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INDIANAPOLIS – The pandemic has forced Indiana schools into a challenging position. After roughly two years of balancing protocols, virtual learning, and quarantines, it’s clear there are now learning gaps.

Students are struggling and teachers are tasked with catching them up. This transition has been very challenging for not only the children, but also the adults that serve them.

The pandemic has interrupted education as we knew it.

“Beginning in 2019 from March until the end of the school year for three months, students didn’t have school,” explained Dr. Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, the Director of Public Education and CEO of Muncie Community Schools.

Children were sent home; virtual learning became the new normal and when students returned they were met with quarantines.

“When you think about the number of days students have been out of school and many students were quarantined for 10 to 14 days, sometimes multiple times,” Dr. Kwiatkowski added.

That’s led to a loss in learning that she has noticed and is working to address.

“That naturally is going to lead to having some gaps because you haven’t had steady, everyday experiences in school,” Kwiatkowski said, “Mathematics is one area that we specifically know are seeing some gaps. Math is just one of those subjects that naturally builds upon itself year after year, so if you’re missing chunks of time with it – a student in 2019 may have been a 7th grader and now they’re a freshman and they’re in algebra, and they may have missed several years of instruction.”

Dr. Kwiatkowski said schools across the state, just like Muncie, have to look at multiple solutions and critical solutions because state data shows time is ticking for Indiana students.

97 percent of 3rd through 8th graders in Indiana participated in ILEARN last spring, but only 40 percent passed English and Language Arts. Just 37 percent passed math.  A study by the Indiana Department of Education found a substantial loss across all grades.

“We know during COVID, all students have experienced a massive amount of learning loss,” said Jillian Lain, the Director of City Connects Midwest.

Lain and her team are focused on one of the solutions. It’s called City Connects. In partnership with Marian University, the program is new to Indiana schools this fall. In other cities, it’s proven to reduce student dropout rates, improve test scores and school attendance over several decades.

“Most importantly it really looks at the root causes of some of the challenges students are facing outside of the school,” Lain added, “With this really intentional approach, we know all students are affected by this learning loss, so the biggest piece is really just making sure we’re addressing the needs of every student so we can get them back on track with the grade level they should be at.”

City connects partners students with trained social workers, school counselors or what they’re calling family navigators in Muncie schools.

Kala Ragon meets one-on-one with every student to learn their strengths and weaknesses. Like, second grader, Jakiya.

“She helps me with my goals and when I get mad she gives me a big squeeze of a hug,” said Jakiya.

Ragon also connects families with resources and helps students tune in to their social and emotional needs.

Ragon explained how her sessions help students, like Jakiya, “Outbursts in class, peer conflict, not wanting to follow directions, but because of those we’re taking away from her learning time.”

So far, more than 30 schools across the state are using the City Connects program, including Global Preparatory Academy in Indianapolis.

“Sometimes we have students that face those basic needs every day that sometimes you and I don’t have to think about,” said Jessica Pumphrey, the Director of Student Services at Global Prep.

Pumphrey and Mariama Shaheed, the Founder and Head of School believe support is what’s needed the most right now.

“If it gets worse, in all of this,” said Shaheed, “Then we’re decades behind.”

89 percent of the children at Global Prep Academy are students of color.

“We cannot underscore enough the impact the pandemic has had on children of color,” explained Shaheed, “It’s illuminated the needs. So, when we talk about support, money is one thing but the resources that are being provided as well as additional expertise to provide those supports for students to achieve. To me, that’s where the fire in the belly remains with our staff and myself because that’s who we serve.”

Districts across Indiana are already implementing that support and sent us statements to explain how they are addressing the needs.

“Avon students are fortunate that we were able to offer in-person instruction for K-8 students for the entirety of the 2020-21 school year and our high school students only experienced two short periods of hybrid or virtual instruction with the vast majority of their instruction being in-person. However, the impact of virtual instruction at the end of the 2019-20 school year and the impact of quarantines over the last two school years have been significant. The best resource our students have to make learning gains is our incredible teachers and staff members who work tirelessly to address students’ learning needs.  We have taken very intentional steps over the last two years to provide consistent curriculum and educational experiences to all our students and have built in time every week for our teachers to collaborate with one another about student learning and the best interventions to address those who are struggling. Additionally, we have utilized federal funds to increase technology supports for students, hire interventionists and specialists for some of our most at-risk students, and increased mental wellness supports”

Dr. Scott Wyndham, Superintendent, Avon Community Schools

“Monroe County Community Schools is fortunate to have received a Learning Recovery Grant that along with ESSER funds have allowed us to focus on additional expanded and embedded learning opportunities for our students.  We know that the pandemic has created missed opportunities for our children and that we need to accelerate student learning.  The ways we are accelerating student learning include providing additional support during the day through a partnership with Indiana University School of Education preservice teachers tutoring and working with our students, hiring additional temporary expanded learning teachers to provide ELA and Math support and allow for greater small group learning to target instruction for students, and partnering with our local Boys and Girls Club to provide engaging lessons for our students that cover specific standards during our break days such as fall break, election day, Thanksgiving break, winter break, etc.  We also are investing in our teachers because having high quality teacher professional development will also be part of our plan to increase student achievement.  In addition, we have purchased enhanced technology and adaptive software and curriculum to support our teachers and students.”

Dr. Debra Prenkert, Director of Elementary Education, Monroe County Community School Corporation

“BCSC HR has hired additional teachers to reduce class sizes at primary levels and key content areas at the secondary level. Through our Counseling Counts initiative, we have added six mental health providers – Family Support Specialists (FSSs) – at schools where referrals indicated there was a need. That gives us a total of 31 providers throughout the corporation, Pre-K-12. The increase in student referrals were due primarily to enhanced anxiety and depression felt by our young people. Our Title Services department has worked closely with each of these three departments to funnel ESSER III dollars directly into the classroom in the form of teachers and other professionals who work directly with students on a daily basis. They have also worked with the Director of Operations department to increase safety aspects of our buildings as they relate to COVID-19.”

Josh Burnett, Communications Coordinator, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation

“There are so many matters that have to be addressed,” said Keith Gambill, the President of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Gambill has witnessed the impact of the pandemic in the classroom. He stresses that teachers need patience.

“We have the ability to make this happen both from our professionals in the classrooms and our students and their families to do the work, but we’re going to need time to make this happen,” said Gambill, “The most crucial element here is that connection of the educator and the student and the students family.”

While this problem is expected to take years to fix, educators aren’t giving up.

This is just part one of our special report. We wanted to find out what’s happening at the state level to support these schools, educators, and our students.

November 10th, our Kristen Eskow continues to the important conversation and goes directly to state lawmakers to hear what they have to say. Watch her story on CBS4.