Zalaunshae leaned close to the laptop camera, her oversize pink bows filling the computer screen. The teacher asked students to name characters in “The Enormous Turnip.” Zalaunshae raised her hand first.

This was second grade. The 7-year-old already understood the strange sound a “c” and “h” made when they sat next to each other in a word. She could speed through basic sentences. And she knew how to break down an unfamiliar, complicated word, snapping her fingers with each syllable.

But that isn’t enough to be considered a strong reader in second grade. Now it’s about comprehension. Why, exactly, did the farmer struggle so much to pull that turnip? Who were the characters in the storybook?

“The mouse,” Zalaunshae said, pinching two fingers together and pushing them close to her laptop camera to show the class just how small it was.

“Way to go, Zalaunshae,” said the teacher, Fatima Jallow. “Let’s all send her some energy.”

The half-dozen second-graders in the reading group reached out their arms and wiggled their fingers to send their classmate good vibes.

The stakes are high for Zalaunshae Pearson and her classmates at Achievement Prep public charter school’s elementary campus in Southeast Washington.

Studies link third-grade reading levels to graduation rates. Students are at least four times as likely to not graduate from high school on time if they are not proficient readers by the time they complete third grade, according to a 2011 study published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization focused on child welfare. The rate doubles for Black and Hispanic children.

In March, around 90 percent of the school’s first-graders hit their reading targets, according to internal assessments. Then when the pandemic hit and schools abruptly closed, teachers sent the children home with academic packets. The school remained closed, and the packets kept coming. The first-graders became second-graders. The 6-year-olds became 7-year-olds.

This fall, individual reading assessments administered in person highlighted the cost of trying to learn during the pandemic. All 45 second-graders fell behind. Not a single student started the academic year reading on grade level. It was far worse than a typical summer learning drop. Some were reading at an early first-grade level, others at a kindergarten level.

Zalaunshae fared better than most. She didn’t lose any of her literacy skills compared with in the spring. But during the spring and summer she didn’t gain any, either. That meant that she started second grade six months behind.

She and her classmates are expected to be proficient readers in third grade, when they will start taking high-stakes standardized exams. That is also when early literacy lessons stop and more-advanced social studies and science courses that assume students know how to read begin.

The consequences of months of schooling lost to the pandemic — a spring when remote learning was spotty and a summer out of school — could last far beyond this academic year.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has pointed to literacy loss among the D.C. public school system’s youngest learners to underscore why schools urgently need to reopen. Black and Latino students are falling further behind, she warned in October. The achievement gap is growing.

The 183 students in kindergarten through third grade at Achievement Prep are among the children that education leaders fear will fare the worst from prolonged school closures. Ninety-seven percent are Black. Nearly 70 percent are from families that qualify for public assistance. Thirteen percent are homeless. The students already fell on the wrong side of the achievement gap, performing well below city averages on standardized exams.

“Education being used as pathway — that’s always been the way for our people,” said Shantelle Wright, founder of Achievement Prep, who is Black. “To have that be compromised and have it be so out of their control, it’s scary.” 

Jallow and Wright understand what is at stake for these children if they do not learn to read. The school is completely online this fall, with a curriculum that gives Zalaunshae and her classmates three to four hours of live virtual learning each day and structured independent work in between.

But teaching virtually makes it hard to connect with students. Sometimes Jallow’s students try to answer questions, but their Internet lags and they can’t speak. To keep the class moving, she has to call on someone else while the student sits frozen. Her students — or scholars, as she refers to them — often experience online-learning fatigue, drifting to a YouTube music video before their reading lessons end. She is putting more hours into teaching each week than ever before.

“It takes a certain level of patience and understanding to get through it,” said Jallow, 24, a first-year teacher at Achievement Prep and a second-year fellow with Urban Teachers, a program that provides training for teachers across the country. “I never thought I could do it. It is helping me to take it day by day.”

Zalaunshae’s mother, Kathy Lloyd, also understands the stakes. She is the woman behind Zalaunshae’s perfect attendance during the pandemic, and she is determined to put as many books as she can in front of her daughter.

'She flew into my life'

Lloyd scours Little Free Libraries for children’s books. She also grabs the free books available at the nearby hospital, which she visits frequently for her leg and back injuries.

Her daughter’s favorite? “Just Grace and the Snack Attack,” a pink hardcover Lloyd picked up at a doctor’s appointment. “It’s a chapter book about snacks,” Zalaunshae said, laughing as she flipped through the pages.

“I’m not even sure I know what a chapter book is,” Lloyd said.

Zalaunshae explained that it is a book for older children with few pictures.

“She’s teaching me,” Lloyd said, impressed by her child.

Lloyd has always tried to provide her daughter with a stable life and a strong education. She just never thought school buildings would close for more than eight months and her daughter would be getting an education from their subsidized apartment unit in Southeast Washington.

