Johanna Thorpe, a fourth-grade teacher at Cold Spring Elementary School, is surrounded by empty desks in her classroom at the campus in March 2020.
Johanna Thorpe, a fourth-grade teacher at Cold Spring Elementary School, is surrounded by empty desks in her classroom at the campus in March 2020. (Noozhawk file photo)

Learning loss and social-emotional issues in students were found to be some of the main impacts of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report from the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury.

On Monday, the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury shared the results of its investigation on how the yearlong shutdown and remote learning affected students in kindergarten through eighth grade in public schools throughout the county.

“The Jury has found that all districts, in concert with guidance from the Santa Barbara County Education Office, did a noteworthy job to make remote learning as effective as possible,” the Jury said in its report. “Overall, however, remote learning, specifically in math and English language arts (ELA), was not as effective as in-person instruction and resulted in learning deficits for many students.”

The jury noted that the students who were affected the most academically were those who were already underperforming before the pandemic, leading to the widening of the learning gap among students.

“A medium-sized district indicated losses across its schools with a 7% drop in ELA and an 11% drop in math performance from 2019-20 to 2020-21,” the jury said. “In one of the larger districts, compared to the 2019-20 school year, each grade in grades 2-6 shows an overall decrease of 4% to 8% in reading and a 10% to 20% decrease in math performance.”

It was also found that students in school districts that obtained waivers to start in-person school earlier showed better academic performance.

The lack of in-person interaction with teachers and other students was seen to cause social-emotional issues such as students feeling disconnected or feeling uncomfortable with teletherapy or counseling appointments through Zoom.

“A more serious effect is that, in some instances, children were subject to a home situation where family members, also feeling the effects of the pandemic, exhibited unhealthy behaviors,” the jury’s report stated. “When in the classroom, teachers are the first line of defense and are able to spot and report problems. Without personal interaction, some children experienced issues that went untreated.”

According to the report, some ways school districts have tried to address the social-emotional effects include hiring more counselors, psychiatrists, social workers and outreach workers, adding emotional health training, and partnering with local community agencies such as Child Abuse Listening MediationFamily Service Agency and People Helping People.

“An immediate focus for all districts at the start of this school year will be on the emotional status of students,” the report read, adding that programs addressing these issues should continue through the upcoming school years.

In regard to learning loss, the jury outlined several recommendations for school districts such as reducing class sizes, providing individual and small-group instruction for students with the greatest losses, increasing teacher training programs and providing instructional coaches for teachers, as well as providing parent education and outreach programs.

“Students experienced significant losses in opportunities to learn during the pandemic and will require concentrated efforts to counter those losses,” the Santa Barbara County Education Office said in response to the report.

The grand jury also emphasized the need for a standard countywide assessment for the end of the 2021-22 school year to measure yearly performance, which the County Education Office said will be resuming this school year with the Smarter Balanced Assessment in English language arts and math in grades three through eight and grade 11.

The County Education Office said that school districts were given flexibility on which summative assessment to administer during the 2020-21 school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury requested responses from each public school district in the county, which can be found on the Grand Jury’s website.

School districts and entities that have already sent responses and have been uploaded include the Hope School District, the Montecito Union School District, the Carpinteria Unified School District, the Lompoc Unified School District, the Cold Spring School District and the Santa Barbara County Education Office. The Grand Jury listed 18 local school districts in its request for response.

“We appreciate the Grand Jury’s focus on Santa Barbara County’s 70,000 students’ health, safety, well-being, learning and growth,” Superintendent of Schools Susan Salcido said in the County Education Office’s response. “Santa Barbara County schools are fully committed to supporting all students, and continue to partner with school districts, local agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide support to families and school communities.”

Noozhawk staff writer Serena Guentz can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.