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In NEK elementary school, worries about kids falling behind as pandemic enters year three

A photo showing the brick entrance to a building with lettering reading newport city elementary school
Erica Heilman
Educators at Newport City Elementary School say kids are falling behind due to the pandemic.

In a series airing all week, independent producer Erica Heilman talks with teachers, administrators and staff in the Northeast Kingdom about their struggles after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, Erica talks with teachers and staff at Newport City Elementary School about gaps they’re noticing in development and learning among their students. She starts with principal Elaine Collins.

Elaine Collins: "If you have any child who is struggling in any way in a content area, and you have multiple years of inconsistent instruction, just because of the circumstance of the pandemic, it's really, really hard to recapture and close the academic gap. It's almost impossible when you have multiple years in a row.

"So it takes really intentional and deliberate instruction in order to bring kids… sort of close the academic gap. What that means in practicality is that you have, let's say, a third grade class, and you might have many kids who are really at maybe a kindergarten- or first-grade level, in terms of their academic level. So you have a third grade teacher who is used to teaching third grade curricula, who is used to dealing with third grade students who have a certain maturity level and ability to access information. And then there's this mismatch of kids who are emotionally, socially, academically at a much younger age. So this veteran third grade teacher is used to teaching third grade material says, ‘What the heck is this? I don't know what to do with this.’

"Additionally, they also have in that classroom, many kids who had great access during remote learning or who are just naturally academically tuned in, and they're doing very well. So you have more and more, we're seeing these really large academic gaps."

Here’s literacy interventionist Sherry Montminy.

Sherry Montminy: "I mean, no one wants us to say it, but kids are behind. They are. They're going to be if they're not here, and if they don't have families who can help them. And we have, we live in a place where there's a lot of families who, they can barely get through a day themselves. Never mind, try, you know… they've got to figure out, ‘Does my kid go to school today, because he's got the sniffles, I've got a job… do I stay home and lose my job? Am I going to get paid if I don't go to work?’ I mean, I wouldn't want to be a parent right now — of little kids."

"No one wants us to say it, but kids are behind. They are."
Sherry Montminy, literacy interventionist at Newport City Elementary School

Here’s social emotional learning coach Christina Malanga.

Christina Malanga: "So I'm just thinking, like, a kindergarten classroom that I often go to. Now, kindergarteners are 5 and 6 years old. So we don't, it's not like they know how to solve all their own problems and regulate all their emotions. But if you think about them, as rather than being 5 or 6, that they're really more like acting like they're 3 or 4 years old, then there's this, the level of skill that they have, they really haven't been in school.

"So kids in kindergarten really haven't had any normal school experience at all. You know, just a very small things are a major event. So like, you know, your shoe is untied, it's just like, seems like the end of the world. Kids haven't had a lot of experience in the past two years, having social groups or playing with each other.

"And so what we're seeing is like, kids that you know, don't necessarily, they're trying their best, but maybe not have the same skills that they would have had pre-pandemic in terms of like, having that experience with interacting with another and possibly being able to solve like simple, you know, simple challenges or problems."

More from VPR: Go inside this Island Pond elementary school as it tries to stay on top of COVID protocols

Again, here’s principal Elaine Collins.

Elaine Collins: "The other compounding factor is during this school year, for us has been the number of cases in our school. We've had hundreds of cases this school year. So let's say you've got a class of 15 kids or 18 kids. And on any given week, you might only have half of your class, but the demographic of the class keeps changing. So you might have only half the class but not the same half. The next week, it'll be different. And you're trying to get through, you know, let's say a unit on fractions, and you're in fifth grade. And that's your key work of the grade. And if kids don't get fractions, they can't move on to higher level math. And a third of the class has missed the first part of the unit, a third has missed the middle part. And a third has missed the ending part, there's going to be some kids that have missed the whole thing. How do you — how do you get those kids caught up? How do you?

"And then how do you move on? Because there are some kids in the class who got the whole thing, and they're ready to move on. It's placed a lot of stress on teachers in terms of their ability to differentiate. We're used to differentiating for kids. We've always had kids who are on different levels. Not all kids are the same, we know that we're going to have to differentiate.

"But the level of differentiation is different. And then you factor in all of those disregulation factors, and teaching right now is very, very difficult."

"We've always had kids who are on different levels. Not all kids are the same, we know that we're going to have to differentiate. But the level of differentiation is different."
Elaine Collins, Newport City Elementary School principal

Here’s fourth grade teacher Tara Wiggins.

Erica: "You know the material, and you know the material you're supposed to get through, is there still like a tension about 'Oh, I can see the calendar, and I'm looking at where we are?' Is there anxiety that goes with this?"

Tara Wiggins: "Yes, I've had multiple days where out of my class of 12 kids, I have five. I can't teach a brand new lesson when I have five kids three days in a row. I would just have to reteach it when they came in for the other kids, and then leave those other kids kind of hanging."

Erica: "That's a kind of Tetris complexity that I don't even know why you do that. It feels like you must feel like a sub in your own classroom every day."

Here’s fourth grade teacher Mike Pettengill.

Mike Pettengill: "Sometimes I can structure some of my lessons to target specifically how, you know, ‘You three missed the four days that we talked about decimals.’ And I can pull those four students. We have an interventionist that can come and work with some other students during that same time, and kids can be fairly independent.

"So yeah, I just have to find, which are my kids that can really work independently. And legitimately work independently, and kind of do their own problem solving. And which are the kids that just really need me to guide them. And some kids just need you sitting beside them. That's all it takes, just sit beside them and put your arm on the back of their chair. And they can work."

Again, here’s Elaine Collins.

Elaine Collins: "Teachers are very well-intentioned and hard-working, and they want to do what’s right by their kids. So they have this notion in their minds about where their kids should be. They place a lot of pressure on themselves if kids aren’t there. And right now kids aren’t there. And it’s not teachers’ fault and it’s not kids’ fault. Teachers are working the hardest they’ve ever worked in their entire lives for less results than they’re used to, and that’s the part that is really frustrating.

"And I think that kids are getting what they need from us, but we’re not able to see the same amount of outcome that we’re used to. And we’re having to measure success in much smaller steps. It’s just a mind shift. We’re used to kids, by leaps and bounds, coming ahead in their academics, and that’s just not happening right now. It’s just the nature of where we are in the pandemic, and the interrupted learning cycle that we’re in."

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Corrected: March 7, 2022 at 3:17 PM EST
This story originally had the wrong audio attached to it. It has now been corrected, and we apologize for the error.
Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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