LEWISTON — Christal Smith’s two oldest kids have always struggled in school. When COVID-19 shut down in-person classes at their Lewiston elementary school last spring, their learning all but stopped.
“There was no organization. There was no schedule. There were no plans,” said Smith, 31. “There was just once a week on Zoom to meet with teachers.”
Smith, a medical marijuana caregiver, and her husband, a handyman who works odd jobs, had been just getting by before COVID-19. Work dried up once the pandemic started, decimating the income they did have. They planted a garden for some food and relied on free meals from Good Shepherd Food Bank and the school — they had little money for basics, let alone tutors or a private pod teacher like some parents in Maine were hiring.
The school, she said, offered little help. She felt like she was homeschooling all four children all on her own.
“I had to pretty much get a hold of all their teachers and beg for access to (online) programs,” said Smith, whose kids range in age from 6 to 13.
“Really, in the spring I don’t have too much good to say (about school), because it was very, very challenging,” Smith added with a heavy sigh. “It was really challenging.”
All of her kids have taken the Lewiston School System’s option to learn remotely full time — Smith particularly thought her oldest two, who have learning difficulties from lead poisoning as toddlers, would not do well constantly flipping from two in-person days to three remote days each week as Lewiston planned. This year, at least, they have real schedules with real classes online, and Smith likes the programs being offered. But she will have to shepherd her kids through multiple classes a day by herself, the family crowded around their dining room table with computers provided by the school system.
“I’m the only one that’s going to be helping all four kids,” Smith said. “They’re going to be asking me questions and asking to help them with stuff all at the same time.”
Does she feel up to that?
“Not exactly,” she said. “But my children need an education.”
Maine school systems with high poverty rates have long wrestled with student achievement. Some, like Lewiston, have struggled for generations. Poor communities can’t afford to equip their schools, develop programs or keep the best teachers as easily as more affluent communities can. Low-income families more often deal with hunger, the dangers of lead paint, frequent moves, homelessness, trauma and other challenges that make learning difficult. Kids who can’t afford even basic activities more easily fall behind their peers who can.
“There are so many compounding effects to poverty and limited opportunity,” said Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais. “It definitely spills into the classroom in so many ways.”
That was before COVID-19. As the pandemic continues, students — especially those in poorer school systems — are having an even tougher time.
Shortened school days. An emphasis on learning from home even though Mom and Dad may not be able to teach. No computers for some students, no internet access for others. Constant stress on teachers, parents, kids.
The Sun Journal, in partnership with the Investigative Editing Corps, analyzed recent state test scores to identify Maine schools in the region whose students performed worse than expected, even when factoring in poverty.
The goal: Look at those school systems, how they fared last year and what the future looks like for them as the pandemic continues. If they couldn’t move students forward before, how are they going to do it now?
We found computer shortages and no broadband, typical disadvantages caused by poverty made worse, fears that lost learning will have long-term impacts. But we also found schools working to overcome challenges with ingenuity and imagination to make sure their students are educated.
When talking about the new school year, educators repeatedly offered the same analogy: “It’s like trying to build a plane while flying it.”
The Sun Journal analyzed 2018-2019 state math and English test scores for more than 500 Maine schools, as well as the science test scores for nearly 300 schools. The findings showed how each student body should have performed given their percent of economically disadvantaged students.
At Marcia Buker School in Richmond, for example, 41% of students should have met or exceeded state expectations — also known as performing at the highest level — on the state’s math test. Instead, 17% did.
At McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston, 46% of kids should have met or exceeded expectations on the state’s English language arts test. Instead, 19% did. A few miles away, Lewiston’s Longley Elementary School, now closed and merged into the new Connors Elementary School, should have seen 35% of its students do well on the English test; 13% did.
For Lewiston, where nearly a third of the city’s kids live in poverty, according to the latest census figures, schools have battled both poverty and low student achievement for generations — even though some incorrectly believe that those issues arose only after Somali and other African immigrant families began moving in 20 years ago, according to Lewiston’s superintendent.
“I would challenge that perception a great deal because we have a lot of kids who may have come to the United States with refugee-status families, but they’ve also been here 10, 15, 20 years. I think there’s a perception out there that if a student has anything to do with being a refugee then they’re also poor. That is not always the case,” Langlais said. “I know that as (Lewiston High School) principal, one of the biggest challenges I faced was around generational poverty.”
