When the pandemic overtook the nation more than two years ago and schools were shuttered, the Long Beach Unified School District moved quickly to get technology into the hands of students as learning shifted online. Teachers and administrators had to adapt fast, and students were relegated to the comfort—or discomfort—of their homes.

Throughout the pandemic, the concept of “learning loss” emerged: Students were not learning at the rate they previously were. But students were still learning the entire time, according to LBUSD Superintendent Jill Baker.

“They learned different things, some of which strengthened their sense of resilience and had positive impacts,” Baker said, noting the increased access and use of technology. “And a lot of students learned things that were not positive: They learned about difficulty and other aspects of violence they hadn’t witnessed before, and the stress of having families without jobs and living in a crowded space.

“It’s super complicated to talk about what students did learn beyond what is traditionally taught in school.”

By the time schools reopened, thousands of students had experienced important developmental milestones from behind a computer screen. Students who had not been in a classroom since fourth grade were now in middle school; seventh graders in high school.

Some students who had never physically been in a classroom were now in second grade.

“When we talk about social-emotional learning, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, it’s almost like that had been stopped in time,” Baker said.

The social structure of campuses also broke down, Baker said. Traditionally, fifth graders, eighth graders and high school seniors were the de facto experts of their respective schools—they knew the rules, the culture and the general climate of the campus. That was nonexistent when all students returned to the classroom in August of last year, Baker said.

“There was a lack of that kind of role modeling and readiness to support their peers or to show their peers what it was like,” Baker said. “Because they hadn’t done it either.”

Baker said the district did everything it could to plan for the return of students, many of whom were not progressing in their education as well as they would have if it had been uninterrupted by a global pandemic.

“But it wasn’t enough,” Baker said, adding this past school year was “rocky.” Psychologically, she said, many thought they would be coming back to school as they knew it.

“That wasn’t the case.”

The challenges students continue to face and their impact are apparent when looking at standardized test scores. After steadily increasing since 2014-15, math and, to a lesser extent, English proficiency for LBUSD students took a sharp downturn, according to the district’s annual report.

For the 2018-19 school year, the district’s Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) math proficiency surpassed 45%. In 2020-21, that figure had fallen to just over 30%—slightly above 2014-15 levels. Similarly, the SBAC English proficiency dropped from nearly 55% in 2018-19 to less than 50%.

The percentage of  “high school ready” eighth graders also decreased from 59% in 2019-20 to 51% in 2020-21, the report shows.

The number of LBUSD students enrolled in summer school has nearly tripled, from 4,822 in summer 2019 to 13,311 this summer, according to district spokesperson Chris Eftychiou. That figure, however, is misleading because before COVID-19, summer school was offered only to high school students.

Now, students of all ages are enrolled for additional summer schooling.

“We would not characterize the grades one to eight offerings as simply being for those who ‘fell behind,’” Eftychiou said. “Rather, we’re offering both support classes as well as enrichment classes to students for learning acceleration coming out of the pandemic.”

Final data on student retention—that is, keeping students at the same grade level in the next school year rather than promoting them to the next grade—is not yet available, Baker said, noting that the district has suspended the traditional retention criteria. The idea is to assess each student holistically, rather than focusing on specific moments in time. The district implemented a new program, i-Ready, focused on growth monitoring.

For example, if a first grader did not meet the technical criteria to promote to the second grade, but they made a year and a half growth during the school year, the student could advance. The idea being: If a student continues to make more than one year of growth, they will catch up on their own without retention.

To combat the ongoing academic challenges, the district implemented the Learning Acceleration & Support Plan and invested millions into academic and social support for students. LBUSD spent $65.7 million on academic acceleration and support, $19.6 million on infrastructure and capital for the future, $5.8 million for mental health support and $5.3 million on engagement.

This investment funded after school, summer and Saturday programming, as well as teacher training on social-emotional learning strategies, student intervention and wellness centers at every high school that are staffed by a psychologist, social worker or counselor.

The wellness center program is slated to expand to middle schools at the start of the 2022-23 school year, Baker said.

Despite the challenges and shortfalls, there are a number of bright spots for the district reflected in its annual report.

The number of accelerated Math 6 placement students has continued to increase. In 2019-20, 62% of sixth graders were placed in accelerated math. That figure increased to 70% and then 75% in 2020-21 and 2021-22, respectively.

At 84%, the Long Beach Unified high school graduation rate remains the same as the state and is on par with previous years, Baker said. The district, meanwhile, surpassed the state average of students completing UC and CSU entrance requirements—59% of LBUSD students, compared to 52% across the state.

Teachers, administrators also struggling

For people who enter a profession for the sole purpose of teaching and nurturing students, the pandemic has been somewhat demoralizing.

“They were going through the pandemic, managing all things with their own families and their own life,” Baker said, noting the added stress of supporting a full caseload of secondary students or a class of 30 elementary kids.

“Teachers are compassionate … and it’s stressful when you can’t make the difference that you’re trying to make in the lives of students.”

Throughout the pandemic, teachers and administrators alike struggled to keep up with the ever-changing guidelines coming out of local, state and federal governments, Baker said. Sometimes, the altered guidelines required changes literally overnight.

The constant shifts made running schools, teaching and learning even more challenging during an already turbulent time. In May of this year, the district announced nearly 25% of its 86 schools would have new principals next year.

On top of everything, the pandemic has led to declines in both attendance rates and enrollment in the Long Beach school system, Baker said. Both metrics directly impact the district’s funding, which has resulted in a tightening budget.

Prior to the pandemic, LBUSD had a 96% attendance rate for its tens of thousands of students. Preliminary data from the 2021-2022 school year shows attendance at about 90%, which Baker described as a “significant” drop.

On top of dropping attendance, the school district’s enrollment has been in decline for two decades. The district had about 96,000 students during the 2003-04 school year, compared to about 67,400 in 2021-22, with the largest declines coming amid the pandemic.

All of these challenges still remain and, after over two years, the coronavirus is still ravaging the nation, forcing everyone to continue to live with it as best they can—including the district, its teachers and its students.

At Long Beach Unified, however, the increased access and use of technology and more prevalent mental health services for students are just two examples of positive outcomes of the pandemic, Baker said. The focus on learning intervention and acceleration also bode well for the future of students in the district, she said.

“I really believe in what our staff is doing to meet the needs of students in this moment,” Baker said. “While it’s hard to talk about the pandemic, we’ve learned a lot and I think we’re on a path toward a new version of Long Beach Unified.

“I’m super hopeful about the future—what we’re learning and what we’re able to invest in.”