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Masked children as Gov. Jared Polis visits a second grade class in Aurora. (Cherry Creek School District handout)

In the same way that many teachers and students had to quarantine this fall following possible exposure to COVID-19, so did books in Colorado school libraries.

At Stevens Elementary School in Wheat Ridge, teachers would temporarily set aside a book after a student paged through it, said first grade teacher Emily Cowles.


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Cowles hid her classroom library behind paper as schools statewide banished materials shared among kids. Books were out of sight and out of reach of young learners who, in a typical year, could browse her collection any time they wanted. 

Keeping books out of students’ hands is anathema to teachers. But this year, schools have had to be extra cautious with how their students handle resources and supplies. That has meant Cowles has had fewer books to loan to her first graders, many of whom are showing slower growth with their literacy skills than students would during a regular school year. Students are reading less about what they might be interested in and more about text that is mandated by curriculum.

The lag doesn’t bode well for one of the primary goals of first grade: ensuring that students can read fluently. Without that skill in place, kids’ academic challenges mount in subsequent years.

“That will just knock down their self-confidence and make school a lot less fun for them if they’re just struggling to catch up,” Cowles said.

Masked children as Gov. Jared Polis visits a second grade class in Aurora. (Cherry Creek School District handout)

It’s a concern that ripples across Colorado school districts as the pandemic has disrupted learning since mid-March. In a needs assessment conducted by the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative in October, K-3 reading loss was identified as a top priority among more than half of the districts that responded.

Online and hybrid instruction is particularly challenging for younger students, said Landon Mascareñaz, vice president of community partnerships at CEI, which aims to improve Colorado’s public education system and create greater equity. In the early years of education, intensive and appropriately targeted reading instruction are foundational to students’ ability to learn, he said.

“And so when you see those factors intersecting,” Mascareñaz said, “you know that that has the potential for a long-term disruptive effect for a generation of kids in Colorado.”

Educators feel the pressure to move students past their limping pace in literacy, before it interferes with their long-term success in classes — not only reading and language arts classes but also subjects like science and social studies.

If students remain behind in reading by the time they conclude third grade, they’ll be at a disadvantage in trying to master reading-intensive content in other subjects, said Chris Gdowski, superintendent of Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton. Educators widely regard third grade as a landmark year, when students shift from learning to read to reading to learn.

“If you’re not caught up, you’re going to be a step or two behind in terms of your speed and the breadth of what you’re soaking in and understanding as you move into more complicated content that’s reading- and literacy-dependent in older grades,” Gdowski said. 

The stakes are high. A significant number of kids who lack proficiency in literacy skills by third grade go on to drop out, Gdowski said. (A report commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and released in 2011 showed that students who aren’t on track with reading by third grade are four times more likely to exit high school without receiving a diploma than students who read proficiently.) Gdowski doesn’t diminish the importance of other school subjects, but holds reading up as the most critical content area, particularly for third graders.

An increasing number of Adams 12 students who are at risk — including those who qualify for free and reduced price lunch and those who are learning English — are struggling to stay on pace with reading, Gdowski said. That doesn’t surprise the district. Students with those backgrounds often face more hurdles to learning than their peers. But the superintendent also noted that all students generally are also falling behind in reading.

A year ago, about 22% of kindergarteners in Adams 12 were identified as having a significant reading deficiency. That number ticked up to close to 30% this fall, Gdowski said, citing data from the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, a tool educators use to better understand where kids are in their reading ability, keep tabs on their progress, target their lessons and identify kids who may struggle with reading

Additionally, the district has seen an increase in the number of students qualifying for reading plans in kindergarten, first, second and third grade — with kindergarten and third grade accounting for the most students who qualify for reading plans.

Cotopaxi School District Fremont RE-3, in south central Colorado, faced similar literacy gaps this fall with the majority of students falling behind in reading. Some subgroups of students, including the district’s population of students receiving free and reduced price lunch, experienced higher losses, Superintendent Danielle Van Esselstine said.

But students made significant strides since the start of the school year, Van Esselstine said, largely because the district has prioritized its focus on reading. Along with facilitating more teacher training around literacy, the district pairs interventionists with small groups to home in on specific reading skills. The small groups are arranged according to students’ skills and the areas they need to tend to most, the superintendent said. 

Additionally, Cotopaxi Schools has benefited from an early-literacy program supported by the South-Central Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The program has continued this year but has pivoted to conduct much of its work remotely, Van Esselstine said.

She also points to strong literacy as a means of building self-confidence among students. If kids struggling in other areas are able to make gains with their reading ability, Van Esselstine said, “they just blossom.”

Both masks and computer screens challenge the learning process

Platte Valley School District RE-7, in Kersey, had a similar experience this fall after seeing students slip and and then start to recover those academic losses — most of which occurred in kindergarten and first and second grade.

The district managed to continue in-person classes for most of the fall.

Administrators in the rural district aren’t alarmed about the dip in achievement. D’Lane Joens, director for student achievement, said it’s almost too early to be evaluating data.

“We aren’t panicking,” Joens said. “We have good teachers in place.”

Many of those teachers are veteran educators who are well versed in helping students who don’t perform well on an assessment and need extra support, Superintendent Glenn McClain said.

In trying to catch students up, teachers are taking the same steps they do every year, Joens said, as they differentiate their instruction to match different students’ needs, take the pulse of individual students’ gaps and monitor their kids’ scores and daily progress.

The district’s youngest learners have another 12 years to go before they cross the graduation stage, she said.

“If we’re doing things right,” Joens said, “they will catch up.”

Cowles, of Stevens Elementary School, shares that sense of hope. But that doesn’t mean the road ahead will be easy.

Regardless of whether students were in the classroom or learning from home this fall, learning how to read proved to be more difficult than usual. In school, masks over the faces of Cowles’ first graders prevented them from being able to fully comprehend letter sounds and understand how the mouth moves to make those sounds.

Relationship building, which is foundational to learning, also took a different form both in person and on computer screens. 

“It’s harder to build engagement, regardless of in-person (classes) or not, because those relationships look different,” Cowles said. “The way that you bond with your kids looks different.”

So much of what students rely on in the classroom is missing in a virtual setting, she said, including the friendly competitive spirit that drives students to excel, teachers’ palpable sense of enthusiasm and the ability to cater to different students’ reading levels.

Valerie Stumpf teaches third grade remotely from her classroom at Letford Elementary in Johnstown on Dec. 2, 2020. Stumpf said she prefers her classroom to teaching from home, mainly because her internet connection is slow. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

There’s a wide variety of reading abilities in first grade, even in a typical year, Cowles said. This fall, she struggled to reach those students on the lower end of the spectrum. 

While in person, her class plays reading games that make literacy more fun and engaging, she said, “online, that’s a little bit more challenging.”

But kids are sponges with the kind of resilience that will get them on a trajectory of growth again, the teacher said, particularly as families and entire communities come together to get resources into the hands of kids and do their part to assist in the learning process.

Cowles is concerned about her students’ grasp of literacy, but for the moment, the higher priority centers on their well-being.

“We’re just really focusing on them as people before we focus on them as learners,” she said, “which I think is really necessary right now.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...