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The Way Forward: GSCS Leaders on COVID-19 Impact and Reopening-Sampson, et al.

Up All Night

by

Scott Rocco-Superintendent Hamilton Public Schools; David Aderhold-Superintendent West Windsor-Plainsboro Public Schools; Jay Majka-Superintendent Matawan-Aberdeen Public Schools; Michael Salvatore- Long Branch Public Schools; Chuck Sampson- Superintendent Freehold Regional High School District

Up All Night: Education and the “New Normal”

 

A famous photo depicts a heart surgeon sitting beside his patient after surgery. The surgeon is clearly exhausted, but the patient is alive and recovering.

 

Over the last six weeks, school districts across the nation have gone through a similar experience. We have given our all. Our districts are operational, and our students are learning. Now, just like the post-surgical patient, we must plan for recovery in a post-pandemic educational world.

 

The vital role of the schoolhouse has never been clearer. Author Simon Sinek asked, “How will we continue to do what we do in a different world?” As educators facing a “new normal we have been hindered by changing guidance and numerous unknowns.  Providing continuity is critical for district and school leaders.

 

The true test of leadership post COVID-19 will be our ability to meet the academic, emotional and basic needs of our students. 

 

It is the next steps in the process that keep school leaders up at night. Without clear guidance, rooted in science and data, our efforts may do more harm than good. Health and education experts must create the specific plans and protocols that will lead to the reopening of our schools. Modernization of public education should be an outgrowth of that process.

 

Our schools will continue to thrive if we achieve excellence in three key-areas: continuance of operations, assessment and mitigation of COVID-19 trauma, and planning for school reopening. 

 

Continuing Operations

We need to create a sense of calm in our school communities. Social media is useful for this, but districts should also explore other communications vehicles.  These might include: targeted phone calls, individual remote meetings and focus groups, and online programs for targeted assistance.  Specialized staff, including student assistance and guidance counselors, school nurses, and specialized interventionists can provide clear, specific outreach to students and families.

 

As the pandemic changes leaders must refine existing plans, adding effective short and long-term strategies. It will be critical to address all students’ needs for education, food and social/emotional support using feedback tools like 

student virtual focus groups, surveys, and town hall-style, question- and-answer sessions. 

 

Operational plans must include contingencies for extension of remote learning in the fall. This may require critical staff reallocation and the immediate repurposing of resources. Master schedules incorporating the potential for split or altered sessions and the absence of high risk students and staff are also critical.

 

District plans may be subject to alteration on short notice, making it necessary to create policies that address changes to grading, meeting procedures, curricular processes and personnel recruitment and retention. We must assume the likelihood of sharp funding reductions while examining budgets and identifying  ssential expenditures.

 

Pandemic & Post Pandemic Trauma - Students & Adults

 

As we move into summer we need to support families as they experience food insecurity, academic regression, and a lack of access to technology, and counseling services. 

 

A return to in-person instruction in September is a 50/50 proposition at best.  Crisis counseling will be vital. There may be stops and starts due to virus resurgences.  Many families may choose not to return their children to public school until the  COVID-19 crisis has resolved, necessitating the use of hybrid instructional models Flexibility and agility in our thinking, must inform our work to strengthen home/school bonds, increase virtual training and online resources, and focus on staff wellness.  Educators must redefine what it means to provide continuity of care.

 

Whenever we return from virtual/remote learning, districts will need to provide a broad range of mental health, medical (nursing), and social/emotional resources for our entire school community. Meeting the needs of our traumatized students and staff, will require resources for training, personnel, programming, and outreach services.

 

We will have to deal with the intersection of trauma and mental health concerns. The frightening reality for schools is that no one is immune to student mental health crises, including suicide. Districts must address mental health using strategies grounded in Trauma Informed Care and ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences).  Funding constraints will compel districts to build trauma awareness, skills, and knowledge from within. 

 

Families will also need our support  to access resources that include: water, food, clothing, mental health services, and child care.  They may also need IT support, hygiene resources, grief support, financial assistance, help navigating mental health services, and access to community housing and transportation assistance. We can help by offering access to a network of community organizations and partners that are equipped to assist with various phases of crisis response. 

 

The potential for transformative change begins with the recognition that schools are more than academic institutions. Our students need to know how much we care about them and want to ensure their full development.  They are depending on us.

 

Opening of the new school year:

 

On March 16, 2020, Governor Murphy issued an executive order closing all schools beginningWednesday, March 18,, a date that should be etched in the history of education in New Jersey.  Now we are officially closed for the rest of this school year. As a result, our focus has shifted to finishing this year virtually and figuring out what we need to do to reopen in September.

 

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the ability of school districts to deliver learning to our students in a different way, but the schools we return to must be changed. We cannot go backward from this experience.  We must use the lessons learned from it to modernize our educational system for a post-pandemic world. 

 

To continue traditional education in our schools we will need protocols, procedures, and processes that provide a healthy environment for those who learn, work and visit our buildings. Education is a social experience that requires some amount of personal interaction. Finding the path back to face-to-face learning will require data-driven decision making and collaboration with health and education officials.

 

But we must also realize that our school communities  can thrive while utilizing some aspects of remote learning. The key is the word “some”. Education is more than “ABC’s and 1 2 3’s”, it is also about social-emotional learning, personal contact, and learning to interact with others. We have an chance now to develop new remote learning and instructional opportunities that are as valuable as the classroom experience. For decades we have been told that schools were “ not like the real world.”  Families sitting at home attempting to do school work and jobs on their devices might disagree.. Education has entered the real world. Let’s not squander the opportunity. 

 

Instead, let’s discuss the issues and concerns that surround the modernizing of  education. Some of the most pressing of those include: 

 

Equity -As we move forward, we must address equity in every area--quality instruction, resources, opportunity, etc. Why shouldn’t every student have a laptop or Chromebook and Internet access as standard-issue tools of learning? Why can’t internet providers give students in every community access to the free Wi-Fi that allows them to learn and collaborate?

 

Relevance – Learning--in person and remote-- needs to be relevant, enabling students to make connections to learning and work and experiences outside school walls.  A renewed focus on relevance will help answer many basic questions.  Can schools connect to outside experts in various fields, and industry leaders? Can connections with other students and schools bring increased relevance to student learning? Can ideas that are relevant right now remain so in a post-pandemic world?

 

Developmental Appropriateness - Remote learning is not for all grade levels, all the time, or for students who may need additional support. Experts in learning theories and child developmental readiness need to work with classroom educators to determine what is and is not achievable in a remote environment. How do we maximize learning between the two environments? Is there an age or grade level where remote instruction can or should start? 

 

Family Structure -Changing the educational system will also change the family dynamics, and needs to be addressed, along with the topic of developmental appropriateness. How will families handle changes in traditional education and can they adjust to those changes? What impact will proper supervision of students have on the family?

 

Clearly we will see teaching in a new light as we go forward.  Just as the patient mentioned at  the beginning of this essay was on the road to recovery, so our schools are on the same road. Just as the patient hopes that he will be better after the surgery, and able to start on the next chapter of his life, we too hope our schools are on the road to recovery.  We are anxious  to resume our educational lives, and in the process be able to do things we were never able to do before.  We need to come together to find the best answers to the many questions we will face in the coming days, weeks, months and years.

During this pandemic many educational leaders have banded together to share, ideas and think through the chaos collectively. Our group of New Jersey superintendents has done that--coming together to address  critical issues that we face in our school districts and to help colleagues across the state and beyond. We do not have all the answers. We are simply educators concerned about the future of education and devoted to those who learn and work in our schools. Join us as we move forward! (put info in about registration)

 

 


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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