COVID-19's impact on area academics believed to be widespread

Shocking numbers revealed at a Pine River-Backus School Board meeting appear to reflect grades all over.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Some particularly jarring numbers were presented at the May 17 Pine River-Backus School Board meeting. For good or bad, the results are almost identical at other area schools and across the country.

"I'd say most schools are having issues," said Pine River-Backus Superintendent Jon Clark.

"I think what you saw in Pine River-Backus is something you might see probably across the entire nation, I think for obvious reasons," said Chris Lindholm, Pequot Lakes superintendent.

" I think it'd be tough to say that the scores from this year would have authenticity, and for different reasons "

— Chris Halverson.

Those watching the Pine River-Backus School Board meeting at home were likely shocked to learn that 109 children in the elementary school were referred to summer school, and the students who did not meet expectations in math and English in this year's Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests grew from around 10% to around 60%.


This scene played out in Pequot Lakes as well.

"(Summer school) recommendations right now are just coming in and letters are going out," said Eagle View Elementary School Principal Melissa Hesch. "We are significantly higher than last year. I believe we are at about 130 and we are going to accommodate at least 80 students if not 90."

The summer school referrals from PR-B are more than double from past years. On a typical year, Pequot Lakes has between 50 and 70 referrals.

At Eagle View and Pine River-Backus elementary schools, the process behind summer school referrals is similar. Teachers are given criteria for who should be considered for summer school. The teachers recommend students who meet those criteria and letters are sent to their parents, who decide whether to have their children attend summer school.

In Pine River-Backus, there are currently three classes of 15 students each for a total of 45 students. To ensure the students with greater need get a chance at attending, PR-B is starting by inviting those of higher priority.

"Any kid that was referred who had some sort of distance learning, whether it was through a quarantine or it was through the parents' choice or whatever, they got first crack at it," said PR-B Elementary School Principal Rick Aulie. "We looked at students that had behavior referrals. So if they had a significant amount of behavior referrals, they were also included on that list."

Students who were referred to tier two programming for intervention also received higher priority. Additional students will be invited if the group first referred turns down summer school or if additional teachers offer to teach summer school.

The impacts of the tumultuous school year have had an impact at the high school level as well. Results of the most recent MCA tests might never be officially released because the results are so skewed as to be unreliable as assessments, said Ben Johnston, Pequot Lakes teaching, learning and technology coordinator.


Federally, all accountability for the test results have been waived for this year.

Like Pine River-Backus, Johnston said Pequot Lakes saw around a 30%-40% drop in proficiency in MCA test scores, as he suspects most schools had. However, there are so many variables that likely affected those scores that they don't hold the meaning or significance they usually do.

In addition to COVID-19 restrictions impacting test performance, absences have also likely skewed results.

"It's really hard to compare numbers to a normal year when you are talking upwards of 25% to 30% of a grade not participating in the test, which would obviously skew any data," Johnston said. "Not to say that I don't believe our scores didn't drop. I do believe our scores did drop as well, which I think is expected when you consider kids missed probably 70 days of class instruction last year and several days of instruction this year, and with many also being quarantined for 10-14 days at times throughout the year."

"I think it'd be tough to say that the scores from this year would have authenticity, and for different reasons," said Pine River-Backus High School Principal Chris Halverson. "One, we had quite a few kids that didn't take the test for different reasons, whether they were distance learners or whatever. But then to work in the variables of just living through a pandemic. I don't think our expectations change for education, but we also realize that there are a lot of social/emotional issues and things like that, that we had to do trauma first."

"A lot of students did not take it," Lindholm said. "And we know that in a regular year, in a school district where you have 100 to 140 kids in the class, every student is almost a percentage point. So when you understand that, and then you say maybe you take out 30 to 40% of the students who take it anyway. Now you're talking about every student being to 3 percentage points. And then, of course, we know that students have some learning loss due to COVID."

" I think what you saw in Pine River-Backus is something you might see probably across the entire nation I think for obvious reasons "

— Chris Lindholm.

It is likely no surprise what caused these test score changes.


"Distance learning has played a large part of that with students having spent the majority of last spring in distance learning," Aulie said. "It also has to do with students that started this fall with distance learning. We had quite a few kids behind that weren't able to close that gap. And then we have students that, even when we were in school and able to provide a typical curriculum and instruction, they still struggle and need remediation. So we've got that on top of COVID and distance learning. We're trying to close both of those gaps."

"We've covered the same amount of material that we normally would cover, but it would have been done differently," Hesch said. "Some of the small group instruction that we'd like to do, we couldn't do with the social distancing the same way. So I think there are pieces of the way we like to personalize learning that we just didn't get to do in all aspects. And using learning devices at home is different than when you're in a classroom with the teacher adjusting and modifying the learning."

"I think we're seeing some in our math scores. Math is a skill-based subject," Johnston said. "So when you miss out on some of that instruction, it can be harder to pick up those pieces."

"I think the change in the MCAs has been the engagement of the students and also the fact that we haven't been able to be in person and have the impact of in-person learning," Halverson said. "And, of course, we had a pandemic. I wouldn't give the pandemic all the credit but I think those factors played a big role in what we saw."

Both school districts are working on intervention to help students to catch up and stay caught up. Pequot Lakes is using individual progress monitoring using class assessments to determine who needs help and how to help. In addition, the district is offering additional options for students to catch up as well as emotional support following a stressful year.

Pine River-Backus added a ninth- through 12th-grade interventionist position in the MEIERS program to ensure students moving into ninth grade don't fall behind now that their credits count toward graduation. The position is a targeted approach to provide personal help to individual students whenever they seem to need help.

In Pine River-Backus, summer school will be Aug. 2-19. Attending students will receive free breakfast and lunch as well as transportation. Eagle View Elementary School summer school will be June 7-25 with transportation, lunch and breakfast also provided.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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