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For schoolchildren struggling to read, COVID-19 has been a wrecking ball

Kids in need of remedial support already were vulnerable before the pandemic. Now they’re facing educational ruin.

Medford, MA - 10/7/20 - Maureen Ronayne sits with her son, Daniel, as he reads aloud in the family's backyard. Daniel has struggled with reading since preschool, when he couldn't pick up on the letters of the alphabet, or learn to pronounce his name. Over six long years, his parents battled slowly to get Daniel the support he needed, including a spot at the Medford public school with the most reading specialists, a separate class at the school dedicated to reading remediation, and a private tutor funded partially by the district. But when schools shut down in March, all of the 10 year-old's extra supports came to an abrupt halt. So, too, did his progress learning to read. "I got him to read a couple of times over the spring," says his mother, Maureen Ronayne. "He was literally tripping over every word. I was like, What just happened here? We had worked so hard to get him where he was at and we're seeing a complete regression."  (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Maureen Ronayne sits with her son, Daniel, as he reads aloud in the family's Medford backyard.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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Maureen Ronayne thought 2020 would be the year when, at long last, her 10-year-old son Daniel would learn to read at grade level. She and her husband had spent six years fighting to get Daniel, who is dyslexic, the supports he needed from the Medford public schools. Those included a spot at the school with the most reading support, a separate class at the school dedicated to reading remediation, and a private tutor funded partially by the district.

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“He was definitely showing progress,” says his mother, who also has dyslexia, a disability that hinders a person’s ability to read words correctly and efficiently. The fourth-grader had made steady gains in the Wilson Reading System, a curriculum designed for students with reading difficulties, rising from 2.5 in the fall of 2019 to 3.2 last March. (The system has 12 steps designed to help struggling readers become able ones.)

Yet Daniel’s progress came to an abrupt halt after Medford schools closed down in mid-March in response to the spread of COVID-19. The tutoring came to an end. The intensive, small group classes in reading disappeared, as did all meaningful instruction, from what Ronayne could tell. Daniel, who is being referred to by his middle name to protect his privacy, did meet online with his teacher and classmates about twice a week starting in April, his mother says. But it was always an informal meeting focused on weekend activities and other non-academic concerns — gatherings that, Ronayne says, Daniel’s teacher referred to as “circle time.”

When Ronayne complained about the absence of any reading instruction, school staff referred her to a class website with some generic exercises — a worksheet introducing multi-syllable words, for instance. Medford Public Schools’ director of pupil services, Joan Bowen, acknowledges that Medford, along with districts across Massachusetts, initially used many independent learning activities because “we thought it was a short-term closure.” Bowen says state guidelines initially asked schools not to teach new material, and the district’s online learning instruction became more rigorous over the course of the spring.

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Ronayne says teaching did ramp up, except for what her son needed: real-time reading instruction. By May, Medford school officials say, they had created detailed remote learning plans for every student who receives special education services. “They were very specific to the individual student,” Bowen says. The school district, however, does not comment on individual students.

As Daniel regressed in his hard-won reading abilities, his mother steeled herself for her next big fight with the district: Getting her son compensatory education services to make up for months of lost time. Like all students with disabilities, Daniel is entitled to a “free and appropriate” education under federal special education law — a right that persists even in a pandemic.

“The other subjects, I’ll let it go,” she says, “but the reading and writing is so important I am hoping we will get that squared away.”

Ronayne is an exceptionally involved parent, who can cite studies on the dismal prospects for children who don’t learn to read fluently by fourth grade. One found that children who don’t read on grade level by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school on time. “Once you hit fourth grade, you switch from learning to read to reading to learn,” Ronayne says. Yet as her son approached that crucial transition, “the world stopped,” she says. “And instead of reading, we got websites and circle time.”

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More than 2.3 million of this country’s roughly 51 million K-12 public school students receive special-education services for what’s known as a specific learning disability: some problem that interferes with their ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, or do math. Of those, the vast majority have dyslexia. The problem may be much larger, as most researchers believe lack of diagnosis and services means between 5 percent and 15 percent of all children actually have the disorder.