“I want more for her than what I had,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t get an education, so that’s something that I don’t play with.”

Lloyd, 59, dropped out of high school more than 40 years ago in Northeast Washington. She witnessed her father kill her mother when she was a young girl, forcing her to grow up and work before she could earn a diploma.

She spent her adult life working at coffee shops and other service jobs until a back injury pulled her out of the workforce more than a decade ago.

Six years ago, a friend of Lloyd’s knew of a baby who needed a home. Lloyd said she would raise the child, and just like that Zalaunshae became her whole life.

“I call her my butterfly,” she said, “because she flew into my life, and I’m never going to let her fly out.”

Lloyd always tells Zalaunshae to “dream big,” reminding her that an education is the way to achieve those dreams.

“I want to be a dancer,” Zalaunshae said after a school day in October, shimmying in sparkly pink shoes in front of her apartment building.

“Come on, Zalaunshae,” Lloyd said, prodding her daughter to share the full scope of her ambitions. “You’ve also been telling everyone since you’ve been 4 that you want to be a judge, lawyer and police officer.”

Every evening, Lloyd irons a clean polo shirt with Achievement Prep’s logo for Zalaunshae to wear during virtual school. The school doesn’t require it, but she thinks it helps her daughter focus.

Lloyd moved Zalaunshae’s books from her bedroom to the dining table, where she participates in virtual school, so she can be surrounded by books when she learns. She posts a handwritten sign on her apartment door reminding the teenagers whose voices echo in the hallways: “SCHOOL IN PROGRESS HERE.”

“I do it every day so she feels like she’s going to school,” Lloyd said. “And it makes me feel better, too.”

On the other side of the screen, Jallow is also trying to create something like the classroom experience.

Re-creating the classroom

Jallow reports each day to her empty classroom, equipped with a large television screen that allows her to see each student’s face without scrolling. A camera tracks her as she moves, so she can amble around as she would during a normal lesson.

A typical English class begins with students reading passages aloud from a book. Students are grouped in classes by reading level. Zalaunshae is in the highest group, and Jallow pushed that group to relate the stories to their own lives.

“We don’t read like robots,” Jallow reminded them. “So we read with expression, so people can understand us.”

During the pandemic, attendance has dropped and the gap between her students’ reading abilities has widened. Before schools closed, more than 90 percent of students reported to school on a given day, school leaders said. In the first weeks of fall, that dropped to around 70 percent. It’s now up to more than 80 percent. The school makes daily phone calls to absent students and frequent home visits — one week last month, school representatives showed up at the residences of 14 students who were truant or needed help with virtual learning.

Students, including Zalaunshae, are making more progress than they did in the spring.

But Jallow is certain they would be doing much better if they were in person. In school, she can create an equitable learning environment, but she can’t do that when every child is at home with wildly differing learning situations.

Zalaunshae is an only child with a mother who can log her in each day. Others are at home with multiple siblings and less supervision, or with too many distractions to properly focus.

Jallow has struggled to create lesson plans that meet the needs of all her students, even in small group classes.

“I’m putting you all in your breakout rooms,” Jallow announced to the class, going to her laptop to put students in separate Zoom classrooms.

Students were directed to continue to read the book by themselves in these rooms. This is the time when, if students were in a classroom, Jallow would visit each of their desks to see whether they needed any help.

Instead, she dropped by each of their Zoom rooms. A computer program allows Jallow to see what page each student is on, so if a student is spending too long on a page, she can ask whether they need assistance.

When Zalaunshae arrived in her private room, she sped through the pages in the book, imitating a Southern accent as she read about the turnip farmer.

Zalaunshae is a fast reader, but she sometimes glosses over key words and reads others incorrectly.

“Do you remember what happens if there is an ‘s’ after ‘mister’?,” Jallow asked Zalaunshae when she entered her digital room and noticed she made a mistake.

“Yes,” Zalaunshae said, slowly sounding “Mrs.” out and correcting herself.

There are some aspects of class that Jallow just can’t re-create. Students are reading digital copies of a book, never holding physical books during class. She knows the sense of accomplishment second-graders feel when they turn that last page of a book and hopes these virtual lessons don’t dissuade children from reading.

School leaders say confidence is also dropping. Students are frustrated with online learning and are struggling to keep up. Achievement Prep is creating individual plans to help each student. Now, Jallow spends more time giving praise to her students. A child struggling with reading simple words now receives shout-outs during classes when they successfully read sentences. Zalaunshae gets a shout-out when she reads complete books with few mistakes.

Every day during class, Jallow pauses the readings and puts on a YouTube music video for a dance break. Each time, Zalaunshae, with the confidence of a 7-year-old, stands up and steps away so her laptop camera captures more than just her face. She shakes her head left and right, flapping her arms up and down, and dances with her classmates.