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In Districts Where More Students Returned To Schools, Third Graders Lost Less Ground In Reading

Two students wearing masks walk into school as a woman embraces one of the students
Al Diaz/Miami Herald
Students leave William Lehman Elementary School in Kendall last October after Miami-Dade County Public Schools reopened buildings during COVID-19. The district saw a decrease in third graders' language arts proficiency amid the pandemic.

In South Florida, the Palm Beach County school district reported the highest percentage of students taking in-person classes and saw no decline in third graders' pass rates on state language arts tests.

School districts where more than three quarters of students attended classes in person this spring saw less of a decline in third graders' language arts performance, state data show.

Districts where 75% of students, or fewer, took face-to-face classes saw an average 7% decline in third graders' pass rates on state reading exams from 2019 — the last time the tests were administered.

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The average drop was only 5% for school districts where more students returned to school buildings, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Education.

FL DOE table.png
Florida Department of Education
A table provided by the Florida Department of Education shows that school districts where fewer than three quarters of students took classes in person performed worse than those with higher rates of in-person instruction.

Statewide, 54% of third graders were proficient in language arts, a decline of four percentage points from two years ago.

"The data clearly show that, on average, districts with higher rates of in-person instruction weathered the 'COVID slide' better and saw lesser declines between 2019 and 2021 than districts with higher rates of virtual instruction," according to a news release from the department.

The trend holds for South Florida's large school districts.

Palm Beach County had the highest percentage of students learning in person, 69%, and it was the only district in the region that did not lose any ground from 2019 to 2021. Both years, 54% of third graders in the district passed language arts tests.

In Miami-Dade County, where 58% of students attended face-to-face classes, the pass rate slipped by 3 percentage points, from 60% proficiency to 57%. Despite the decline, Miami-Dade students are still outperforming their counterparts statewide.

Broward County Public Schools saw a drop of 7 percentage points, from 60% to 53% proficiency. That was with 53% of students learning in person, among the lowest rates in the state.

"The importance of getting students to return to face-to-face learning has been a priority for BCPS," the Broward school district wrote in a news release announcing the scores. "BCPS has also launched the largest summer learning program in the District’s history to help mitigate learning loss due to the summer slide, when students tend to lose some of the achievement gains made during the school year, as well as the learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

However, the Florida Keys had the highest rate of in-person instruction in South Florida and saw the biggest drop in performance. With nearly all students attending classes in person, the district's pass rate for third graders in reading dropped by 12 percentage points, from 70% in 2019 to 58% this year.

Meanwhile, the only four school districts statewide that saw improvement in students' test scores — Jackson, Lafayette, Madison and Sumter counties — boasted between 89% and 99% in-person attendance. Districts with the steepest declines had much lower in-person instruction rates.

A news release from the Department of Education praised state education commissioner Richard Corcoran and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for their controversial push to reopen schools sooner than most of the nation.

Public schools in Florida were open for students who wanted to return to classrooms during the entire 2020-21 school year, with the exception of South Florida districts, which delayed reopening into September or October amid a summer surge in coronavirus cases. Schools in many other states and large districts around the country have been closed for more than a year.

"Getting our students on campus and ultimately informing those students, their parents and their teachers about their academic progress put Florida families and teachers in the driver’s seat to make decisions in the best interest of their children’s growth," Corcoran wrote in the statement.