Kids who struggle to read after their early elementary years risk educational ruin. Even when there’s not a pandemic shuttering school buildings, these students face enormous challenges catching up. Most require a specialized form of reading remediation that even available and engaged parents-turned-tutors seldom can master.

For struggling readers, especially those from lower-income families, America’s response to the coronavirus has amounted to a double whammy. Most families were left to fend for themselves in making up for lost instruction. Even where the education establishment has responded for high-needs students, says Nathan Jones, an associate professor of special education at Boston University, “We haven’t seen the kinds of reorienting and creative thinking necessary to meet the needs of the moment.”

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Districts and states have focused on the daunting logistics of reopening schools without sufficient federal support — negotiating with teachers unions, securing enough personal protective equipment, upgrading air ventilation systems — and many have failed to meet the needs of their most challenged learners from a distance.

The cost of this abdication of responsibility is clear to Maureen Ronayne. During the spring, she had Daniel read aloud to her. “He was literally tripping over every word. I was like, What just happened here?

The blame is shared by all levels of government, yet many school districts should have done better. Too few forged creative partnerships to offer low- or no-cost virtual reading support for families. Kids who struggle with reading “need more instructional time and the instructional time looks a very specific way,” Jones says.

Over the past six months, I interviewed 15 families with struggling readers between the ages of 7 and 12 to better understand the impact of school closures on children’s ability to learn to read. The families come from a range of racial groups and income levels; some parents are unemployed or incarcerated, while others earn six-figure salaries. The families’ children attend traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools. They live in Boston, Worcester, Athol (in Central Massachusetts, with a median household income of $50,000), and suburban communities including Arlington and Winchester (where the median household incomes are $117,000 and $160,000, respectively). Despite their different circumstances and backgrounds, all of these families desperately needed the education system to work during the pandemic so their children could master reading before starting middle school. Instead, they ran into the harsh truth that literacy is not always treated as the public good it should be.

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Since long before the pandemic, students of color — and low-income children — have been disproportionately shut out of reading supports.

“There are racial biases in our system in terms of how we see students with dyslexia,” says Shawn Anthony Robinson, a reading faculty member at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, who studies the intersection of race and dyslexia. Robinson says Black and brown children have essentially been ignored in decades of research on reading interventions, and often get diagnosed with emotional or behavioral disorders when their real struggle relates to reading.

Sherell Johnson, who lives with her three children in Mattapan, has tried for years to get school officials to recognize the depth of her daughter Makayla’s struggles with reading. She realized that Makayla was falling behind in reading in 2017, when the then-first-grader couldn’t keep up with her twin sister, Makenzie, at nightly story time. Tasks that Makenzie performed with ease were difficult for Makayla, says their mom. “When I asked Makayla, ‘Who was this character?’ or ‘What was your favorite part?’ she would not be able to explain or say.”

Dorchester-10/29/20 Makayla age 9(mom is Sherell Johnson) does her remote learning at the Boys and Girls Club. Photo by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff (magazine)
Makayla works on a school assignment in the fall at the Franklin Hill Boys & Girls Club in Boston.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Makayla attends a charter school (which is not being named to protect the family’s privacy). When Johnson raised her concerns, she says the message from school officials was It’s normal, don’t worry, just keep reading to her. She’ll be fine as long as she’s hearing the words. And we’ll do the rest. Makayla has received different special-education services over the years, including speech and occupational therapy. But by the time her daughter hit second grade, Johnson began to question whether they were the right services — or enough.

Makayla did not seem to be making much progress, particularly with her reading. “I was worried that because I was so trusting it had impeded her development,” Johnson says. She started to push the school for more diagnostic work to determine the extent and type of Makayla’s disability, as well as more intensive services, including summer school. “There were things I was trying to push for where I was met with resistance,” Johnson says. “I didn’t understand the resistance because the need was there.”

