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Report: Pandemic caused "unprecedented disruption" to Virginia's classrooms

Fairfax County Public School buses sit idle at a middle school in Falls Church, Va., July 20, 2020.
J. Scott Applewhite
Fairfax County Public School buses sit idle at a middle school in Falls Church, Va., July 20, 2020.

There isn’t much disagreement with the assertion that the pandemic caused an unprecedented disruption for Virginia’s education system. A new reportfrom the General Assembly’s watchdog agency illustrates just how deeply the problems go.

Project leader Joe McMahon was blunt as he briefed lawmakers Monday morning. "As students returned to in-person learning, chronic absenteeism, classroom behavior and reported mental health issues have worsened. Multiple indicators of student achievement declined during the pandemic but some have started to rebound as students have returned to in-person learning. The teacher workforce is smaller, less qualified and less satisfied with their job."

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recommended a number of targeted, short-term fixes, including more school psychologists and instructional aides, especially in lower-performing school divisions. It also recommended a math intervention program for elementary students as well as teacher signing and retention bonuses. "The people we need to get the students out of this are having a really tough time," JLARC senior associate director Justin Brown said.

Analysts warned it’s likely to take three to five years to return student performance to pre-pandemic levels. Senator Mamie Locke said it was unfair to struggling students to overfocus on test performance, noting that existing achievement gaps between white and minority students were exacerbated by the pandemic. "There’s something else going on here and it happened prior to the pandemic," Locke said. "And we need to find out how we can do better as a state to fix the problem, rather than pointing fingers at people saying 'Oh look how horrible we are.'"

Virginia Education Secretary Aimee Guidera said the report showed a "crisis situation" and added a sense of urgency to getting kids back on track.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

David Seidel is Radio IQ's News Director.