Students attend class at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in New York City on June 24, 2022.
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August 25, 2022 5:47 PM EDT

The trio of third graders at Tennessee’s Trousdale County Elementary School begin working on their multiplication tables as soon as they sit down for tutoring, quietly penciling in answers. Kelsey Harris, their math tutor, reminds them that this year they will need to know how to multiply all the numbers from zero to 10.

The students review math vocabulary and identify different multiplication equations, getting a jump on some of the concepts they’ll cover in math class the next day. “If I ask you to find the product, what are we going to do?” Harris asks. Multiply. “If I ask you what the sum is, what are we going to do?” Add.

It’s one of three tutoring sessions these students will have each week with Harris, a certified teacher who is now the lead math interventionist at the school in Hartsville, Tenn., a town of about 12,000 people an hour northeast of Nashville. The tutoring program, which takes place during the school day, is one way the school is hoping to help students catch back up after the pandemic disrupted learning and caused some students to fall behind.

“It’s going to bridge the gap of learning loss,” says Toby Woodmore, who supervises instruction across the district. The math curriculum, in particular, requires students to build on their skills each year, from addition and subtraction in second grade, to multiplication and division in third grade, to fractions in fourth grade—and it’s difficult for students to keep progressing if they haven’t mastered those earlier concepts. “It’s a building process,” he says. “We’re trying to get them ready every day for the next day of class.”

READ MORE: From Teachers to Custodians, Meet the Educators Who Saved A Pandemic School Year

While students across the country are back at schools that have now lifted masking and COVID-19 testing requirements, the pandemic is still affecting their academic achievement, and experts say it’s urgent that schools prioritize recovery. Researchers estimate it will take average elementary school students three years and middle students five or more years to fully recover. “Education has been forever impacted,” says Demetrice Badru, the principal of Trousdale County Elementary School.

The district—which returned to in-person school full-time in fall 2021 after a year of hybrid learning—is using state and federal relief funding to pay for the tutoring program, hiring certified teachers as tutors and focusing on math instruction. District leaders found that students particularly struggled to grasp math concepts during virtual learning, when they were unable to show teachers their work on paper or watch their peers write out problems on a white board. Some didn’t have a parent available to assist with remote learning; others lived with grandparents who lacked the technology skills to help them with online assignments.

A focus on tutoring

There’s strong evidence that tutoring, when delivered frequently and in groups of no more than three or four students, can lead to significant learning gains. A 2020 meta-analysis of 96 tutoring studies concluded that tutoring could help students make up three to 15 months of learning, and that tutoring was most effective when led by a teacher or paraprofessional during the school day. A 2017 study found that tutoring was the most effective intervention for improving academic achievement among elementary and middle school students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Trousdale County is one of more than 80 school districts across Tennessee participating in the $200 million TN ALL CORPS tutoring initiative, which launched last year and aims to serve 150,000 students over the next three years. Tutors give intensive attention to groups of three elementary-school students or four middle-school students at a time, meeting for 90 minutes each week to offer personalized help.

More than 40% of school districts and charter schools around the country planned to use some of their federal COVID-19 relief funding on tutoring and academic coaching, according to an analysis by Georgetown University’s FutureEd. But Tennessee and Arkansas went further. Tennessee leaders said they wanted to establish a statewide tutoring corps that aimed to “dramatically increase the amount of learning time” for students.

State leaders have touted early evidence that the efforts aimed at combating learning loss, including the tutoring corps, are working. According to data from this past school year, 36% of students across the state met grade-level expectations in English language arts in 2022, representing improvement over 2021 and a return to pre-pandemic proficiency levels.

Other states and school districts have also made academic recovery a focus. At Los Angeles Unified School District, the leader of the country’s second-largest school district foreshadowed the imminent release of low test scores. “It is going to reflect all the fears that we have felt—meaning significant declines in achievement performance, particularly in reading and mathematics, across the board, all grade levels,” superintendent Alberto Carvalho, told the Los Angeles Times, saying this school year would be a “year of acceleration.”

The Biden Administration last month launched a national initiative to recruit 250,000 new tutors and mentors who can help students make up for lost learning time and offer mental health support.

The lingering pandemic learning loss

Student achievement was lower in spring 2022, compared to spring 2019, with students’ median scores in math declining 5 to 10 percentile points and 2 to 4 percentile points in reading, despite signs of improvement during the past year, according to the nonprofit NWEA, which analyzed the test scores of 8.3 million students in third through eighth grade. Researchers estimate it will take average elementary school students three years and middle students five or more years to fully recover.

Districts that spent more time learning remotely also saw lower achievement growth, especially in high-poverty schools, according to Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research. While there are some positive signs of students beginning to rebound, the data from the end of the last school year shows students still have a lot of unfinished learning to make up for.

“If 2020-21 was a nosedive, we’ve at least pulled out of it,” says Karyn Lewis, director of the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA. “But we still have a lot of altitude to regain, if you will, to get us back to that place where kids are at the achievement level where we want them to be.”

The pandemic widened existing achievement gaps between students at high-poverty and low-poverty schools, and between white students and students of color. And the data show that remains a problem.

“We already had an education system that was only serving some students well prior to the pandemic,” Lewis says. “The last two years have really shone light on those cracks in our system. And my biggest fear is that we will just continue to have these wide inequities that will last and persist with us for years and years to come.”

Early signs of improvement

School districts have taken a range of approaches to helping students recover academically, and Lewis notes that there’s no “one-size-fits-all band aid” for the problem. Some districts expanded summer programming to keep kids learning and prevent what’s often called the “summer slide.” Others are prioritizing small-group instruction during class time. And like Tennessee, others have turned to tutoring.

“Going back to how we did business in 2020 is insufficient. We must level up,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a call with reporters on Thursday, highlighting some of the ways districts are using federal funds to help students catch up, from recruiting more teachers to expanding counseling services to improving access to tutoring and after-school programs.

In Tennessee, students are still below pre-pandemic proficiency levels in math, but showed growth this year over 2021, with 30% of students now meeting grade-level expectations in math, compared to 25% in 2021. In 2019, 37% of students met grade-level expectations.

There were similar results in Trousdale County, where superintendent Clint Satterfield credited high-dosage, low-ratio tutoring with “moving the needle for our students.” In math, 44% of all Trousdale County students met expectations in 2022—up from 27% in 2021, though still down from 53% in 2019. And students showed slight improvement over pre-pandemic scores in English language arts, with 46% of students meeting expectations.

“We just really tried to identify the kids who are not proficient, and tried to build a program where we can reach every child during the school day,” Satterfield says. “That’s kind of been the secret sauce for what we’ve been doing so far.”

For tutors like Harris, that’s a sign they’re making progress. But she measures success not only in improved test scores, but also in students no longer dreading math class or not being afraid to ask a question in front of their peers.

“It’s just building these kids’ confidence back. These kids have lost so much, and now I’m able to build them back up,” she says.

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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