In a quest for answers, Johnson asked last winter for an independent evaluation for Makayla at Boston Children’s Hospital. The school ultimately agreed to share in the cost — with Johnson paying a few hundred dollars out of pocket. In March, just as COVID cases began to spread throughout the city, clinicians at the hospital diagnosed Makayla with ADHD Combined Type, which entitled her to some new supports at school. Yet Johnson did not receive clarity on one crucial point: whether her daughter has a specific learning disability, like dyslexia. Earlier this winter the mother reached out to the evaluators to ask again. Meanwhile, Johnson fears her daughter suffers for the lack of intensive reading supports — supports that a dyslexia diagnosis can bring.

All of Makayla’s services continued online after schools closed in March. That allowed Johnson, who works at a property management office but was temporarily working from home, to see her daughter’s instruction firsthand. It was better than circle time, but she wanted more rigor. “I felt like they were sort of winging it, having her visit a lot of websites,” Johnson says. “They would tell her not to worry about work if it’s too stressful.” Johnson could see her daughter regressing in areas that had once been strengths, like writing and spelling. “Now it’s almost like starting it all over,” she says. “I put the paper in front of her and she can’t get started.”

“As a parent,” Johnson adds, “I feel like I’ve lost time and I have to gain ground.”

‘Kids who struggle with reading ‘need more instructional time and the instructional time looks a very specific way.’’

Nathan Jones, associate professor of special education at Boston University

As a doctoral student working at MGH Institute of Health Professions’ Speech and Language Literacy Lab, Xue Bao spends her work time studying the acquisition — and loss — of language. The topic became personal last March when her son, barely a toddler at the time, suddenly went silent after the pandemic forced his day care to shutter.

Prior to the shift, the child had appeared on the brink of a language explosion. He spoke several words in Mandarin and seemed on the cusp of uttering his first English word. Bao wondered, a bit nervously, when the words might return.

Bao figured school-age children would experience even more serious — and lasting — backslides. (Her son’s speech returned over the summer.) Working with Tiffany Hogan, the lab’s director and a professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions, Bao developed a model to estimate just how far behind kindergartners might be in reading when school started in the fall of 2020. Like other projections from the pandemic’s early days, the model treated the end of spring term as part of summer break.

The results were not pretty: By the start of first grade, the model projected the average student would be 31 percent behind where they would typically be in reading. That average from the study masked wide individual variation, however, with children whose parents consistently read to them losing far less. Other early projections were similarly dire: NWEA, a nonprofit research group, predicted in April 2020 that third- through eighth-grade students would start the fall term having lost as much as a third of expected progress from the previous year in reading. But in a widely publicized follow-up paper released in November, the organization reported that students actually held steady in reading, and experienced only moderate setbacks in math.

The stunning caveat: one in four students were simply missing from the fall 2020 testing, and those were precisely the students most likely to have suffered from the shift to remote learning — children with disabilities, low-income students, and Black and Latino children attending the most racially segregated schools.

These results match the expectations of Susanna Loeb, the director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which conducts research and advocacy in support of urban public schools. She says students whose parents had the resources to invest in tutors or set up pods would be unlikely to suffer. “We don’t worry that all students lost,” she says. “We worry that some students lost a lot more than others did.” In other words, COVID’s most enduring educational legacy will likely be worsening inequality — of opportunity and outcome — in a country already skewed toward the haves.

Xue Bao at the MGH Institute of Health Professions language lab.
Xue Bao at the MGH Institute of Health Professions language lab.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Arlington mother Krasimira Petkov knows she is fortunate: Before the pandemic struck, she had already hired a reading specialist to tutor her third-grader one hour a week. Once schools closed down, Petkov doubled the time, paying $150 each week to provide her daughter with intensive coaching in the Orton-Gillingham reading program, popular for struggling readers because of the explicit instruction on the connection between letters and sounds.