Experts say poor students — particularly those whose parents also were raised in poverty — don’t do as well in school or on standardized tests for a host of reasons: student aspirations are lower, parents may not be well educated or may work long hours and are unable to help with homework, families can’t afford enrichment activities or tutors, kids are focused on getting their basic needs met rather than learning. Researchers have found that low-income children enter kindergarten already behind their peers and low-income teenagers are less likely to graduate from high school.
“What we know is that students in poverty have more challenges. It’s not like they have less ability to learn; they have more obstacles in their way,” said Amy Johnson, co-director Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine.
In 2014, the institute examined the relationship between poverty and school achievement in Maine. That study found that 42% of the state’s students were considered “economically disadvantaged,” and as a school’s poverty rate goes up, student performance goes down.
It also found that students who weren’t poor still performed poorly when they went to schools with high poverty rates and low achievement.
The Sun Journal’s analysis of recent data found a similar pattern. In high school math, for example, for every 10 percentage-point increase in economically disadvantaged students, the percentage of students who performed at the highest level on state tests dropped by 6 points.
But while poverty can hurt learning, “it’s not an insurmountable barrier,” said Johnson, one of the authors of the 2014 study.
Other factors can help, the study found, including how well-educated teachers are and the size and type of school — K-8 schools did better than dedicated middle schools. Johnson said the school’s culture, student support systems and tone set by leadership can also help.
“A lot of it are of things that don’t cost money. They just require a lot of ongoing work,” she said.
Maine school systems have worked for years to try to lessen the impact of poverty on learning. Many, like Lewiston, offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, and sometimes send food home so no one goes hungry. Some run after-school programs and summer school with special field trips and enrichment activities. Some have on-site medical staff and social workers.
Still, even then, a fraction of the kids who should have been doing well on state tests actually were.
And then COVID-19 sent education into a tailspin.
No one yet knows how much learning kids lost when Maine schools suddenly shut down last spring. Some schools tried to keep moving students forward, teaching new material through Zoom classes and remote assignments. Others placed more emphasis on students’ social and emotional well-being rather than academics and focused on the knowledge and skills students already had so they didn’t slide backward. But many people, both educators and parents, feel students lost ground no matter which path their school chose.
Research by McKinsey & Co., a New York-based management consulting firm that advises governments and various organizations, found the amount of learning lost nationwide last spring likely varied depending on students’ ability to access remote learning, the quality of that instruction, the kind of support they had at home and how engaged students were. Many of those things wouldn’t be a problem for more affluent students.
“Lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment, such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet, and parental academic supervision,” researchers wrote.
The McKinsey researchers studied three statistical models for this school year: full in-person classes, part-time in-person classes with intermittent school closures, and full-time remote learning. The research showed the second scenario with part-time in-person classes — the avenue many Maine schools have chosen — could result in students losing nearly seven months of learning. Low income students could lose more than 12 months.
That could affect an entire generation of children for the rest of their lives.
“The damage to individuals is consequential, but the consequences could go deeper: the United States as a whole could suffer measurable harm,” researchers wrote. “With lower levels of learning and higher numbers of drop-outs, students affected by COVID-19 will probably be less skilled and therefore less productive than students from generations that did not experience a similar gap in learning.”
Mindful of the potential impact, particularly for poor students, Maine school systems are working on ways to get kids on track and keep them there, even as they plan for everyone’s worst-case scenario: Closing school doors again.
SOLUTIONS COME WITH PROBLEMS
Poor students are less likely to have their own computers at home, so Maine schools are furnishing laptops or tablets to everyone. Poor students also are less likely to have high-speed internet access, or sometimes any internet access at all, so many schools are providing Wi-Fi hot spots to those who need them. They’re less likely to have enough to eat, so schools are providing free breakfast and lunch, even for kids who go to school remotely. They’re less likely to have support at home, so schools are holding in-person classes as much as possible.
But each solution comes with its own problems.
A nationwide computer shortage has been exacerbated by U.S. sanctions on Chinese suppliers. Lewiston schools ordered 1,600 Chromebooks and more than 1,000 iPads months ago, but not one had been delivered by the start of school.
“There’s a package with our name on it sitting on a ship in China,” Langlais said shortly before school started. “As far as we know, they’re on their way. . . what I don’t know is when they’ll get here.”
The school system has given middle and high school students their own computers for years, but it’s never needed machines for each elementary student. The shortage sent school leaders scrambling to pull together whatever they could. It still wasn’t enough.
“In most schools I think we have enough to do about half of the school,” Langlais said. “So we’re trying to prioritize.”
