CHICAGO — At Moos Elementary School in Humboldt Park, Chicago Public Schools students are learning the standard subjects like reading and arithmetic. But, they’re also learning the difference between something that’s gone, and something that’s gone missing.

“They missed like two years,” said Tabarak Abdulkareem, a CPS math tutor. “Those are really major years for them to learn, especially in math and reading. But those gaps are really large at this point. This is why like tutors are needed to fill those gaps up for the students.”

She’s talking about the learning gaps created by the pandemic, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe closing restaurants, businesses, theatres, and schools.

Third grader Yadiel Ulloa remembers feeling scared and isolated.  

“We (could not) go to school,” he said. “There (were) a lot of people dying. And it was a bunch of people’s family members. It was sad.”

Young students suddenly saw their living rooms transform into their classrooms, with no teachers or friends — only laptops.

“We were like doing it through the computer and it kind of sucked,” said Jovani Fleming, a Moos third grader.

Edwin Garcia is one of more than 250 CPS tutors. He has seen the pattern – a student falls behind, stops understanding, and becomes disengaged. 

“They start saying, ‘Oh, I cannot do this.’ They just start giving up which causes them to lose in their learning from other activities,” Garcia said. “And we can move them past that.”

He also knows the test scores  show a distinct deficit.  For third graders in Illinois, 25 percent of English/Language Arts students were not meeting expectations before the pandemic 2019, but by 2022 that number was 43 percent, according the Illinois State Board of Education.   

For math students, the number not meeting expectations nearly doubled from 2019 to 2022. (It was 17% in 2019, and went up to 33% in 2022, according to Illinois Report Card.

“Those gaps are really large at this point where this is why like tutors are needed to fill those gaps up for the students,” said Abdulkareem.

Moos interventionist Libby Battaglia is leading the tutor corps– building a “high dosage” tutoring program designed to help students make up for at least some of this missed learning.

“The earlier, the better,” Battaglia said. “I think for a long time, people are waiting (and think) ‘Oh, they’ll catch up. Oh, they’ll catch up.’ And that just wasn’t happening. And so my hope is that this program is one that other districts will start to pick up on.”

The success of the tutoring program is measured not only in students’ scores, but also in their self-confidence. Students and their tutors said they are bridging the pandemic learning gap, showing class time missed, doesn’t have to equal learning lost.   

“I’m understanding more,” Yadiel said “I’m reading a tiny bit faster each time I come.”