Even without access to regular reading instruction from her school during the spring, Petkov’s daughter started making gains like never before. The child’s knowledge of commonly used “sight words” spiked; she no longer wrestled with letter clusters (like the difference between inc and ing) that had previously confounded her; and she had much deeper comprehension of books and stories.

By late summer, the 9-year-old had jumped several levels in the Orton-Gillingham sequence, and Petkov began to dream that with another year of tutoring, her daughter might reach grade-level in reading for the first time. The pandemic in this case has been an educational boon since it motivated the family to invest so much in tutoring (in addition to the reading, Petkov, who is a financial manager at Harvard University, and her husband paid for both of their children to have Kumon math instruction during the summer). My daughter “is in a better place today than she was at the beginning of the calendar year,” Petkov said in July. “Lately, I’ve been seeing leaps of progress.”

The extra instruction that Petkov’s family financed on their own is similar to initiatives being received by students at the Carroll School, a three-campus private program in the Boston area focused on children with dyslexia. Tuition is about $55,000 a year, and during the first months of the pandemic the school shifted teaching resources to ensure every student received a daily minimum of an hour of small-group reading instruction online.

“We made some sacrifices to do this because it’s actually the only thing that works,” says Steve Wilkins, Carroll’s head of school. Without it, “their reading would have stopped cold,” he continues, “because kids with reading difficulties don’t learn to read through simple exposure.” (While some kids can master reading through “exposure” — repeated time spent talking about letters and sounds, and looking at books — children with dyslexia need the process broken down into a series of explicit steps and rules that they can memorize.)

Jessica Turco’s son, Teddy, who was in second grade at Carroll in the spring, received an hour of one-on-one reading tutoring every school day, from the earliest days of remote learning.

The marked decrease in classroom distractions helped the boy, who has dyslexia. “Remote learning was a really good break for him to focus on the learning part,” says Turco, who lives in Winchester and owns and manages an advisory firm. “It was just him and his teachers and his work.” As Teddy began third grade at Carroll this past fall, his mother was confident that he had not regressed, and in fact, she says, “The more interesting question might be: Would he have been in a worse place overall if not for remote learning?”

‘We don’t worry that all students lost. We worry that some students lost a lot more than others did.’

Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University

Even before the pandemic, it was clear that most children with severe reading difficulties need individual or small-group instruction to improve. Yet COVID has meant the loss of such services for many families. Kia Leger’s 10-year-old daughter received one-on-one reading tutoring two or three days a week in the Athol Royalston Regional School District, until schools went remote in mid-March. The child’s hours of reading instruction diminished dramatically in the spring, with no more one-on-one time. “She was regressing from the very get-go,” Leger says.

The district provided one month of tutoring in the spring, but it was from a social studies teacher, not a reading specialist. For summer school, her daughter was only offered math. When Leger asked if the district would reimburse her for a set of reading games designed for dyslexic kids, it said no. (Darcy Fernandes, the district superintendent, says the “district worked diligently during the COVID shutdown to get extra assistance to students in the highest need areas.” She adds that teachers who provided additional tutoring in June had training in a literacy-based program.)

For Elise, a Boston resident who works as a special-education aide in the Boston public schools (we are using her middle name and not identifying her son’s school to protect their privacy), the pandemic took away the one support that had been working for her then-third-grade son: free, twice-weekly tutoring sessions. But after Elise’s son’s tutor, a Northeastern University student, fled Boston for her hometown when the campus closed, his school offered no intensive reading curriculum or supports for him. He regressed so severely that he stumbled over words such as cat, hat, sack, and rack. Even with her professional background, Elise felt compelled to reach out to a reading specialist at Boston Medical Center to determine exactly what terminology she should use in making her case for additional support. “It’s just not enough to be a caring mother,” she says. “You have to have the language; you have to talk the talk.” Her numerous appeals to school staff and leadership over the summer detailed her son’s regression and insufficient supports.

