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Alexandria reading group worries about pandemic's impact on childhood literacy

With the pandemic disrupting school schedules, DC Public Schools and local reading groups say childhood literacy has been impacted.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — During the school year, Joel Kaplan loves to don a Dr. Seuss hat before sitting down in front of young students and introducing them to another exciting story.

Seeing the looks on the children's faces and bringing them into the world of books was what led Kaplan and his wife, Teresa, to start the CLAP For Books organization in Alexandria a few years ago.

However, due to the pandemic this year, things have changed.

Many of the books that have been donated to give to children in need now sit inside of a warehouse space, unable to be shared, while the special storytime events are instead held in front of a computer screen.

"We used to try and make a fun experience out of it," Teresa Kaplan said. "We can’t do it anymore.” 

With schools and students still experiencing changes due to rising coronavirus cases around the country, the impact to childhood literacy continues to be felt.

According to a data report released by DC Public Schools (DCPS) late last month, the district has seen an 11% reduction in students meeting or exceeding literacy benchmarks set at the beginning of the year.

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Individualized Education Program and English Learner students are even further behind in reading, the report said.

DCPS noted that students who cannot read at grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate by 19 than children who read proficiently.

School leaders added that the numbers helped show the importance of students returning to classrooms for safe in-person learning.

With part of the literacy issue being witnessed firsthand by the CLAP For Books organization, the Kaplans missed being able to give out books and read to children.

"The pandemic has hurt what we do a great deal," Joel Kaplan said. "Since the pandemic, we’ve done two Zoom readings. It seems to work but it’s not the same as being there.” 

With their book donations now sitting idle instead of being given out to students in need, Teresa Kaplan worried about the longtime impact to students.

"Without learning to read, life is closed to them. They don’t have opportunities," she said. "We can tell a child that has been read to and understands what a book is. They’re excited about it. Their verbiage is much better. The way they talk, the way they think is so much better than the poor child that comes from a deprived background.” 

Due to the surge in coronavirus cases recently, debate continues over the safety of returning children back to classrooms.

Moving forward, the Kaplans said parents could play a crucial role in helping their child's reading skills.

"We are encouraging them to read with their children," Teresa Kaplan said. "We know parents have a lot going on but when children see parents reading, they want to read too.” 

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