Last week at a virtual meeting with the State Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools, New Jersey School Boards Association staff testified on how we can successfully reopen schools while addressing learning loss and the social emotional impact the pandemic has had on the students and teachers. NJSBA Director of Governmental Affairs Jonathan Pushman highlighted some of the work the NJSBA has done over the past year, providing guidance and resources on the state of education during the pandemic, and what will need to be done to return to “a new normal for public education in New Jersey.”
Here, via NJSBA, is a summary of what Pushman told the Committee:
Pushman said NJSBA has issued a series of four special reports since the pandemic claimed its first life in New Jersey on March 10, 2020:
“We believe each of these reports can serve as a vital resource to not only school board members, but to the broader educational community, as well as key policymakers,” Pushman said, “as we chart a path forward for our students.”
Here are excerpts from Pushman’s prepared testimony:
Safely Reopening of Schools: Board of education members are eager to reopen their respective district facilities and return students to in-person instruction as soon as possible. Obviously, doing so safely and without risking the health of students or staff is of paramount importance. Once we are able to get more teachers and staff vaccinated, we can then return to in-person learning and districts will be able to focus their time, energy and resources on the issues that are the focus of today’s hearing – addressing learning loss and the social-emotional impact of the pandemic on students.
Currently, it is unclear when enough people will be vaccinated to make a return to some semblance of normalcy possible. And unfortunately, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has been disappointingly slow. Additionally, teachers and other school personnel have not been given the level of prioritization to receive the vaccine, which is essential to reopening schools to more in-person instruction. At the request of several of our members, the N.J. School Boards Association drafted a sample resolution urging the governor to give appropriate priority in the statewide administration of the COVID-19 vaccine to all public school district personnel. Many have or plan to adopt this resolution.
No conversation surrounding the reopening of schools can occur without emphasizing what all school districts can use more of: financial resources. Districts have and will continue to incur expenses that they never could have planned or budgeted for when COVID-19 took hold of the world last March. Even before the pandemic, the state had failed to meet its existing obligations under the school funding formula. While we appreciate that the Legislature and Gov. Murphy have made a concerted effort in recent years to increase overall education funding, we believe more needs to be done. Flat funding will not be sufficient for another year. It is critically important that the state prioritize increased funding for schools in the next state budget so they have the financial resources to confront the learning and social-emotional needs of students.
Social-Emotional Needs and Mental Health: While the social-emotional needs and mental health of our students were serious concerns before the pandemic, they have garnered increased attention during this extended period of social isolation. Fortunately, as illustrated in the NJSBA’s fourth report on the impact of the pandemic, a compilation of national and state data, anecdotal information from superintendents, and an NJSBA survey all show that, for the most part, the worst has not occurred.
Although student suicides and incidents of self-harm remain at disturbingly high levels, the coronavirus pandemic has apparently not created a new wave of incidents. A NJSBA survey of board members, superintendents and staff conducted this past fall showed that nearly half of the respondents said, “We do not see evidence of more students in crisis, but in general students are more anxious and depressed.” In addition, nearly one-third responded, “In general, students are coping well. Our district has not seen increased evidence of serious crises.”
This should not be interpreted to mean that the pandemic has not had any impact on the mental health of students. One national survey to assess the mental health impact on school-age children revealed that, since their school buildings closed, young people’s levels of concern about the present and future have increased, and indicators of overall health and well-being have suffered. More than one-quarter of students say they do not feel connected at all to school adults. A similar percentage do not feel connected to classmates or to their school community.
While more details can be found in the NJSBA’s latest report, a summary of a few of our key proposals on how we can address students’ mental health and social-emotional needs follows below:
Student Learning Loss. The NJSBA believes strongly in the importance of assessing and remediating any learning loss, gaps or delays resulting from the pandemic. In the reports since the public emergency began, the NJSBA issued various recommendations centered around this critical issue:
We should also give consideration to how we might leverage virtual learning going forward to increase and add flexibility to the school day. Before-school, after-school and weekend programs have now become much more feasible after having nearly a year of experience with remote instruction, and the impediments to implementing these programs, such as insufficient technology and transportation challenges, have now become more manageable.