students and teachers

Researchers Seek COVID-19 Learning Loss Solutions
North Carolina education initiative funded by American Rescue Plan grants

Author: Jessie Holmes

When Dr. Tanya Hudson went door-to-door interviewing families about the impacts of COVID-19, there was a clear consensus: students’ academic skills suffered because of extended online learning. This is often referred to as “learning loss,” and extends beyond North Carolina into every state that closed schools in 2020 to help stem the spread of the virus.

“It’s almost like they skipped the grade and were still expected to perform at that grade,” says Dr. Hudson, a chair at the College of Education at Fayetteville State University. “Then there were a lot of parents who had students who were successful overall, but their social and emotional skills had been drastically impacted by the pandemic.”

Bronco Expansion Funded by American Rescue Plan 

woman on computer
Dr. Tanya Hudson and her research team at Fayetteville State University created the Bronco Expansion afterschool program to help Walker-Spivey Elementary students whose learning was impacted by the pandemic.

That initial survey was in 2022. Now Dr. Hudson is using what her team learned to implement and study a new after-school tutoring program at Walker-Spivey Elementary in Fayetteville. It’s called the Bronco Expansion, named for FSU’s bronco mascot, and it’s one of 20 research studies selected for a joint-initiative by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and the North Carolina Collaboratory. The goal is to find solutions to an array of pandemic-related educational issues from learning loss to mental health.

“It’s really critical that we gather this data now,” says Dr. Jeni Corn, Director of Research and Evaluation at NCDPI. “And we're really grateful to the Collaboratory, and to the General Assembly for providing the funds and the flexibility for us to set the priorities.”

Funding comes from a $6.73 million grant from the state’s portion of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a federal relief package passed in 2021 to address COVID-19's effects. It will support projects like the Bronco Expansion for two years.

A key feature of the program is its holistic approach. FSU education majors will tutor first-through-fourth graders three days a week in reading and math, while collaborating with Walker-Spivey teachers on instruction. The program also utilizes clinical and social consultants, and it provides students with food from FSU’s food pantry. Dr. Hudson says it’s also an opportunity for students to simply spend more time interacting with other kids and positive role models.

“They missed out on socialization. They missed out on being able to learn what it is to nurture and be kind and to have relationships with people.”

For the academic component, students will be tested periodically to measure their progress and weigh the effectiveness of the Bronco Expansion’s approach. Those results will help shape the program, and help state policy makers decide whether it could benefit other schools.

High-Dosage Tutoring at Union County Public Schools 

teacher and students
The high-dosage tutoring model at Union County Public Schools is one of several possible interventions to address COVID-19 learning loss. Dr. Doug Lauen at UNC Chapel Hill is studying how other schools could implement the program successfully. 

But once you develop a successful intervention, how do you bring it to other schools? At UNC Chapel Hill, that’s the question Dr. Doug Lauen’s team is trying to answer. They’re using their $500,000 ARPA grant to help fund and study a “high-dosage” tutoring model at Union County Public Schools. The district has been doing the program since 2017. It involves daily, small group tutoring sessions and didn’t stop even during the pandemic, moving online when necessary.

“We know that this is a very effective intervention from other studies,” says Dr. Lauen. “What's less understood is how to implement it, how to find the tutors, how to train the tutors, how much it costs, whether it should be administered to all students or just the lower achieving students.”

As for what UCPS has already learned in its years-long implementation, Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan credits several “non-negotiables” to support the success of both the tutors and students. For example, tutors must pass a math proficiency test developed by the district, and they’re compensated at a higher rate than other district tutors. Students attend five days a week and can’t miss core instruction time.

“When our students reach their own goals and grow as a learner, that impacts their confidence, morale and overall school culture,” says Dr. Houlihan.

Investing in Long-Term Success

As an educator, he believes this kind of tutoring model is just one of the tools our state will need to address the full spectrum of how COVID-19 impacted student learning. That's why NCDPI and the NC Collaboratory are harnessing the power of the state’s top researchers across multiple disciplines, like Dr. Hudson and Dr. Lauen, to map out the next steps.

“Before these federal funds expire it is critical to evaluate how well these policies and programs have performed to ensure that decisions for future funding investments are evidence-based and will have maximum benefits for North Carolina's students and their families,” says Dr. Greer Arthur, Research Director at the NC Collaboratory.

She says APRA funding presents a unique opportunity for the state to not only address the immediate problems posed by COVID-19, but to invest in solutions for long-term success and if necessary, prepare our schools for future emergencies or disruptions.

Watch the interviews

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