Lewiston did eventually get 1,100 iPads — two weeks after school started — but the devices still need to be configured for students, so they haven’t yet been handed out. The school system also received hundreds of MacBooks after school started. Lewiston continues to wait for its 1,600 Chromebooks.
The state supplied machines to schools that needed them last spring. Some schools didn’t need them then but now do. At Andover, for example, the school’s 20 families all said last March they had devices at home for their kids to use. But as the pandemic wore on, parents needed that laptop or family tablet for their own work.
“I surveyed parents and they said they had access, which they did, but it got more complicated as time went by rather than easier,” Andover Superintendent Susan Pratt said.
The school is now waiting for the iPads it ordered. It has no idea when they will be delivered.
Wi-Fi hot spots are helpful, but they rely on cell signals, which in rural Maine can range from spotty to non-existent. What students really need, educators say, is reliable high-speed internet using broadband. Voters this summer passed a $15 million bond to help bring broadband to areas in need, and it could help the state leverage up to $30 million more in grants, but the bond money likely won’t be dispersed until early next year and it will take even more time to get projects going. It won’t help the families who need it now, so some school systems, including the Dixfield area’s RSU 56, are directing parents to school parking lots with strong Wi-Fi signals.
“We’re trying to get people to where they can at least connect if they don’t have it at home,” said Pam Doyen, RSU 56 superintendent and principal of its Dirigo High School. “But it’s a challenge because the foothills in western Maine, some of those places, just because of the hills, don’t have real good tower connectivity.”
That parking lot Wi-Fi was especially needed recently. RSU 56 closed its schools and moved everyone to online instruction for the last two weeks in September after two people associated with the school system tested positive for COVID-19. The school system is now holding classes in person only part time.
Then there are meals. The federal government pays for the food given out as part of the free school breakfast and lunch program, but Maine schools have to pay for all the extras needed in the pandemic era — special preparation and delivery, disposable bags and flatware, individual packets of condiments — and for some it could cost $100,000 this school year.
And there’s the challenge of in-person classes. Small schools, like the 34-student Andover Elementary, have been able to return in person full time, but other schools needed to stagger students during the week because they didn’t have enough space to maintain the state’s social distance requirements of 3 to 6 feet. They’re typically holding classes in person two days a week. But even those school days are shortened so kids don’t have to wear masks so long, so teachers can offer office hours to students learning remotely that day, so school systems can accommodate extra bus runs.
Individual schools and school systems have their own problems, too.
Andover Elementary is a tiny, rural K-5 school. It has the space to hold classes in person full time, but it needs better air circulation to help protect students and staff against the virus. It got federal money to install air handlers. However, contractors are too busy to go to the little Oxford County school system and do the job.
“That’s the kind of thing where the more rural you are, the harder it is to get them to come here,” said Susan Pratt, superintendent and school principal. “I’m working on it as fast as I can, but we have a short time to expend those funds. We have to expend them by Dec. 31.”
For now, the school is using fans.
Stratton School draws over 80 students in pre-K through grade 8 from a variety of small Franklin County towns and unorganized territories in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain. So many families there live on the edge of poverty that the percentage of kids who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch dropped in half after Maine’s minimum wage increased by $1 an hour — with about $40 more in parents’ pockets every week, they were no longer considered “economically disadvantaged.” Medical care, even during a pandemic, is difficult to reach, with the closest hospital 42 miles away and the closest health center 16 miles away. School staff members spent the summer coming up with school-year plans and contingency plans, crafting a slew of new safety policies and shifting everything around in the school to create more class space.
Teachers and families are stressed.
To help, the school bumped its half-time nurse to full time. Its full-time social worker is helping teachers and students to manage stress. Assistant superintendent and principal Barry London has already warned his school board that they all may need a break.
“I’ve told them, if we get around Thanksgiving and this thing is a firestorm, we may take an extra day off from school,” he said.
Experts say no school has yet set the gold standard for education during the pandemic, not in Maine and not nationally. The state’s spring shut-down happened so quickly that schools only had time to react, not plan. They had more time to prepare for this new school year, but no one knows what’s going to work until it does — or doesn’t.
“This is uncharted waters for everyone,” London said. “All we can do is communicate well and make decisions based on the (student assessment) data we collect.”
For those area school systems whose students performed poorly even pre-pandemic, the new school year has meant getting creative.
While other districts were still reeling from spring and mired in plans for fall, RSU 56 held summer school — in person, in small groups, with masks and personal protective equipment. It also has hired an out-of-state consultant to help teachers improve their online teaching and better engage students.
