The Lost Year Of Learning – What Wisconsin Needs To Do To Keep Our Children From Falling Further Behind

Class failures, mental health problems, and social isolation continue to be on the rise in schools in Wisconsin – what can be done to help our children?

Why is Governor Evers ignoring the problem?

The state budget has no recommendations on how to help children catch up


March 18, 2021

By Abbi Debelack

It has been a year since K-12 schools in Wisconsin closed down normal in-person, on-site instruction and moved to virtual instruction, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many schools have returned to some sort of in-person instruction, it took too many schools too long to get back to near full-time in-person education. Some of the largest districts — such as Milwaukee and Madison — still remain closed to full-time in-person learning. 

Our children have suffered in many different ways during COVID-19, but the forced closing of their schools, the isolation away from their friends and teachers, and the lost academic progress that many have experienced have perhaps had the biggest impact on their well-being and their futures. 

There is growing evidence that many Wisconsin students are struggling to learn with online instruction. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) apparently does not track the number of “F”s earned by students statewide, but a growing pool of data from local school districts shows academic failure rates have gone through the roof. 

The question the Governor and the media seem to be ignoring is how will the Department of Public Instruction and school districts help students recover from the lost year of learning and catch up academically. It is amazing to think that we sit here in March of 2021, a full calendar year after the start of the pandemic, with no leadership and little discussion from Former State Superintendent Governor Evers on what needs to be done to fix a problem so serious, it will haunt our state for many years to come.


Student Failures During COVID-19 And Virtual Instruction Have Increased Dramatically 

Study after study at the national level has found that COVID-19 virtual education is not as effective as in-person instruction. Here in Wisconsin, we can look to the Waukesha School District, where 28% of students are failing at least one class this year, a 265% increase from the prior year. The school board was recently presented with the data to suggest that 57% of these failures occurred in hybrid model classes.

Data from Waukesha Schools

The Post Crescent recently reported that one in four Appleton School District high school students failed a class last semester. Students with disabilities and English language learners are disproportionately represented in the group of students failing a class. The district’s Assistant Superintendent of Assessment, Curriculum, and Instruction, Steve Harrison, attributed the failure rate to “the extremely unprecedented year.”

We are seeing a similar trend in the Wausau School District. The Freshmen class has seen a 350% increase in failed classes this year compared to 2019-2020. Across grades 9-12, the average increase in F’s is around 208%.

The Kenosha Unified School District (KUSD) has also seen a massive increase in students failing a class from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021. Across high schools in the district, the average increase in failure rate is on average 133% excluding the district’s traditional online school. The ten traditional middle schools in the district saw a similar trend with an average of 136% increase in failed classes.

Report from KUSD

In MacIver’s earlier analysis, we discussed how many studies have shown students can safely return to the classroom. A more recent study in Wood County, Wisconsin found that of “4,876 students and 654 staff members, conducted between the end of Aug. 31 and Nov. 29, only seven of the students who tested positive for COVID-19 had their infection traced back to the school. None of the staff members’ cases were linked to schools. In fact, the 191 total number of cases found among the 5,530 students and staff combined meant the rate of transmission for those in the study was lower than the surrounding community (3,453 versus 5,466 per 100,000).” This study, done in our own state, confirms prior research: with adequate safety measures in place, there is no scientific defense for confining students to online learning.

Source: Center for Disease Control

John Bailey, a visiting Fellow at American Enterprise Institute, just compared 130 studies from the United States and around the world on Coronavirus transmission in schools. He found “the vast majority of research from around the world suggests that children comprise a small proportion of diagnosed COVID-19 cases, develop less severe illness, and have lower mortality rates. Attending school does not increase the risk to children, particularly if health protocols are followed.” 

One problem many parents are facing with schools that are open to in-person instruction is the harsh quarantine restrictions imposed by the districts. If there is a potential exposure in the classroom, the entire class has to quarantine for a set period of time. This inconsistency of being in the classroom one day and then being sent home the next poses a problem for students, parents, and teachers. 

But studies have shown that the quarantines do little but obstruct learning further. One parent group conducted a survey of schools in Waukesha County and found that on average, 0.36% of students who are quarantined due to an in-school exposure later test positive with the virus. With such a low transmission rate, the constant disruption some students face because of automatic quarantines makes learning much more challenging than it already needs to be. Legislative Republicans suggested a solution to this quarantine problem: rapid tests in instances where students and teachers may have been exposed. This would help catch any individuals who may have contracted the virus but allows for the rest of the healthy students to remain in-person. It would end the uncertainty and disruption too many kids face on a weekly basis. 


The Impact Of Remote Learning On Student Health

In addition to the academic consequences of keeping students home for over a year, the impact on students’ mental well-being is catastrophic. FAIR Health recently did a study observing the mental health impacts lockdowns have had on children and young adults. Intentional self-harm, overdoses and substance abuse disorders, and mental health diagnoses have increased dramatically.

By one measure, cases of intentional self-harm and overdoses in teenagers nearly doubled in March and April.

