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    Letters
    Thursday, February 02, 2023

    The needs created by the pandemic haven’t ended

    “Come gather 'round people Wherever you roam And admit that the waters Around you have grown… For the times they are a-changin'”

    These poetic words of The Times They Are A-Changin were written by Bob Dylan in 1963. While written nearly 60 years ago and for an entirely different context, these lyrics accurately reflect the status of our education system today.

    For many, the end of masking signaled the end of the pandemic in schools, but school districts across the land continue to experience the impact of the pandemic in very real ways. The effects of the pandemic on schools were initially well-documented by 20-second sound bites on the news and catchy headlines in various publications, but this all seems to have faded from the news cycle. Rarely a week goes by that someone does not remark to me that it is great to see schools back to normal again. Schools are not back to normal, nor will they be anytime soon.

    I am not so sure returning to “normal” should be the plan, as the old normal did not necessarily work for every student. We must not only be responsive to students’ needs but reimagine schools for our students who will fill jobs that do not yet exist. We must continue to make sure our schools are responsive to the changing world.

    I assure you that, for schools, the needs created by the pandemic will not end with the pandemic. Nationally, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared the pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health a national emergency. During the pandemic, Waterford spent over $1M of federal COVID-relief funds to increase mental health support for our students. We also opened two school-based health centers in partnership with United Community Family Services. Even with these additional supports, staff’s caseloads are near or at maximum capacity with students needing significant mental health support related to anxiety, depression, grief, and social isolation.

    Our district has also invested over $1M of federal COVID-relief funds in the areas of academics and intervention. The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress nationwide data shows the largest decline in average reading scores since 1990 and a decline in average mathematics scores for the first time in history. Our state and region were not immune to the academic challenges created by the pandemic. While Waterford continues to outpace the state, our students did not grow at the rate we would expect during pre-pandemic school years. This is not learning loss. No students “lost” learning. Students were still learning during the pandemic; they just did not learn at the same rates as their peers during previous school years. Each day we continue to address the learning gaps in new ways and with new approaches, but our work is far from done.

    In our school district, the 2021-2022 school year saw nearly 20% of our student population identified as chronically absent. If you look at students who missed at least two weeks of school last year, we approach 35-40% of our student population. This year’s absenteeism data, while slightly better, is still very concerning and is indicative of continued mental health struggles. One strategy proving fruitful is home visits by staff to support a collaborative relationship when attempting to reestablish regular attendance.

    School districts are still facing significant challenges on a daily basis in all areas of school life: academic, social-emotional, mental health, and attendance. More importantly, our students continue to feel these lasting effects despite a perception that the pandemic is winding down. These challenges will remain long after the federal COVID-relief funds run out and media attention fades away. Our commitment to our students will not waver. We owe it to them. We owe them the best possible opportunity at a better life for the times they are a-changin.

    Thomas W. Giard III is the Superintendent of the Waterford Public Schools.

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