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Staff file photo / Dr. Linda Cash, director of schools for Bradley County, answers questions posed by the school board in this file photo.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee students who were already struggling in school are taking a major hit in terms of learning loss this fall with a traditional "summer slide" becoming a much steeper "COVID slide," Gov. Bill Lee and state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn warned this week.

Saying an "alarm has been sounded," Lee said preliminary data on the impact of the extended closure of schools from March into early August project an estimated 50% plummet in proficiency rates in third-grade reading and a whopping 65% drop in math proficiency.

The Republican governor said data trends indicate "real challenges that have been experienced by students at all levels, learning loss especially in the areas of reading and mathematics."

Lee said it underscores the administration's view of just "how important it is for our kids to get back in the classroom, and that's why we've put such a strong effort in making sure our kids do return back to classrooms for in-person learning."

He added: "I am particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact that this learning loss has on minority and low-income students."

Schwinn said educators expect to see a "summer slide" for students who return from summer break with a "slight deficiency."

But this year, students have been "out of school for a very long time. ... Some of our schools have not had their buildings open for over six months" as a result of COVID-19, she said.

It's impacting the youngest learners "more than anybody else," Schwinn said, adding, "it's really hard to teach a child to read, but it is really hard to teach a child to read through a computer."

That's an issue given a number of districts moving to online instruction, the commissioner said.

Schwinn said students with lower proficiency rates are also disproportionately affected by learning loss, further magnifying existing achievement gaps.

Citing research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the economics of education, Schwinn said it shows each additional year of schooling increases life income by an average of 7.5-10%.

A loss of one-third of a year in effective learning for just the students affected by the closures of early 2020 will lower a country's gross domestic product by an average of 1.5% over the remainder of the century, Schwinn said.

Earlier this week, a group of Tennessee school superintendents told state legislators that the poorest performing students are taking the hardest hit academically during the coronavirus pandemic.

The seven local education chiefs also voiced concerns in areas ranging from whether state accountability measures on student performance will be maintained during the COVID-19 era as well as enrollment drops and the efficacy of online learning in a state where as many as half of Tennessee's 1 million public school students may be in a virtual education setting.

During a marathon state House Education Committee meeting Tuesday on K-12 education, Bradley County Schools Director Dr. Linda Cash said the "most sobering" finding from benchmark testing done this year was that "the lowest percentile of our students, the students who were already low, dropped two grade levels.

"If that doesn't shock you, then we need to take a real look at that," Cash told Education Committee Chairman Mark White, a Memphis Republican.

She noted students who previously tested proficient "maintained their proficiency. They did not grow but they maintained that proficiency."

Those in the middle range of the system's 10,000 students largely stayed there, some dropping or rising slightly, Cash said. "Those bottom students, they lost a lot ... and we cannot allow that."

A worried Chairman White said, "We probably have never been as challenged before in my lifetime" as he cited COVID-19 disruptions. "Our teachers are being challenged, and our students are being challenged."

Cleveland City Schools Director Dr. Russell Dyer, who also testified, agreed that lower-performing students are having problems, noting "our Tier 3 students are really struggling right now. We know this is something we're going to have to address. And we will."

Other superintendents cited similar learning losses from what they said is being dubbed nationally as the "COVID slide."

With a number of parents concerned about their children returning to brick-and-mortar school settings, individual districts across the state found themselves launching virtual learning operations with varying degrees of success.

"Our community said we need virtual education because right now we're not comfortable going back," Dyer told lawmakers. The system entered into a contract with Florida Virtual School for students in K-8 grades. Nearly 1,050 of the system's total 5,600 students are enrolled in the virtual school.

Dyer said the number of parents home-schooling their children has risen too. He's hoping they will be coming back into physical school buildings with Dyer and other educators saying in-person, face-to-face instruction works best for students.

Cash said where her system "missed the mark" was "we didn't start training our teachers early enough in how to deliver in that virtual environment. Our teachers do not do dual duty right now. We have teachers that teach virtually, we put heavy training in. We continue to train those teachers, but our goal is to get those kids back in brick-and-mortar."

Dr. Joey Vaughn, director of Manchester city schools, said, "Many of our virtual students are the ones who are our lowest performers" as other school chiefs near him began nodding in agreement.

And Dr. DeAnna McClendon, who last year became Monroe County schools' director, said, "I think our teachers have a great deal of anxiousness" as they have to adapt to "teaching in a new way."

Some teachers' groups and others already want the state to cancel its TNReady assessment tests or at least use them only as a benchmark for where students stand academically and not use them to assess teachers in terms of performance for pay and continued employment during a trying period.

Schwinn, who appeared at the hearing, told legislators she isn't able to commit at this juncture to holding teachers "harmless" next spring on the assessment tests.

Asked about TNReady assessments during his Wednesday news conference, Lee said, "I think what's most important is that we have an assessment of our students in the spring."

On the question of whether teachers should be judged by the TNReady results given the downward trajectory, Lee and Schwinn deferred to state lawmakers, saying the system is prescribed by statute.

"The legislature obviously has a decision to make about changing responsibility for how assessments affect teachers," Lee said. "I would support the legislature looking at that and understanding it fully before making a decision on that."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 616-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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