Local school district leaders, acknowledging that students’ learning losses because of the pandemic were “profound,” are launching academic and social recovery programs with the goal of returning to 2019 achievement levels.

The Fulton County School System has launched a three-year recovery program called the Bridge to Success to help “students recover from learning loss resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.” Its priorities include, according to the school system’s website (fultonschools.org), ensuring a safe environment for face-to-face instruction, implementing tools to recover from learning disruption and expanding program options for students, staff and parents.

A message from Marvin Dereef, the school system’s chief financial officer, posted on the school’s website, said the system’s students have “faced unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Fortunately, the federal government has made funds available to help mitigate the learning loss and potential achievement gaps during this time period,” Dereef said.

The school system is using these funds to develop the Bridge to Success program, which will include allowing students extended time for learning, small group instruction, and leadership development for principals and district officials focused on coaching and developing competencies.

DeKalb County is also implementing programs on several levels for the next two years with the goal of returning its achievement levels to pre-pandemic levels.

DeKalb County School System’s Chief Academic Officer Stacy Stepney said its 94,000 students saw “academic, social and emotional struggles” during the pandemic, which forced remote learning or modified instruction for much of the past two years.

“We have realized that what has come out of this pandemic is a different type of learner, and that we have to meet students where they are,” Stepney said. “We also realize that our teachers have to be more innovative in their instruction.”

To that end, Stepney said the school system has made an “intentional effort” to train principals and teachers in a program called LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) that implements phonological awareness, phonetics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, writing and language to master the fundamentals of reading instruction.

Most of the system’s principals and leaders completed the course over the summer, and now the training is moving into the classroom, where teachers are being instructed on the system.

In addition, the system is implementing or expanding social and emotional learning programs, as well as engaging families to assist with identifying and addressing social, academic or emotional issues that have resulted because of the pandemic.

“We need our partners – our families – to help us in this recovery,” Stepney said.

Statistics released by the state education system, while painting a somewhat grim picture of learning loss, do show, in the most recent report, a rebound in achievement levels on most fronts.

The Georgia Milestones State Results for 2021-2022, published by the Georgia Department of Education, shows a dip across the state in most reporting categories on the lower, middle and high school levels from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021, and a slight rebound in the latest school year.

For example, the number of fifth graders reported to be “on grade level or above” in reading status stood at 73% in the 2019-20 school year, fell to 68% in 2020-21 and rebounded to 70% in the 2021-22 report. Similar trends in middle and high school were reflected in the report.

Source: Georgia Department of Education.

School officials across the systems caution that using the 2020-21 numbers can be misleading as some testing parameters were made optional rather than mandatory.

One element that can’t be measured, according to Stepney, is the morale boost that has come with the return of in-person learning.

Stepney said she felt a “new energy” as she walked the halls in various schools during the first week of school.

“I think I smiled all day, just seeing the students and the teachers so excited to see each other and to see their friends,” she said. “The feeling of relief by the students – that they could be children again – was very evident.”

Cathy Cobbs covers Dunwoody for Reporter Newspapers and Rough Draft Atlanta. She can be reached at cathy@roughdraftatlanta.com