McHenry County schools look to the future after year of pandemic learning

‘When there’s a major disruption like this, that’s when innovation can happen,’ Huntley School District 158 superintendent says

From left: Kenneth Valencia, Karter Hall, and Terrence Criscione work after school in a homework help program at Marengo Community Middle School on Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Marengo.

Enhanced summer school programs and individualized assessment tools are among the options McHenry County schools are using to help students recover from “learning loss” tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, a recovery that some educators have said is likely to extend into next school year and beyond.

It is often assumed that the necessary first step on this road to recovery is to get schools “back to normal,” Huntley School District 158 Superintendent Scott Rowe said, but he wonders if there is a better way to respond to this moment.

“When there’s a major disruption like this, that’s when innovation can happen,” Rowe said. “I think what we’re going to see in the next five years is a lot of educational innovation. School districts that are like, ‘We learned so much during this pandemic of what we can be, we don’t want to go back to who we were.’”

“But the hard part is, right now, we’ve been so ingrained in just managing the crisis, we haven’t really been able to think about how we’re going to evolve our system,” he said.

The “crisis” of the last year has meant less in-person learning time, decreased levels of engagement among many students and a dip in grades for some, especially those who were already struggling, local superintendents told the Northwest Herald.

To support students, local districts such as Harvard School District 50 are placing a renewed emphasis on summer programs and on assessing the needs of each student, Superintendent Corey Tafoya said in an interview Tuesday.

Education leaders expect more catching up will be needed by students in classes in the fall, even as they expect larger enrollments in summer courses and credit recovery programs in the coming months.

Teacher Laura Wright helps remote learning sixth grade students with their homework after school from her classroom at Marengo Community Middle School on Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Marengo.

“We understand that the challenge of learning loss will be greater this year and are discussing strategies for continued support during the summer months,” McHenry Elementary School District 15 officials said in a written statement. “... These summer learning opportunities will be important, but how we begin next school year is another area in which we are doing extensive planning.”

Student progress in math has been of particular concern, officials from multiple McHenry County school systems said. Preliminary data from Johnsburg School District 12 shows that a larger number of students this school year made less academic progress than is standard, especially in primary grades, Superintendent Dan Johnson said.

Discussions are going on now about how to gauge just how much ground some students have to make up in certain academic areas and local teachers are designing an online learning platform that will offer activities at every grade level that target specific academic standards that could help, District 15 officials said in the statement.

“Summer school planning is ongoing as we continue to look [at] information and work with our families,” Johnson said. “We anticipate this planning to continue throughout the spring, and we are planning for additional students to participate this summer.”

Most districts have now returned to a hybrid or fully in-person learning model, which Tafoya said has already made the assessment piece easier as teachers are able to connect with students face-to-face. This kind of one-on-one assessment between teacher and student is the most effective way to understand kids’ needs moving forward, he said.

For some students, those needs will be addressed during the district’s summer school program, Tafoya said. This summer, the district will also host a program at the end of the summer called “Jump Start Academy,” designed to reorient students to the classroom environment after a year of missing out on the social and emotional learning that comes naturally with in-person learning, he said.

Madison Grindle, center, and Julian Vargas, both 8th grade students at Marengo Community Middle School, work in a homework help after school program at the school on Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Marengo.

“Kids have forgotten how to socialize,” Tafoya said. “One kid told me, he goes, ‘I’m awkward at this right now. I just forgot how to talk to people other than my own family.’ So we’re designing some things in the summer that will help with that as well.”

Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 is offering summer school this summer for the first time in “many, many years,” Superintendent Lea Damisch said Tuesday. The program will be required for about 25 students in sixth through eighth grade who particularly struggled this year, she said.

Algonquin-based Community School District 300 will use a formal evaluation tool called i-Ready to identify and address specific gap areas for students at the elementary level, Superintendent Fred Heid said Tuesday. They will use the results to inform their summer enrichment programs, as well as to adjust the pacing and content of their learning framework for the upcoming school year.

Tafoya said there is some concern among school districts that the increased student enrollment in summer programs may outpace the number of available instructors, a potential problem that is underscored by record educator shortages across the state.

“This last 12 months ... for teachers has been so so stressful,” Tafoya said. “Some of our teachers are saying, ‘I need to just unplug for a period of time. I haven’t had a break from this.’”

Even with a much larger staff, Rowe said, District 158 is not immune to these kinds of concerns and has already begun thinking about how they will staff their summer programs.

Not every area school system, however, is thinking there will be a huge difference in summertime courses this year.

“Summer school enrollment has not been significantly impacted this year,” said Alex LeMoine, the multimedia communications specialist for Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155.

That district offered a number of support systems for students throughout the year, as have other area school systems, to help students improve their grades and ensure they are meeting course requirements, LeMoine said.

Sixth grade student Karter Hall works on his homework in an after school homework help program at Marengo Community Middle School on Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Marengo.

For instance, 34 students were enrolled in District 155′s English Recovery Night School credit recovery program, LeMoine said. Plus, after District 155 went back into fully remote learning in October, between 40 and 80 students at each of its high schools were identified as struggling and invited to attend in-person coursework support for two or three days per week.

District 165 is offering a homework help club to elementary and middle school students virtually and in person to help kids find their footing again before summer hits, Damisch said.

Not everything this year was a detriment to students, said Rowe, who takes issue with the default phrase of “learning loss” as it does not account for the things students learned this year that they ordinarily would not have been exposed to. Rowe pointed as examples to how to participate in online meetings or manage time efficiently in a new environment.

“No one would have preferred this to be what forced us to learn these skills, but our kids have experienced things that that will last them a lifetime,” he said.

Plus, the idea cannot be applied across the board as some students found that remote schooling worked well for their learning style, Rowe said.

In this file photo from Wednesday, March 24, 2021, Terrence Criscione, a second grade student at Grant Elementary, works on his homework in an after school homework help program at Marengo Community Middle School in Marengo.

This has been the case for some District 50 students, including some who benefited from having more independence or who struggle with social anxiety, Tafoya said.

Some practices established by local education systems during the pandemic may stick around in the longer term, too.

Woodstock School District 200, for example, saw stronger than normal parent-teacher conference attendance rates this year by holding them through video calls, said Kevin Lyons, spokesman for the district. Rowe said District 158 had a similar experience.

“I think any challenging circumstances would offer glimpses of ways to do things better and some of those things will last. It’s hard to say what those things will be right now. But it’s a very data-driven industry and educators are always looking at data,” he said. “... If things are working, there should be positive lessons we can learn out of this.”

The growth of video calls during the pandemic is likely to help teachers of the same grades and subjects at different schools within a district collaborate more often well after the pandemic is over, too, he said. Video calls also helped to streamline the preliminary screening of job applicants performed by District 200.

Harvard High School has been experimenting with a more open schedule, allowing students to attend classes in varying block lengths of 20 to 80 minutes depending on the class, Tafoya said. They are let out at 12:30 p.m. and then regather from 2 to 3 p.m. to finish out the day, giving them a chance to have lunch and take a break from screen time.

“We have learned that the public education system can change because it shifted on a dime on March 13, [2020],” Rowe said. “For every superintendent in the state of Illinois, what are we keeping and how do we continue moving forward needs to be our focus instead of going back to what we were.”