites, started from a point of generally outperforming all other demographics, including whites. Groups that were lagging tended to fall further behind.

The academic update from the district comes amid the ongoing debate about when and how to reopen schools, with local and state health officials as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom, federal leaders, legislators and many parents pushing to get students back in classrooms as soon as possible.

Academic difficulties are just one of the challenges for children across the demographic spectrum, with mental health, eating disorders and emotional scarring adding to a devastating picture, health experts say.

In San Francisco, the data shows a stark contrast in how different students are performing in distance learning — something education experts have predicted given the lack of technology, working status of parents and other issues disproportionately affecting low-income families or people of color.

“There are so many kids in this pandemic who just haven’t been heard from at all,” said Dr. Jeanne Noble, UCSF director of COVID response, adding that reopening schools is critical and can be done safely. “Every place you look — signs of social phobia and isolation all the way up suicide attempts — screams crisis.”

The learning loss and attendance issues offer insight into what schools will be facing when they do reopen, officials said. Children who are struggling will likely fall below grade level in academics, missing key foundational skills needed to advance.

“We are concerned the gap has widened, especially in elementary schools,” said San Francisco Unified School District spokeswoman Gentle Blythe, adding that supports are in place for the most underserved youth. “But we know remote doesn’t replace in person when it comes to serving our students. We want to return to (school) sites as quickly as possible.”

School board President Gabriela López did not specifically address the problem of learning loss, but said that parents are doing an amazing job helping their students and that learning has not stopped during the pandemic — rather, it is just different.

“They are learning more about their families and their cultures, spending more time with each other,” López said. “They’re just having different learning experiences than the ones we currently measure, and the loss is a comparison to a time when we were in a different space.”

Yet San Francisco’s statistics offer confirmation that learning difficulties exist among students, especially those who struggled before the pandemic, district administrators said.

The district has yet to reach an agreement with labor unions on the conditions required to reopen, but it has moved forward with the application to bring the youngest and most vulnerable students back first, with city health department inspections of school sites and classrooms beginning.

The school board has come under fire from city and state public officials in recent weeks for its attention on renaming 44 schools and other issues instead of focusing solely on reopening.

Board members have responded that they are capable of working on more than one issue at a time.

The district also announced in recent days that it is unlikely the vast majority of middle and high school students will return this school year.

“As we plan for our return, we are prioritizing student populations least served by distance learning,” Blythe said. “At the same time, we’re planning how to maximize summer learning.”

The district plans to meet students “where they are,” which includes different skill levels and learning styles, she added.

The results of the fall learning assessments show that students span an even wider spectrum of abilities than before the pandemic.

The data show how students were expected to perform in reading based on last year’s performance, and whether they met those expectations.

In fourth and fifth grades, all students except white, multiracial and special education students not only failed to meet skill levels expected for their demographic group but missed that mark significantly, district officials said.

Math assessments showed a similar pattern, although the differences were not as stark.

The assessments were administered during online class time for elementary students, but in many some cases middle and high schools students took the tests at home on their own time and without supervision. The older students showed less learning loss across all demographics.

The district also tested for proficiency rates in reading and math, which showed some slight declines among some groups of students and slight upticks among others. But officials noted that participation rates in the proficiency assessments were significantly lower in the fall than in previous years, which could skew the results.

Absenteeism was also a significant issue in the fall, with 910 of the district’s 53,000 students missing more than 60% of classes, the district said. Seventy percent of those were from low-income families — a disproportionate share compared with overall enrollment — while 75% were Black or Latino.

San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen has proposed forming a city and school district commission to come up a plan to help address the learning loss and other impacts of the pandemic on children.

Her plan also includes raising upwards of $2 million from public and private funding to pay for summer school, tutoring, smaller class sizes or whatever is needed.

The school district data from the fall is “devastating, and it’s a call to action,” she said. “We are failing them right now as a society. This is families of color having the least secure housing the least secure jobs. If you’re a parent and you’re worried about keeping a roof over the head of your child and putting food on the table, that’s going to take precedent over remote learning.”

It is systemic racism, and the solutions do not lie with the school district alone, she said.

“Let’s all wake up,” she said, “and stop pointing fingers at each other and start working together to address this head-on.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker

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Mamie M. Arndt