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SFUSD Data Show Widening Learning Gaps During COVID-19

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

  • Data from San Francisco Unified School District found disparities among student groups in attendance and academic performance during COVID compared to prior years

  • SFUSD identified 910 students who attended class less than 40% of the time, a majority of whom are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and found evidence of more acute learning loss among minority students

  • The data suggests remote learning has had an unequal impact along socioeconomic and racial lines among the district's approximately 52,000 students

  • SF public schools have been closed for in-person learning since March 2020, while private and parochial schools have reopened

Amid a debate over the renaming of 44 San Francisco public schools, new data from the district show students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as many minority students, slipping behind as remote learning approaches the one-year mark.

In a recent report obtained by Public Comment, San Francisco Unified School District, which serves about 52,000 students in the City, tracked attendance and academic performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. San Francisco public schools have been closed for in-person learning since March 2020.

The report found that in fall 2020, overall daily attendance was roughly flat in the district as a whole compared to prior years, with 95% average daily attendance. Among African-American, Pacific Islander and homeless students, however, those daily attendance rates dropped to 85%, 87% and 88%, respectively.

SFUSD counted 910 students who attended class less than 40% of the time. Of those students, more than half were in high school, and 70% were classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, according to the report.

The report also measured academic performance in reading and math, and observed wide disparities across student groups.

As of fall 2020, 56% of total students in the district were marked proficient in reading; in math, 69% were deemed proficient. However, the report noted that participation rates in the proficiency assessments were uneven due to COVID-related administration challenges. For K-8 students, overall participation was 80% and 75% in reading and math, respectively, but lower among African American and Latino students.

Learning losswhich the district evaluates by weighing predicted student growth versus actual outcomesappears to have accelerated for many students during COVID.

Save for a limited number of community learning hubs, most students have been left to learn on devices in their home environments since March, raising alarm among learning advocates that remote school exacerbates inequalities in education. Additionally, public health experts have linked remote learning with depression and other mental health issues in children and teenagers.

In reading, elementary-grade students showed "evidence of learning loss" during COVID, the report noted. In that category, only White and Multi-racial students performed better than predicted, while all other groups showed signs of a loss. Middle and high school students showed overall learning gains in reading.

In math, elementary students showed modest learning gains on the whole, and middle and high school learning gains were mostly in-line with projections. However, African American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino and foster youth showed learning losses at the elementary level. African American and Pacific Islander students at the high school level "showed the greatest learning loss" in math, according to the report.

The district's findings were broadly consistent with nationwide trends, which show remote learners falling further behind in math than reading.

SFUSD had originally sought to begin a phased reopening of schools starting this month, but those plans were scrapped after the district and teacher's unions failed to reach an agreement on health and safety protocols.

According to records cited by the San Francisco Chronicle, the union representing SFUSD teachers, United Educators of San Francisco, has placed various conditions on their return to the classroom that well exceed the recommendations of public health officials. Those conditions include air quality monitoring in every classroom, the installation of lids on every toilet in the district, and a requirement that every San Francisco zip code be in the low-risk "orange tier" for two weeks. San Francisco teachers are also asking to be vaccinated on a priority basis, but may not be willing to return even if vaccinated, the Chronicle reported.

Private and parochial schools in the City have since returned for in-person learning.

In the meantime, the Board of Education voted on Tuesday to rename 44 public schools across the City, a process that has been sharply criticized as sloppy and ill-timed given the schools' extended closure.

"Our students are suffering, and we should be talking about getting them in classrooms, getting them mental health support, and getting them the resources they need in this challenging time," said Mayor London Breed in a statement on Wednesday. "Our families are frustrated about a lack of a plan, and they are especially frustrated with the fact that the discussion of these plans weren’t even on the agenda for last night’s School Board meeting."

Tuesday's meeting did include an agenda item related to the possibility of reopening in-person instruction for middle and high school students. Discussion of that item came nearly eight hours into the meeting, sparking fury from participants who took it as a sign of misplaced priorities by the board.

"We are continuing to work to improve the experience of students in distance learning while also actively preparing for a safe return to in-person learning," said Laura Dudnick, a spokesperson for SFUSD, in a statement.

That includes a 3-hour staff training about health protocols, continuing labor negotiations, and preparing facilities for the return of students in the district's Phase 2A, which includes the youngest students and those with disabilities.

In an email to parents this week, SFUSD said it is "unlikely" that most middle and high school students will be offered in-person instruction for the remainder of the school year.


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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