Lessons learned as schools reopened

Gladys I. Cruz

Last month, we reopened public schools across our region and state. This is an opportune time to reflect on this collective experience and what we learned during the past seven and a half months. We learned that:

n Closing our schools in March was the “easiest hard decision” we could make. Reopening them was much harder.

n Reopening brought out a range of emotions, but we wanted to bring back as many students as we could within the physical limitations of our space and preferences of parents.

n School leaders spent countless hours and unbudgeted sums of money planning for reopening, based on state guidance and in consultation with county departments of health.

n Parents carefully weighed personal situations to decide on in-person or remote learning — making the best decision for their families.

n Students, staff, and families adjusted well to the new normal, including following the new safety protocols and changes to school operations.

n Remote learning was possible, but not without its challenges. Moreover, teaching or working at home while providing child care or teaching our own kids was difficult.

n Some families were better positioned for remote learning while others lacked the technology — something that widened the digital divide and achievement gap.

n Some students are not actively engaged in their learning; we need to reach these learners and families before it is too late.

n Some parents expressed concerned about increased screen time during the day — and sought non-digital activities.

n Parents became true partners in their children’s learning. While this has added additional demands, it has broken down barriers that may have existed — something that I hope will continue in a post-COVID world.

n The average parent’s science and math knowledge ends at about the sixth-grade level (according to research) and technology was often the biggest challenge of remote learning.

n We face increased mental health concerns — and need to support the social emotional well-being of children and adults alike.

n The return of in-person instruction did not always address feelings of isolation. A/B hybrid schedules and remote learning may keep some youngsters from seeing their friends. At the same time, socialization or group activities are different, and more students are keeping to themselves.

n Public support of education was strong with a record number of voters and school budgets passed this year; 98.4% of budgets passed across the state with a voter mail-in turnout three to eight times more than previous years.

n There is a greater appreciation for the importance of our public schools and their role in our democracy and economy. Public education is an investment in the future of our youth and communities, one that will continue to pay dividends for the rest of their lives.

n Some systems changed their learning model or cut/furloughed staff in anticipation of 20% aid cuts. Our schools need more certainty with funding, and we need the federal government to do its part.

n Many are exhausted but we have been able to spend more time with our immediate family, a precious gift. We need to celebrate small and large victories alike — and value what is most important to us.

n Pandemics can bring out the best and worst in people. It was heartening to see how communities came together to support those in need. It was disheartening to see the spread of divisiveness, hateful rhetoric, and misinformation.

n You can see the joy of staff and students’ “happy eyes” — adults and children alike are happy to be back in school.

n Schools are doing their best to keep students engaged regardless of model — in-person, remote, or hybrid.

n Keeping our buildings open amid the pandemic will be much harder. It is critical that we remain flexible, adaptive, and patient as we prepare for the return of flu season.

Please continue to wear face masks, physically distance, wash your hands, avoid crowds and travel to high infection rate areas, and stay home if you are sick. Ultimately, how well we do this individually and collectively will determine whether we can continue to keep our schools open as intended — and as we desire for our students.

Dr. Gladys I. Cruz is the district superintendent of Questar III, the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) serving school districts in Rensselaer, Columbia and Greene counties.

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