Public school students lost learning steam during pandemic closures last fall, but are starting to get back on track, according to Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman.

Spearman told an online audience at Tuesday’s Columbia Chamber of Commerce issues forum learning loss was especially pronounced last fall for fourth and fifth-grade students in English and fourth through eighth-grade students in math. However, students in grades five through nine are now performing at pre-COVID levels in English, while kindergarten and ninth-grade students have caught up in math.

Not surprisingly, students back in school face-to-face are making larger learning gains than students in online environments, Spearman said. Department of Education statistics show the majority of schools — about 60% — are once again delivering instruction in person, while another 38% are still in a hybrid mode. Only a handful are virtual only.

There’s little evidence schools contribute to the spread of the virus, Spearman said.

“Our schools make up 20% of the population but account for just 3% of the positive cases,” she said.

Spearman said schools have received nearly $279 million in government funding to deal with challenges of the pandemic, and another $846 million is on the way this spring for facility repairs, air quality improvements and learning loss mitigation.

Teacher turnover has added to schools’ problems, “but not as much as I expected,” Spearman said. “Yes, teachers are tired. We’re all tired.”

The Department of Education will focus this year on student and educator safety and wellness, as well as recruiting and retaining teachers. Other legislative priorities Spearman mentioned include guaranteeing access to college and career-readiness opportunities, expanding early learning and literacy, and maximizing school district efficiency.

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