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How Far Behind Are Los Angeles Students? As A New School Year Starts We’re About To Find Out

A woman in a green shirt with keys dangling around her neck gives directions to another woman, who is pushing a stroller with a small child in it, and holding the hand of another young child.
An attendant at the gate of Plummer Elementary School in North Hills directs parents into the yard where they can drop off their children on the first day of school.
(Kyle Stokes
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No more weekly COVID testing. No more daily symptom checks. Masks are optional, just as they were at the end of last year.

The Los Angeles Unified School District kicked off a new school year on Monday, with more than 400,000 students returning to a relaxed set of coronavirus protocols, mirroring a belief among district leadership that LAUSD’s response to the pandemic has entered a new phase.

“We’re still worried about [COVID protocols], but we’re appropriately worried about it,” said school board member Mónica García. “It’s not the first thing a school district has to talk to parents about.”

“We actually want to make sure kids are coming back,” García added, “knowing that we’re going to help them get back on that learning trajectory.”

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In this new phase of pandemic response, that “learning trajectory” is a top concern.

On L.A. Unified superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s back-to-school press tour, on which he has aimed to spread enthusiasm for the upcoming year, he has punctuated his upbeat message with a gloomy warning:

When California releases statewide test scores data later this year — the first round of testing in which LAUSD has participated since the pandemic began — we should expect lower scores, and that the “most politically fragile populations of students lost the most ground.”

“However we put it — interrupted learning, unfinished learning, learning loss; whatever is politically palatable to to the listening ear — they did not do as well as they should,” Carvalho said in an interview.

“We have kids in crisis today — in a deeper level of crisis, beyond the crisis that they were facing prior to the pandemic,” he added. “Simply returning them to the conditions that they faced pre-pandemic is not going to be enough if we are to close the achievement gap.”

“There's an urgency the likes of which I've never seen in the 30 plus years I worked as an educator in this country,” Carvalho said.

A man in a white collared shirt and a tie goes to shake the hand of a young boy in a polo. The man is standing in the middle of a school bus, and the boy is seated.
LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho goes for a handshake with Canterbury Avenue Elementary fifth grader Nicolas Ticas.
(Kyle Stokes

‘We Will Have Robust Services’

In recent weeks, education researchers have issued new warnings that students were most likely to fall behind in districts where campuses remained closed the longest — and LAUSD remained in distance learning mode longer than most.

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By the time LAUSD resumed some in-person classes in April 2021, more than 80% of schools nationwide had either partially or fully returned to campuses, according to a tracker from the data firm Burbio.

"It wasn't the pandemic that widened [achievement] gaps; it was school closures that widened gaps,” Harvard economist Thomas Kane warned at a conference in July, citing an analysis of academic data from more than 2.1 million students nationwide.

“Higher poverty schools were more likely to go remote,” the authors of that analysis concluded, “and suffered larger declines when they did so.” Similarly, schools with larger populations of Black and Latino students were also more likely to remain virtual for longer, leading to a widening of racial gaps.

Carvalho’s nod to the “palatability” of the discussion of students’ academic performance hints at a deeper unease among educators.

Many bristle at the term “learning loss,” arguing that urgent attempts to help students gain ground could backfire if students take to heart the idea that their current performance on standardized tests — already an imperfect measure of their academic performance — is a predictor of their future potential.

A man in a long-sleeved black shirt and a backward baseball cap holds a baby girl in his arms outside a school. The baby does not look particularly happy.
David Zuniga took a break from kindergarten orientation to see to his youngest daughter.
(Mariana Dale

“Students who have experienced the most trauma and disconnection during the pandemic may be assigned to the lowest level and most stigmatized groups … Children, having been told that they are behind, will internalize the story of their loss,” wrote Ron Berger, head of an education non-profit and a former teacher, in The Atlantic last year.

Glimmers Of Hope

There are some glimmers of hope amid the grim data.

