Why early grades are one district’s COVID recovery focus

'Our learning loss is so significant, we can’t just have supports in place during school day,' superintendent says
By: | March 11, 2021

The early grades have been hit hard by COVID school closures, particularly in rural, economically stressed communities such as those served by South Carolina’s Marion County School District.

Prior to the pandemic, some of these students were beginning school unprepared, Superintendent Kandace Bethea says.

“We already had children entering our doors tremendously behind developmentally and academically,” Bethea says. “This has been a prime opportunity for us to pivot as educators, do some things differently, and make some much need changes.”

Students in the district began the 2020-21 school year remote but administrators have brought students back to classrooms in small pockets. Educators have leaned heavily on digital resources throughout the year.

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“Sometimes in a rural community, your need is much greater than your personnel,” she says. “A virtual curriculum has played a strong role in the way we’re able to supplement what our teachers are doing.”

When the district began to reopen fully in early March 2021, administrators brought K-5 students back first because data has shown those children to be at lowest risk for COVID transmission.

She and her team have also been reassuring parents that the state of South Carolina has provided ample PPE to operate safely.

She has also been using the funds to plan physical enhancements and renovations, such as tech upgrades, new lightning and removing classroom carpets. The district is also creating more multi-purpose rooms in its schools.

Limiting learning loss

Bethea and her team have been leveraging the CARES Act to stem learning loss. First, the funding allowed the district to provide all students with devices years earlier than would otherwise have been possible, Bethea says.

She also hopes to use the funds to hire more full-time teachers to reduce class sizes, particularly in the younger grades.

“Most of these funds have a two-year lifespan, ” she says. “If we can get two years of smaller classes and more intensive interventions and support, I think that will have a tremendous impact.”

Spending guidance

The following publication can help district administrators understand how they can use relief funding: “Guide to the CRRSA Act ESSER II Funding: Claiming Your Cut of 54B to Counteract the COVID Cliff.”

Bethea says her district might have been lagged a bit in its social-emotional learning programs. Administrators have purchased more SEL resources to contend with the mental health issues that have arisen during COVID.

This includes SEL training for parents. “Our learning loss is so significant, we can’t just have supports in place during school day,” Bethea says. “It has to continue when students go home.”

On the bright side, parents have been learning techniques from teachers as they participate in online learning with their children.

Educators also are enhancing Marion County’s summer school programs so teachers can better target the specific skills individual students need to develop.

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