Teaching Math in the Era of COVID-19

With each passing day, the coronavirus pandemic is rerouting some students’ academic trajectories.
That’s among the many frightening but realistic consequences of COVID-19. And an early look at pandemic-related school disruptions suggests one area of learning in particular stands to be affected: mathematics.

Students in kindergarten through 12th grade could lose somewhere between a few months’ and—in the grimmest scenario—a full year’s worth of math learning this school year compared to a typical one, according to some estimates.

(They’ll lose ground in reading as well, but not likely as much.)

Those are, of course, estimates, and could turn out to be overblown. But the majority of teachers say students came in less prepared for grade-level work than usual this year, and they agree that kids are making less progress in math than before the pandemic.

Trauma, anxiety, staffing challenges, scheduling upheaval—there are myriad culprits for learning loss right now. But also simply this: Teaching math remotely, which most teachers are doing to some extent, is hard.

Teachers have had to adjust all their typical techniques for fully or partially remote classes.

They’re culling learning standards to prioritize the most important ones. They’re ditching answer-getting math tests, which invite cheating, in favor of assessments that ask students to explain how they reached a solution, often using videos or photos. They’re turning to digital math games and apps, which experts caution are uneven in quality, to supplement instruction.

They’re pushing to keep students engaged with frequent check-ins and breakout rooms during on-camera classes.

And in an approach that was gaining traction before COVID-19, some teachers are connecting math to real-world social justice issues—having students study wealth distribution or police use-of-force data, for instance, and seeing how communities of color are disproportionately harmed.

Now, more than ever, teachers are also leaning on parents. That doesn’t mean parents have to be math experts, teachers say, or that they should feel pressure to become teachers themselves during this stressful time. There are more incremental steps they can make from home—like encouraging students to do the work but allowing them to push through challenging problems without too much assistance.

And as the virus continues surging across the country, and more kids go back to being taught math through computer screens, ongoing adjustments—both big and small—will be our best bet for helping keep kids on course.

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