Virtual class

Caldwell High School students attend class virtually on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. Local school administrators in the Idaho Falls area say one of the biggest student demographics impacted by online or hybrid learning are economically disadvantaged students.

All students have had their education experience impacted by the pandemic but local school administrators have expressed concerns that economically disadvantaged students, who many are at-risk students, have been impacted most.

At Bonneville Joint School District 93, Director of Curriculum Jason Lords said one of the district’s primary concerns with learning loss experienced by students is addressing social and emotional issues they may have from trying to learn in the middle of a global pandemic.

Lords said the student demographic affected most by learning loss are low-income and students without homes. During the early days of the pandemic, these students likely did not have access to technology to complete school work remotely.

“From March to May (2020), trying to get wireless technology into every household, especially to households who may not have that opportunity, was a struggle,” Lords said. “There was also a lot of people out of work … It’s hard to learn when you’re just trying to survive.”

The district was out of school from March 2020 to May 2020, which helped reduce the impacts of learning loss to most students, he said.

In the Idaho Falls area, 35% of students enrolled at District 93 are designated as coming from low-income families and 1% of students do not have homes, according to the state Department of Education. At Idaho Falls School District 91, 44% of students come from low-income families and 2% are experiencing homelessness.

A study from Yale University published in January determined that children living in the poorest 20% of U.S. neighborhoods will experience the most negative and long-lasting effects of school closures. A Yale news release on the study said the researchers’ model predicts that one year of school closures will cost ninth graders in the poorest communities a 25% decrease in their monetary earning potential after graduation, even if it is followed by three years of normal schooling. The model shows no substantial losses for students from the richest 20% of neighborhoods, the release said.

District 91 Student Achievement and School Improvement Director Gail Rochelle said the district is seeing an uptick in the rate of students without homes. She said much of this can be attributed to rising housing prices in Idaho Falls.

“Housing is a really tough market so we’re seeing families that are struggling to find a place to live and of course that’s an additional level of stress to a child,” Rochelle said.

Idaho Falls Habitat for Humanity Director Karen Lansing said her office has been getting significantly more calls from families looking for housing assistance than a year ago. Habitat for Humanity is a global nonprofit that helps people in need become homeowners.

“I’ve seen the need increase three to four times what I was used to hearing prior to COVID and all of this disruption that we’ve had,” Lansing said.

According to United Way of Idaho Falls and Bonneville County, 44% of families in eastern Idaho are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or ALICE families. These families earn enough to stay above the federal poverty line, but not enough to afford basic household necessities.

United Way is a nonprofit that seeks to bring education, health and financial stability for local residents.

Low-income students in Idaho saw some of the steepest GPA drops after their education was transformed to online and hybrid models, according to a state Board of Education report published in August.

Online students’ GPA dropped on average by .23 points and hybrid students’ GPA dropped by an average of .22 points.

The drops were even more apparent for English-language learners and migrant students. Online and hybrid English-language learners GPA’s dropped by .40 and .38 points respectively. Online and hybrid migrant students’ GPA’s dropped by .57 and .42 points, respectively.

During the summer, Gov. Brad Little allocated $20 million for school districts to address learning loss during fiscal year 2022. Both local school districts are addressing learning loss through various programs including reading, math and social emotional programs.

Lords said District 93 has started using the Phonics First Reading and Spelling system. The program uses scientifically research-based learning strategies to teach beginning, at-risk, struggling, learning disabled, dyslexic and English language learners how to read by using systematic processes for reading and spelling, according to the program’s website.

“The instruction and the resources that it gives teachers to help students with learning has just been awesome,” Lords said.

Brooke Stosich, District 91 learning loss interventions coordinator, said some examples for how the district was addressing learning loss was by setting up tutoring sessions for English language learners and summer math and reading intervention programs for students who didn’t score proficiently on the district’s I-Station test, which measures literacy. More than 600 elementary students attended and the district plans to continue it in summer 2022, she said.

Rochelle said another key area District 91 was focusing on was the social and emotional aspect of learning during a pandemic. Younger students in particular have lost opportunities to learn social skills by engaging with other students and teachers.

“The pandemic has changed in some ways how we learn and what tools are available,” Rochelle said. “We don’t know the end result of that but it’s an opportunity for us to learn new things and reflect on the role that technology can play in education.”