The report found “claim lines for intentional self-harm as a percentage of all medical claim lines in the 13-18 age group increased 90.71 percent in March 2020 compared to March 2019. The increase was even larger when comparing April 2020 to April 2019, nearly doubling (99.83 percent).” As the country was forced to lockdown and stay home, this posed a clear threat to the mental well-being of students. This study found that reported intentional self-harm among high schoolers nearly doubled in the early days of the pandemic.

Additionally, “For the age group 13-18, claim lines for overdoses increased 94.91 percent as a percentage of all medical claim lines in March 2020 and 119.31 percent in April 2020 over the same months the year before. Claim lines for substance use disorders also increased as a percentage of all medical claim lines in March (64.64 percent) and April (62.69 percent) 2020 as compared to their corresponding months in 2019.”

Graph from FAIR Report. Percent change from January-November 2019 to January-November 2020 in mental health claim lines and all medical claim lines, age group 19-22 years


How Can We Make Up For The Lost Year Of Learning?

Given all the data that shows our children are being hurt by remote virtual instruction, Governor Evers and the State Legislature must make the full return to in-person, in-classroom instruction our state’s top priority.

Governor Evers should demand that all school districts be fully open for all students who want in-person instruction. He needs to talk about the importance of returning. While many schools have reopened, too many districts — those with particularly strong teachers’ unions — remain closed, with only months left to go in the 20-21 school year. That means many of our students who need instruction and help the most will have missed a year and a half of school. This lost year of learning for those who are academically-challenged will prove to be an almost impossible mountain to climb without extra help. This damage to our students should not be allowed to continue any longer. Wisconsin must make it a top priority to develop and implement strategies to help our children catch up academically from the lost year of learning. 

One proposed solution to make up for the lost year of learning would be to expand the 2021-2022 school year. In order for schools in Wisconsin to start earlier than September 1st, they must receive approval from the Department of Public Instruction. Currently, there are four districts across the state that have been approved for an earlier start date in August. While any additional time in class is beneficial for students, it is hard to believe simply tacking on a few days to the beginning of the school year will truly make up for the lost year of learning. Adding extra minutes to every instruction day in the 2021-2022 school year may be another beneficial solution, with a longer-lasting effect than just adding a couple of extra school days at the start. 

While elective courses have traditionally been a good way to educate students beyond core subjects, these courses should be reconsidered in the coming school year. The priority must be placed on math, science, reading, and writing, in order to ensure students make up the learning they lost after this unprecedented year. 

Besides mandating that students who need or want extra help get it, adding time to the school day, or promoting an earlier start date in the fall, expanding school choice is critical. The virtual environment students have been forced into over the past year has highlighted the importance of giving children and parents options where to attend school. Going forward, it should be easier — not harder — for students to enroll in other districts that better fit their needs. Numerous legislative proposals have been introduced recently to accomplish this. 

Studies have also looked at ways of personalizing education to fit each child’s individual needs as they catch up from their lost school year. Using techniques such as small group work, learning stations, and multi-age classrooms, teachers can not only attempt to close the learning gap resulting from COVID but put their students in a better position moving forward. 

Additionally, it is critical that statewide testing — the Forward Exam, Aspire Testing, ACT testing — resumes this spring. While standardized testing has its flaws, it continues to be one of the best ways to track student and school district progress year-over-year. In 2020, standardized testing was canceled because of the Coronavirus pandemic. However, in order to get an accurate gauge as to how far students have fallen behind and the best way to help them, it is important to see where they currently are at. As of February 22, DPI has required that schools resume testing for the current school year, even schools that have remained virtual.

State of WI schools prior to the pandemic

The state of Wisconsin has received more than $2.4 billion in federal funding for education as a result of the pandemic. While there are some restrictions on how these funds can be used, it is clear that there is plenty of government funding to pay for new strategies or programs. There has been no serious discussion of using any of these funds to pay tutors or providing extra help to students through either weekend classes or summer school. Legislative Republicans called on the Governor in early March to request that the $20 million he received in discretionary funding from the feds be provided to school districts that have been open to in-person instruction. This funding could be used by schools to cover the additional costs of cleaning and PPE. The Governor rejected this idea. 

Governor Evers casually recommended summer school or an earlier start date in an interview with WisPolitics this month, but it is clear through lack of initiatives in both his State of the State and Budget addresses, making up for this lost year of learning is not a priority for the former State Superintendent. 

In Governor Evers’ budget, even though he has proposed a laundry list of new education initiatives, he fails to include any plan or recommendations to help make up for the lost year of learning and ensure in-person education in all districts five days a week. Gov. Evers did not include any proposal in his budget that would allocate funding to provide extra help for any child who wants it or require students who have failed a class during COVID-19 to attend Summer School. While kids will predictably loathe the idea of summer school or extra time to catch up, this is exactly what needs to be done to minimize and put behind us the lost year of learning. 

Rather than show leadership on what we need to do to fix the problem, Evers’ budget spends resources to incorporate climate change curriculum into the classroom. That is not leadership, that is pandering.

The Governor needs to lead this conversation with the Wisconsin public each and every day until all of our children are back on track. It is that important. Now is the time for the Governor to show us that he has the intestinal fortitude and determination to push everyone – kids, parents, teachers, administrators, and union officials – to do better. 

Our children are counting on him.