In the summer, the school’s director of special education responded to a lengthy voicemail from Elise, agreeing to reassess her son for expanded services sooner than scheduled. The evaluation determined the boy should receive two hours of reading support each week — from a specialist. Although Elise says her son hasn’t reliably received the two hours since fall term started, the additional time has been enough to propel his reading forward again.

But help for a struggling reader should not be so elusive — even during a pandemic, says Elise, who is Black. “Once upon a time,” she says, “it was illegal for us to learn to read. The barriers have not gone away.”

Teddy Turco attends a remote-learning class from home last fall.
Teddy Turco attends a remote-learning class from home last fall. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

As the one-year anniversary of mass school closures approaches, the question of how to make up for lost time becomes increasingly urgent. Loeb, of the Annenberg Institute at Brown, says many districts are overwhelmed by the logistics of reopening schools, and desperately require help shoring up their academic offerings. To help increase tutoring access, Annenberg created the National Student Support Accelerator, which will pilot tutoring projects this winter in about nine school districts across the country, including in Providence. The districts were allowed to choose the kind of tutoring that would be most useful, according to Loeb, with nearly all selecting reading support for kindergartners through third-graders, or math tutoring for older students. Annenberg’s aim is to make the tutoring available to any student who needs additional academic help. Yet for the foreseeable future, most struggling readers will only have access to what their families can pay for. Or negotiate from school districts. And wrangling services out of districts is a challenge even for a stay-at-home parent with experience battling bureaucracies, such as Medford’s Maureen Ronayne.

A few years ago, her son Daniel recalls, “World War III started between mom and other people” when she felt the schools were refusing to acknowledge his reading issues. Last year Ronayne filed a formal complaint saying the district had failed to live up to the terms of Daniel’s individualized education plan in the spring. In response, the district provided a log of contacts between Daniel and his special-education teacher and maintained that his services continued in a different form. It also said Daniel’s Wilson reading lessons continued during remote learning.

His mother says that wasn’t the case, contending that during twice-weekly group check-ins, the teacher never provided reading instruction. Still, in September, the state sided with the Medford district. “The state basically agreed that it was OK for them to send the kids to websites and call it a day,” Ronayne says. State officials said they don’t comment on individual cases.

Ronayne is still battling with the school district to get it to help pay for tutoring for Daniel. Before the pandemic, when the district subsidized a round of Orton-Gillingham tutoring for him, he made leaps of progress, his mother says. The Ronaynes are considering paying for it on their own, but her husband is the family’s sole earner, and had to temporarily close his carpentry business during the worst of the pandemic in the spring. With six kids, $800 to $1,000 a month for tutoring would be a significant strain.

Since the fall, Daniel has been back in school in person, under the district’s option for in-school learning for students with disabilities. His mother decided to face the risk because it was the best shot at recharging his reading. It isn’t the same — lunches are silent because you can’t wear a mask while eating, and tag is outlawed. Yet the 10-year-old has been overjoyed. “I would rather be in school doing tests than staring at computers,” he says. “I got the normal school vibes!”

Ronayne has been determined to keep sending her son, given the steep challenges that remain. A fall report showed his performance had dropped very slightly, from a 3.2 to a 3.1 in the Wilson steps. On recent assessments, Daniel ranked in the 21st percentile in sight word recognition, the third percentile in phonemic decoding (sounding out words phonetically), and the second percentile in spelling. So when Daniel’s 6-year-old sister was possibly exposed to COVID at school, Ronayne kept her three girls and one of her sons quarantined at home. But local public health officials advised that Daniel could continue attending school, so she sent him and his other brother to stay with their grandparents for two weeks.

She says the family may never know how much learning Daniel lost during the spring — or what he is owed academically. But even the 10-year-old is convinced of one thing: For too many students who were already struggling, he says, the missed instruction is “like a ticking time bomb.”

‘The reality is that these students with reading disabilities, as well as many others, are simply falling further and further behind.’

