The COVID slide: La Jolla math tutoring owner warns of the impact of staying away from classrooms for so long

An illustration of the COVID slide in math from the Northwest Evaluation Association.

As schools, students and families navigate the new world of distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic, some experts are urging awareness of the impact of children not being in the classroom for half a year.

“It’s similar to the summer slide,” said Karen Lossing, owner and director of four Mathnasium locations, including one in La Jolla. Mathnasium helps students through high school with math through tutoring and other support.

The summer slide is a term that “shows the slippage kids experience over the summer,” Lossing said. “Things are forgotten, and teachers invest the first part of the school year in catching everybody up.”

The COVID slide, then, includes not just the summer but also the months since schools shut their campuses in March, and Lossing expects the weeks of no learning, along with the weeks of distance learning and its limitations, will have a serious effect on student achievement.

“Distance learning is a wonderful short-term solution,” she said, noting that teachers have come up with creative ways to engage their students. “The important thing now is that families focus on being calm, reducing stress and anxiety.”

However, she worries about the long-term implications of distance learning.

“Fall will come back,” she said, “and next year’s teacher will have to worry about next year’s curriculum. He or she can’t backtrack to cover the previous three months and still accomplish next year’s stuff. The timeline just won’t work out.”

The San Diego Unified School District told the Light in a statement April 24 that “we may need summer school to make up any loss of learning, despite our best attempts to reach all students. However, San Diego Unified is fully prepared to make this school year count for all students. ... On Monday, we will welcome all students to formal, graded distance learning. We have distributed more than 47,000 laptops to students and offered professional development for teachers to make sure everyone is ready for instruction on Monday.”

School officially resumes Monday with distance learning and graded instruction. Cox provides thousands with free Internet.

April 24, 2020

Lossing, a former elementary school teacher, administrator and curriculum developer, believes the slide effects will be most apparent in math, which is “very use it or lose it and vocabulary-heavy. Using that vocabulary in a classroom is vital for understanding things. Math is very procedural, it’s rule-heavy and if you don’t practice those things, you forget.”

“Reading can be done independently and always encouraged,” Lossing added. “The other subjects, like science and history, are typically taught through reading. Even watching documentaries aid in learning other subjects, as one can decode special vocabulary and infer ideas while watching. But math is always based in how well you knew the math before it.”

Additionally, much has changed in math teaching, starting with Common Core, which several years ago overhauled and standardized methods nationwide. “Strategies have evolved, and parents are often unable to help teach math as the teacher does,” Lossing said.

Lossing warned that with a large COVID slide, “kids could lose a semester to full year of math learning,” given that the time between schools closing and the new school year beginning is about six months.

“We look at kids through three lenses: kids who want to catch up, those who want to keep up and kids who want to get ahead,” Lossing said. “This will mostly impact kids in the first two groups and will hit different grades in different ways. But those who are behind will become even more behind. It becomes a mounting snowball.”

For those who are keeping up, the COVID slide will push them to learn much on their own without a lot of support.

“They’re not able to ask questions or have someone slow it down for them,” Lossing said. “When everything is shut down, you’re more on their own. Kids can mostly reason through things, but they’ll lose a lot of their efficiency and exhaust themselves trying to reason through the tasks.”

Mathnasium operations director Libby Lossing, Karen’s daughter, said another facet of the COVID slide isn’t academic.

“There’s a whole social aspect to not being at school; students will have to reintegrate into school society. It’ll distract a lot of kids from being successful as they rediscover friend groups, reengage in their sports and interests. All of their normal exploration has been cut from their lives.

“If we can help them feel academically prepared, it’ll be one less thing on their plate when they do go back.”

Keeping up current math skills while distance learning at home is important, according to Mathnasium director Karen Lossing.

To combat the COVID slide, Karen Lossing suggests a gentle focus on making sure students don’t lose what they’ve learned. “Don’t worry about teaching your kids new stuff. Try to get better at what’s already familiar to them,” she said.

Libby Lossing added that “education is one of the things now that we can still control. Learning can still happen, even if it’s just holding the line.”