A brief from the testing and research consortium NWEA arrived at similar conclusions as the analysis Kane co-authored: lower-income students slipped even further behind their more affluent peers — especially in math — during the first full year after COVID’s onset, 2020-21. Most students lagged behind where we might expect them to be absent the pandemic’s disruption.

But in 2021-22, NWEA also found evidence that elementary students are starting to catch up.

“If the rate of change we observe this year continues,” authors Megan Kuhfeld and Karyn Lewis wrote, “we can expect that it will take the average elementary school student at least three years to fully recover.”

My thinking is, if we have this money, while it lasts, it should go directly to the kids.
— Oliver Ramirez, principal, Korenstein Elementary School

Unfortunately, NWEA also found older students appear to be rebounding more slowly — which is troubling since, as Chalkbeat pointed out, these students have less time remaining in their K-12 careers.

In July, LAUSD board members approved more than $1 billion in strategic “investments” that district leaders hope will direct help to students most in need of assistance. The funds will pay to add four extra (somewhat optional) days to the upcoming school year, expand tutoring programs and extracurricular activities and target additional flexible funding to high-need schools.

“We need, and we will have, robust services and supports available at our schools,” said board president Kelly Gonez, “whether that’s more [psychiatric social workers] on campus to help support mental health needs, socio-emotional learning programs in the classroom, but also more academic supports like tutoring.”

Gonez said LAUSD also wants to lean into offerings that ensure students actually enjoy coming to school: dual language programs, enrichment programs, extracurricular activities, arts and music.

“That’s where the promise of bringing back the joy really comes into play.”

Korenstein Elementary Principal Oliver Ramirez said dozens of students signed up for new afterschool enrichment programs last year including ballroom dancing, theater, art and soccer.

“My thinking is, if we have this money, while it lasts, it should go directly to the kids,” Ramirez said.

‘I’m Looking Forward To Discovering What I’m Good At’

As the bright yellow school bus glided through Arleta, ferrying Nicolas Ticas toward his first day of a new school year, the fifth grader took stock of all the strangeness of his years in elementary school.

That detour through distance learning in the middle of his elementary career? “Not the greatest.”

Learning “was harder for people — just going on your computer for like three hours,” Nicolas remembered. The blue light from the screen would hurt his eyes; being confined to virtual classes hampered his grades.

“During the pandemic, they were worse,” he said, “and when I went back to school, they were a lot better.”

Nicolas is looking forward to returning to a group of friends — and a routine of learning in-person that suits him much better: “You’re more active, instead of just sitting at a desk.”

While much of the data and discourse about “learning loss” can feel abstract, Nicolas is one of the many students who can personally testify to the feeling that they slipped academically — if only temporarily — during the campus lockdowns.

“I struggled with the computers,” Plummer Elementary sixth grader Lissett Abad recalled of distance learning. “I prefer paper.”

But Lissett credits the “supportive” teachers at Plummer with helping her improve once she returned to campus.

“I’m looking forward to … discovering what I’m good at this year,” she said.

When the pandemic began, Lorena Gonzalez’s daughter only spoke Spanish. The lockdowns began during her year in transitional kindergarten, and she worries that she fell behind.

“But now she is doing better,” Gonzalez reported as she dropped off her daughter, now in second grade, at Melvin Avenue Elementary on Monday. “When she started school she didn't know how to speak English, but now she can. I hope this year she can improve her overall literacy.”

David Zuniga, the parent of an incoming kindergartener, is less concerned about the pandemic’s effect on his daughter’s progress. Last year, she had the help of a friendly pre-K teacher at Korenstein Elementary in North Hollywood.

“Hopefully this year she has another teacher just like that,” Zuniga said, “because she was happy to learn, happy to come to school every day.”

As he soothed a younger, fussier 9-month-old during an orientation for his kindergarten-aged daughter, Zuniga looked ahead to both of their academic careers.

“I hope [school] opens doors for them,” he said, “and they take advantage of the opportunities she has.”

Mariana Dale and Gillian Moran Pérez contributed reporting to this story.

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).

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