The COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools in early spring, costing students weeks of academic time.

Not surprisingly, schools measuring academic performance have seen marked declines in some reading and math skills, three school superintendents told state lawmakers Tuesday.

Members of the Interim Committee on Education heard from school superintendents from McCracken County, Whitley County and Covington during a Tuesday hearing. School officials were asked to share what strategies had gone well for their districts during the pandemic and where they had concerns.

The March shutdowns had a marked impact on student math and reading proficiency for McCracken County elementary, middle and high school students. McCracken Superintendent Steve Carter said math reading proficiency across all grade levels declined this fall, compared to proficiency tests students were given in the fall of 2019. Reading levels also declined for elementary and middle school students.

“We had a proficiency rate of 77% in second grade” math scores in the fall of 2019, Carter said. “This fall, we are at 43%.”

Carter said: “What has been tough is trying to catch students up … We lost nine weeks of instruction in the spring.”

The school district is on a hybrid schedule where one group of students goes part of the week and the second group goes the second half, with one day entirely virtual for all students. While there have been some positive COVID-19 cases in the schools, no cases have been traced to student-to-student contact at school, Carter said.

When asked about increased costs to the schools by the pandemic, he said the district spends more on cleaning and he was unsure how that would impact the district’s budget because officials are unsure how much of their COVID expenses will be reimbursed.

Alvin Garrison, superintendent in the Covington school district, said the district also has a hybrid schedule and a virtual academy.

The district wants to expand in-school learning for kindergarten through third-grade students, Garrison said, but “it’s a tough sell,” given the number of positive COVID-19 cases.

To accommodate for virtual learning, the school district rented hundreds of computers for students while it waits for shipments of new computers officials have purchased to arrive, Garrison said. There is a plan to provide wi-fi to all of the district’s students, but the soonest that will be ready is December.

Some of the students known to have fallen behind come to schools on Wednesdays, the district’s planning day, for targeted instruction, Garrison said. A problem going forward will be finding teachers to cover classes for instructors in quarantine: As of Wednesday, the district had 17 teachers and 61 students in quarantine, although not necessarily with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, he said.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we face is impatience from our stakeholders,” Garrison said. “People want to return to yesterday, and right now, that’s not possible.”

When asked what caused academic declines, Garrison said access to broadband internet plays a role. But he said students not being in schools with instructors is a major factor.

“I think you can’t replace the teachers,” he said. “... I don’t think a computer can replace a teacher.”

John Siler, superintendent of Whitley County Schools, said the district has not yet resumed in-person instruction for most students because of spikes in COVID-19 cases. The hope is to start in-school instruction in the near future.

For now, the district is entirely virtual. Academically, “we are seeing a significant gap in math at our elementary levels,” Siler said.

The district has provided computers to students and set up 90 wi-fi hotspots across the county, Siler said. Meal service for all three school districts continued after schools closed in March. Last month, the Whitley district proved “over 43,000 meals” to students, he said.

Opinions on returning to school are “at both ends of the spectrum” among parents, Siler said. A challenge when schools reopen will be finding substitute teachers.

“We have seen a drop in the number of substitutes,” Siler said. Many substitutes are retired teachers.

“Several of our retired employees have asked to be removed from the sub list,” Siler said. The lack of substitutes could determine if a school can be open on days when the regular staff cannot come to school, he said.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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