In Kahea Milroy’s eyes, the state of California did “everything wrong” when it came to education during the pandemic. So wrong, in fact, that she and her husband, Dan, moved to Granville largely for the sake of their children’s education.
The Milroys visited relatives in the Columbus area during the summer of 2020. Dreading the thought of putting their young kids back in remote schooling, they elected to stay put. They moved and enrolled their children in the Granville Exempted Village Schools, where in-person schooling would be an option as early as that fall.
Two-and-a-half years later, the Milroy children remain in the school district, and Granville students have a full school year of in-person learning back under their belts.
From entirely remote learning to optional in-person classes and finally to a full classroom return, Granville Schools leaders made schooling structural changes on the fly as pandemic circumstances continued to fluctuate. They faced challenges all along the way, and lingering effects of the lockdown remain, but the annual Ohio School Report Cards indicate that Granville students are better off than most.
The road to Ohio
When schools across California shut down in response to rising COVID rates in early 2020, Kahea, 39, had a daughter in third grade, a son in first grade and another daughter in kindergarten. Working in sales, Dan, 45, often needed to make Zoom calls from home. Finding the internet bandwidth to support all of their computers simultaneously was challenging. Then there was the task of keeping young children engaged in a house full of distractions.
“My kindergartener, who is a very good student, she’d want to bring all of her stuffed animal friends to class,” Kahea said. “And (she) would sneak them in the office, and would not want to get out of her pajamas.”
In Ohio, the Granville Exempted Village Schools were shut down, as well. Students were sent home with Chromebooks, and parents volunteered at drive-bys, where families could pick up the school supplies that their children would need for online learning. Technological challenges arose; teachers had to adjust their strategies, and some families were unfamiliar with the computer applications Granville schools were using to host class meetings and assign work.
As government officials and political commentators nationwide debated whether students should return to the classroom for the 2020-2021 school year, Granville administrators and teachers spent the summer devising a plan that could appease parents and promote learning. Ultimately, they decided to let the families pick for themselves. For students in grades 7-12, school would take place in-person, and students whose families preferred remote learning could enter the classroom from home via video conferencing. Some teachers volunteered to teach fully remote classes for younger students whose families decided to keep them at home.
Not all smooth sailing
For the Milroys’ son, the return to the classroom in the fall of 2020 was as challenging as the departure from it was in the spring. Though he had been up to speed developmentally for his age prior to COVID’s arrival, Kahea noticed he was starting to fall behind.
“I would call him a kinesthetic learner, and online learning was just absolutely absurd for him,” she said. “I noticed that he was really starting to lapse in education – in reading, especially, but also in math. Things were just not sticking with him.”
The constraints that the pandemic put on face-to-face interactions, in addition to the challenges of adjusting to a new town and school altogether, made social interactions difficult for the young Milroy children.
“One thing that I think my husband and I did not take into consideration is that because everyone was still kind of in lockdown mentality, it was very difficult for them to make friendships,” Kahea said.
People working inside the Granville school buildings observed students struggling socially, too.
“What we found is that kiddos – even third graders – didn’t know what it was like to sit on the carpet together as a class,” said Travis Morris, principal of Granville Elementary.
Letting families decide between in-person schooling and remote learning had its perks, but COVID-related conflicts arose nonetheless during the 2020-2021 school year.
“We had a lot of families who did not like the idea of mask requirements, a lot of families who wanted more requirements,” Morris said. “We always erred on the side of following the science.”
But in the end, Granville school leaders got through what was inevitably going to be a challenging school year. Morris attributes their success to a willingness to communicate.
“We didn’t just send mass messages and expect everyone to follow suit,” he said. “If someone reached out and had concerns or questions, we made sure that we spent the time to walk them through those concerns and tried to help them understand all perspectives.”
Back on track
A McKinsey & Company study published in July 2021 detailed the impact that lockdowns had on elementary students throughout the United States. It said the average elementary school student was four months behind in reading and five months behind in math at the time of publication. The researchers predicted that the delay could have long-term ripple effects that could lead to reduced earnings for the students in adulthood – $50,000 or more below what they would have been expected to earn.
In Granville, though, students might be better off. Kahea, for one, believes that her children have been able to make up for lost time in the classroom.
“Thankfully, this year I feel like it is the first year that they’re all doing really well,” she said. “I would say that it’s taken a whole year and a half to get them back on track.”
Her son, now in fourth grade, is no longer behind in reading or math – far from it, actually. Kahea said he has been a straight-A student this quarter, which she attributes in part to tutoring at the Acacia Center, a nonprofit organization in Granville that offers reading, writing, math and speech assistance to students.
The Milroy family anecdote fits a broader narrative that the Ohio Department of Education seemed to more broadly observe: Granville’s schools are doing well.
The latest Ohio School Report Cards, released Sept. 15, indicate that Granville Exempted Village schools are exceeding state standards in all five measures that they were rated for on a five-star scale.
The district received five-star ratings in “achievement” (based on standardized test performances), “gap closing” (which measures achievement disparities amongst students from different cultural backgrounds), “graduation” and “early literacy” (examining reading capabilities in students transitioning from elementary school to middle school). It received a four-star rating in “progress,” which considers test scores in a number of academic subjects.
Kahea acknowledges that demographic advantages are likely contributing to Granville’s relative academic success in a post-pandemic United States.
“Demographically, (Granville students) tend to have parents that are pretty active in their education,” she said. “I feel like our children are thriving faster now because of that, whereas I have talked to friends who come from maybe lower-income homes where they do not have the ability to really be on top of their children’s education in the same way, and that their students are much further behind.”
Jack Nimesheim writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of the Denison University Journalism Program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation.