Fairfax County Public Schools inked a half-million-dollar contract with a virtual tutoring service using COVID-19 relief funds to correct for pandemic learning losses—leading parents to question the efficacy of filling educational gaps sustained over more than a year of online instruction with further remote education.
In a Tuesday email to parents, Fairfax officials announced that the district spent $488,800 on access to Tutor.com, an online tutoring program that provides students one-on-one, around-the-clock homework support from instructors. But parents, who perceive this purchase as the first and only district-wide effort to combat learning loss, expressed concern over Fairfax's failure to provide in-person instruction specifically to make up for months of learning from home.
"This is it, they've checked the box, problem solved," Jenna Hamilton, who helped start a parent organization called Open FCPS, told the Washington Free Beacon. "We've provided a tutoring program to help kids who are behind. That's the perception."
Standardized test scores from the 2020-2021 school year have revealed the toll that months of remote education had on student learning. At Fairfax schools, where in-person learning was stalled for more than thirteen months, student math test scores dropped by 25 percentage points and reading scores fell by 8 percentage points, the district reported in August 2021. National data tell a similar story. According to a July 2021 NWEA study, students lagged 3 to 6 percentage points behind their pre-COVID test scores in reading and 8 to 12 percentage points behind in math. Younger students, as well as minority and lower-income kids, experienced the sharpest declines in test scores.
Fairfax spent $488,800 of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds—federal dollars granted to districts to help them reopen during the pandemic—on the contract with Tutor.com to provide services for its 178,000 students. As part of the package, students will have access to one-on-one tutors for 24/7 support via text or chat to help with homework or prepare for tests, including for Advanced Placement Exams.
Dee Jackson, another parent and cofounder of Open FCPS, said the purchase was "long overdue" and noted the district's sluggishness in its efforts to curb the effects of online learning.
"It is definitely long overdue because I know that I and other people have been suggesting that they do what they can to get people caught up after a year of no school," Jackson told the Free Beacon. "But you would think that these people would have learned after the failure that was online learning that online tutoring will not work for probably 80 percent of the population, especially with certain subjects."
Fairfax County Public Schools published online a spending plan for its ESSER funds. Of the $188.8 million the district received for pandemic relief, $76 million, or about 40 percent, will be spent on addressing "unfinished learning" through both in-person and online remedial learning programs. The district has doled out money to individual schools for principals to make learning tools and tutoring services available to students on a campus-by-campus basis. Rocky Run Middle School teachers purchased "critical thinking" board games, and math teachers used funds to purchase fraction tiles. Glasgow Middle School provided reading sessions for parents to work with their students on developing reading skills.
Online education hit children with learning disabilities and special needs particularly hard during the pandemic, Tracy Compton, a parent of two Fairfax students with learning disabilities, told the Free Beacon. Further online learning won't help address their disparities.
"I have two kids that are both on 504s [a plan developed between a teacher, parent, and student to make accommodations for special needs students and integrate them into a classroom setting], have ADHD, and I struggle to get them to focus online," Compton said. "Getting them online in front of a computer to fill the gaps of online learning seems like an oxymoron. But it is just part of the millions and millions of dollars that FCPS has been given, and it's the only tangible thing that I have seen that my children can do or participate in."
While this may be an important "tool" for students and parents separate from the issue of learning loss, parent Rory Cooper said the district has so far failed to face the "crisis" of education gaps head-on.
"It's fine if this is something that is independent of learning loss, but we still have not addressed learning loss in any way," Cooper said. "It would be interesting to know their intention behind it, if it's a tool in the toolbox, that's great. But they still have to address the learning loss crisis."
Fairfax County Public Schools also used ESSER funds to pay teachers bonuses. Though teachers did not step foot in the classroom during the 2020-2021 school year, the district allocated a whopping $32.7 million to give educators additional pay.
More than a year of online learning—and resulting declines in test scores—drove Open FCPS to launch a recall campaign against three school board members last year. Last month, a circuit court judge dismissed Open FCPS's petition against board member Laura Cohen, who, according to the group, ignored studies that showed the adverse effects of remote learning. Another petition against board member Elaine Tholen was also dismissed earlier this year.