When Andover realized last spring that its young students needed flexibility — the family’s only laptop might not be free until Mom finished work — teachers began holding small online classes in the evening. Think reading groups for a handful of kids. It worked well enough that Andover plans to do it again this year.
RSU 2, which includes Richmond’s Marcia Buker School, plans to hire a parent advocacy coordinator so families have a liaison who can nudge the school when they have a problem with online learning or something else.
Stratton built and furnished seven outdoor classrooms, complete with a whiteboard secured to the side of a storage building. It’s looking into offering golf — socially distanced — in lieu of its usual sports. With staff members who also happen to be Maine Guides, Stratton may offer some after-school activities on the water.
“Coming back to trials and tribulations, there’s also some silver linings that will come out of all this,” London said. “We’ve been able to be efficient and coordinate our lunch programs because of this. We’ve created outdoor classrooms that we’ve always wanted to do but you get busy in your squirrel cage and all of the sudden it’s gone. We’re fortunate that I wrote a grant a few years ago for canoes, paddles and life jackets, so phys ed is on the lake.”
While there is no current gold standard, Maine schools — particularly those involved in the Western Maine Education Collaborative — are sharing ideas.
“In some sense, I think, people are all seeing this as an opportunity to maybe change some things for the better in the long term,” said Johnson at the institute. “There are some things we’re learning in this experiment about better ways to engage students, better systems for tracking and monitoring students at risk.”
But it’s not easy to do right now, even if now is when those ideas are needed most.
“It’s hard because everybody’s drinking through that fire hose about ‘What are we going to do today?’” Johnson said. “Hopefully some of these things will outlive the pandemic. . . . But right now, everybody’s just so busy trying to get through the day that we’re not able to sort of stop and reflect.”
So can this region’s high-poverty, low-achievement schools move their students forward this year, despite the challenges they face?
Experts say we’ll see. Parents aren’t sure.
School leaders say yes. But it won’t be easy.
Even at Strong Elementary School, where students performed much better than expected on the state math test — 31% were predicted to perform well; 56% actually did — the principal foresees some struggles.
“Some children we may have to back up a whole grade level,” Brenda Dwiggins said. “They’ve been out of school six months when you really think about it, even though we provided educational resources and lessons.”
Most school leaders acknowledge that some, if not the majority, of their students will have fallen behind — spring was chaotic and summer typically causes a learning slide, pandemic or no, particularly for kids whose parents can’t afford summer extras like robotics camp and music lessons. But they planned to assess students from the moment they return, build on what kids know and fill in the gaps for what they don’t, whether that’s done in a classroom, through a computer screen or using assignments sent home in an old-fashioned packet.
If they could wave a magic wand and get anything, school leaders offered varied wish lists: reliable high-speed internet access across the state, laptops for everyone, more resources to get kids in poverty the experiences their richer counterparts take for granted, someone to come fix the air circulation.
And for the threat of COVID-19 to disappear.
Watching the new school year unfold before them, some parents aren’t sure what to think yet. They’re hopeful, but also concerned after a chaotic spring.
Six of Hilowle Aden’s seven children attend Lewiston schools. He absolutely believes they’ll be able to learn this school year — when they’re physically in school. But worries that two days a week will not be enough.
“When kids are home, they don’t make any progress,” Aden said. “But when they are in school, I know, I believe, they will make progress. When the kids are learning something face-to-face with a teacher, then they know when they have a question they can ask in that moment.”
He would like in-person classes four days a week.
“If not five days,” he said.
Smith, the Lewiston mother of four, has chosen the opposite for her kids. They will learn entirely remotely because she feels the back and forth between school classes and home classes will be too disruptive.
She believes her two oldest fell behind last spring while her youngest two stayed pretty steady. As the new school year begins, Smith is confident — cautiously confident — that her kids will get a better education this year. That’s despite a couple of significant problems that popped up before classes even began: She was mistakenly told that remote students won’t get access to free breakfast and lunch. And her 13-year-old, who reads on a first-grade level, requires special education services and had her own aide in elementary school, was somehow placed in mainstream classes for middle school.
“They said there will be a meeting scheduled soon, but we don’t know when yet,” Smith said just a couple of days before school started. “Like I said, I was livid. It’s definitely ridiculous.”
Smith has just two hopes this new school year: That her kids will learn. And COVID-19 will go away.
“Hopefully this will all be over soon and things will go back to normal. But I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon,” she said. “Probably definitely not this year.”
This project was produced with the support of Investigative Editing Corps, https://www.investigativeediting.org/, with contributions from American University student Thomas Furlong and Matthew Thibault.