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Children can't learn to read online, say SC educators who fear losing generation of students

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Denise Hilton records a video of herself reading a chapter from "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" for her second grade students from her empty classroom at Mason Preparatory School in Charleston on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

COLUMBIA — With about one-third of face-to-face instruction gone this school year, South Carolina educators are particularly worried about children just learning to read.  

Fearing South Carolina could lose an entire generation of students, they recommend intensive, in-person teaching, starting as soon as July. But safety concerns amid the ongoing pandemic and questions over funding complicate decisions over when and how. 

Even in school districts with the technology to move lessons completely online, teaching a child remotely how to read and comprehend words on a page — or screen — is impractical. Sending home paperwork, the only option for many districts, and hoping they pick it up may be downright futile, teachers told The Post and Courier on Friday.     

"I’m having a really difficult time with virtual reading instruction for young children," said Latoya Dixon, director of elementary programs for York schools. "Even if children have access to broadband and to devices, it still requires a supportive adult and level of expertise in teaching reading that’s very difficult to mirror virtually."

A child's IQ level is not the issue, she stressed.  

"We need to acknowledge there are some things that simply can’t be replicated virtually," Dixon, who formerly managed the state education agency's assistance to failing districts, told a task force advising state Superintendent Molly Spearman on how to get learning back on track. 

MaryRita Watson, a reading specialist for fourth and fifth graders still struggling to read, said online learning is doable — but still difficult — for her students; younger learners need face-to-face support.

"They need a model, someone who shows them how to make the sounds, who listens to them make the sounds and make corrections. They need to listen to fluent reading from a teacher," said the Dorchester 2 teacher of three decades. "It's very important to get those things."

Twelve of her 29 students didn't have any way to learn virtually when schools closed statewide March 16. She scrounged up enough laptops and iPads from generous community members so she could communicate online with each child, but internet access has still been an issue for some. About a third of her students are doing well. Two are completely disengaged, she said.

And that's in a district the state considers wealthy.

Of the state's 81 school districts, 19 are completely online and 45 are using a mix of virtual and paper instruction, depending on the home and community access to high-speed internet. But in 17 districts, teaching continues entirely through packets either picked up at the school or taken to students' homes, according to the state Education Department.

"You can't teach students to read with paper-and-pencil packets," Watson said.

In some homes, parents can't read well themselves. But the problem is broader than that, she said. 

"There are strategies teachers use parents don’t know about," she said. "It's not impossible but everybody’s not getting the same education at this point. It makes me sad."

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Spearman has recommended expanding summer reading camps — normally for students still struggling to read at the end of third grade — and tacking on six days of instruction just before the school year officially starts in August.  

According to her agency, providing six recovery days for all kindergartners through eighth graders would cost about $192 million.

It would cost an additional estimated $116 million to offer four-week programs — potentially in July — for students leaving kindergarten through third grade, but not reading on grade level. The half-day program would also include math help. That estimate is for up to 49,000 children. But educators on Spearman's panel have questioned how schools would decide who could attend when the vast majority will need some level of help. 

"It is very hard to teach a child to read when the teacher isn’t there," Spearman told a task force advising Gov. Henry McMaster on how to spend the federal aid. If the state fails to catch young students up, "we will be facing negative outcomes for that for many, many years."

The state Department of Education received $216 million through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The vast majority of that, or $195 million, is being distributed to school districts, which could opt to use their share for summer learning.

But they don't have to, and many will likely need or want to spend it elsewhere. Just keeping teachers on the payroll is one of many allowable uses for the money, which also include technology and sanitizing schools.

Funding for summer learning could also come from the $1.9 billion the CARES Act sent South Carolina to reimburse state and local governments for COVID-19-related expenses. But there will be a lot of competition for that money. And when it will be distributed is unclear. Legislators plan to return to Columbia next month to make those decisions.

In-person summer school may not be possible anyway. Spearman's group is also working on a Plan B, and potentially Plan C, for the school year's start, in case the virus is still raging in August. Possibilities include staggered hours or days for students and eating meals in the classroom, rather than the cafeteria. 

While some officials have considered virtual summer schools, teachers say that's just a waste of money.

"I will never believe putting them in front of a device can substitute that human interaction," said Julie Marshall, who teaches middle school English in Rock Hill, but her background includes teaching college students how to teach students to read. "It just will not."

She and Watson are among teachers who believe tacking on additional days to the beginning of the school year would also be pointless.

"It's a Band-aid. It can be one of those things that makes us feel good but I do not think it’s really going to be effective. Reading development takes place over time and has to be consistent," said Marshall, who's in her 29th year teaching. 

"It’s not a quick fix. This is not something that in three days or six days will fix what we’ve lost," she continued. "It has to be slow and steady and consistent and will require the work of everybody in that child’s life." 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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