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Fight the COVID slide in reading 

A media specialist explains how her school is adapting to at-home learning using a phonics-based tech tool.

5 min read


Fight the COVID slide in reading 


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As a media specialist for 15 years, my primary job is to spark enthusiasm in students about reading. One way to do that is through technology tools. To obtain the tech I need, I often write grant applications — and I recently received $3,000. 

I used those funds to purchase a site license and eight Square Panda Literacy System playsets, which are multisensory, phonics-based, supplemental early learning systems designed to take emerging readers through an adaptive curriculum. 

 Then, of course, the spread of COVID-19 hit and everyone went home. 

 Here’s how I’m pushing back against the “COVID slide” and managing to keep students engaged in reading while distance learning.

Making Student Reading Engagement Virtual

When our school closed, I designed a Google site for all the media, music, art, and physical education activities. This gave students a one-stop shopping experience for extracurricular activities. 

At first, we posted the activities, and students could complete them if they wanted. It was challenging to ask students who were already struggling with keeping up with their classroom assignments to get them to check out the activity page. 

When I saw that there wasn’t much traffic on the site, I started posting “plugged” and “unplugged” activities. Then one of the leaders in media and technology posted about Bitmoji Classrooms. I saw this and loved it. I was able to make an interactive classroom with links to things like storytime, ebooks, our district-owned VR headset, coding activities and STEM challenges. 

Students and parents appreciated this more accessible remote learning option. I made a summer learning page where students could explore interactive reading rooms that were themed in fun ways. It linked summer challenges and virtual field trips that the school district provided. It also included a space where students could submit pictures of activities they participated in. 

Boosting Morale with Special Days

It’s no secret that students love celebrating novelty holidays while they’re at school, so I wanted to make sure that didn’t stop just because they were stuck at home. To boost morale and keep their reading practice relevant, I created fun reading programs around special days in the year for students to focus on.

For example, we celebrated May the 4th — the novelty “Star Wars Day” — by hosting a drive-by parade for our entire community. Several teachers and I wanted to do something special for our Sea Park families, so we sent out an invite for the community to come out and drive through our car loop as teachers and staff members were dressed in Star Wars apparel and holding fun signs. I also posted a Star Wars interactive classroom where the students could participate in fun activities.

Making Screen Time Productive

To help us navigate the school closures, Square Panda donated 50 more playsets, which come with hands-on, tactile smart letters and connect via bluetooth to tablets. Whether in the classroom or at home, students can work independently, and the system adapts to deliver appropriate content for each student. And I can monitor their progress in the Teacher Portal.

When I sent parents the devices, I walked them through how to use them. At the end of the school year, I told them they could keep the devices over the summer — to maintain reading retention and practice — and bring them back when students return in the fall. 

Parents caught on right away that this platform isn’t just about putting their child in front of a screen and letting the computer do the work — the child has to be engaged for the program to be effective. Corrections a parent might typically not be able to address can be spotted in the program and remediated using a phonics-based program.

Maintaining a Sense of Community

When online school was in session, I called every student who had a playset once a week to see how they were using the tool and what they thought of it. If parents or students mentioned how a certain app was especially helpful, I had a resource to recommend to the next student I called. 

Now that school is out, I plan on calling the students with the playsets every two weeks to check-in. So far, what I have heard is that parents find it easy and students enjoy it.

I’m glad to see that their enthusiasm for reading hasn’t stopped just because school has ended. The summer slide is hard enough during normal school years. Confronting the COVID slide and preventing learning loss on top of that will take creativity, work and a willingness to adapt. 


Samantha McGill is a media specialist at Sea Park Elementary in Florida, where they use Square Panda Phonics Playsets to engage students in reading. She can be reached at [email protected]  


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