Ellen Chambers, advocate for special-education students

By now, it was supposed to be clearer for many families how school districts would help them recover from the educational disruptions of the pandemic. Massachusetts, like other states, is obligated to offer compensatory services, which could encompass everything from additional speech therapy sessions to tuition vouchers for a private special-needs school (Massachusetts has named its program COVID-19 Compensatory Services). The state is offering $8.8 million in federally-funded grants to help districts with special-education costs (grant applications must be filed by the end of January; at press time districts had claimed about $8.3 million). Last August, the state set December 15, 2020, as the suggested date by which school districts were to have scheduled meetings with their highest needs families to discuss these services. “We know across the board that there are students who are most vulnerable right now,” says Russell Johnston, the state’s special-education director. “We’ve asked schools and districts to prioritize their needs.” While students with the most severe issues should have priority, he says school districts should meet with every family of a child with a disability.

Johnston says that in addition to providing additional resources, the state has advised districts “to be creative” in determining how to provide meaningful compensatory services. “The sooner the better,” he adds, because “we want to make up for skill loss.”

But the state is not monitoring what districts are doing. Advocates say some districts have scheduled few of these meetings, and likely will face no direct consequences for lack of compliance. “The school districts know that the [state] department of education is not going to come after them,” says Ellen Chambers, founder of Massachusetts SPEDWatch, a special-education advocacy group. “The reality is that these students with reading disabilities, as well as many others, are simply falling further and further behind.”

When districts do hold meetings, they sometimes don’t yield meaningful help for students. Elizabeth McIntyre, a senior attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services’ School to Prison Pipeline Intervention Project, says about two-thirds of the high-needs children she represents have discussed COVID-19 Compensatory Services with their schools in Boston. Most students have been offered “compensation” for learning loss only from March to August, even if the student couldn’t access in-person learning in the fall of 2020 as well. And McIntyre wrote in an e-mail that many of the plans established in the meetings fail to provide enough support to “help students regain skills they had worked so hard to develop.”


Sherell Johnson hasn’t heard anything about compensatory services, but she was happy to learn in the fall that Makayla could return to school. Makayla was thrilled. “I wanted to be able to go in person so badly,” she says. Reading, the girl adds, was particularly hard to study remotely because “I always feel like I’m doing it bad.”

Makayla, who over the summer had been assigned to what’s known as a “sub separate” classroom, which offers students with the most severe needs a lower teacher-to-student ratio, was among a very small number of students at her charter school to return. Johnson could see change almost immediately. Makayla thrived on the resumption of a regular school routine, some independence from family, and the extra support from teachers. “Her confidence is so improved,” Johnson says.

Yet Johnson has a nagging fear that her daughter is still not progressing in reading as she ought to be. It has been years since she felt like she had a grasp on Makayla’s reading level. When the pandemic abates, and some sense of normalcy is restored, Johnson plans to ask for more evaluations to determine if Makayla has a reading disability.

For Johnson, and countless other parents, the pandemic didn’t make it appreciably harder for their kids to learn how to read — it revealed the ways in which literacy has long been a commodity out of reach for too many. There are the layers of inequality the pandemic created — and the deeper, more entrenched and intractable, layers that it exposed. “I want her to be able to pick up a book and understand it,” Johnson says. “Why are we not there yet, after working for so many years and trying so many different things? I was told [by school officials] . . . that she is always going to be behind, and always going to struggle. I understand that they are professionals but I believe that my daughter can read. She is capable of having her academic gap closed.”

Johnson often tells her daughters that if they need help with anything, they should come to her so they can pray together. In recent weeks, Makayla has asked her mother to join her. The girl wants to pray that her reading struggles finally come to an end.


Partial funding for the Great Divide initiative is provided by the Boston-based Barr Foundation, which has made student success in high school and beyond a top priority. The Globe has complete editorial control over story selection, reporting, and editing.


Sarah Carr is editor of the Globe's Great Divide team. She has covered education for 20 years, winning several national awards. Carr is the author of "Hope Against Hope," about New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina. You can reach her at sarah.carr@globe.com, or follow her on Twitter @sarah_e_carr.