Education On A Good Day Is...
On Tuesday, February 9th as President of NJASA, it was my honor to represent NJASA educational leaders before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools. The Committee, created by statute in 1975, is comprised of 14 members of the Legislature. Appointments to the Committee are made by the Senate President and Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.
The agenda topic for the remote Feb 9th Joint Committee on the Public Schools meeting was to discuss how New Jersey can successfully reopen schools while addressing the learning loss and the social emotional impact the pandemic has had on the students and teachers of New Jersey.
Excerpts of my presentation are highlighted below.
- Education on a good day is challenging, rewarding, purposeful, collaborative, broadening, and uplifting. In the past year, ensuring that our students receive standards-based learning rooted in the curriculum during a global pandemic has proven frustrating, anxiety-producing, seemingly impossible, frightening, and challenging.
- Everyday school leaders witness heroic acts in classrooms across New Jersey districts of students and teachers who have settled in with determination to navigate hybrid and remote learning and with patience for the required technology and its inevitable shortcomings.
- There is no doubt, however, that this year has been difficult for everyone, especially for students who are younger or have specific needs. Educational leaders do not minimize the challenges of students on computer screens for hours, of parents juggling the needs of their children with employment and other responsibilities, of staff members going above and beyond even as they struggle with their own personal responsibilities, of a community cooped up and fed up and frustrated.
- Many districts have opened in September with a hybrid model of instruction and have worked hard to maintain that important level of in-person instruction while working to ensure the health and safety of their school community. We believe that some lessons from this year will inform decisions about next year.
- To be able to open safely, much work has focused on checking and improving the ventilation in our buildings.
- While districts are offering hybrid instruction, a percentage of teachers are not able to work in person because of their own health issues. This number does not include staff members who notify us that they are required to quarantine because of exposure. Both issues contribute to higher substitute expenses.
- Regardless of your profession, I think everyone would agree that the pandemic has forced us all to rethink our procedures, schedules, and priorities. This is certainly happening in education. Administrators are working with teachers to identify “non-negotiables.”
- Some examples in the academic disciplines from the Westfield District include:
1. In science, the message to the teachers has been to keep strong focus on the Science Practices outlined in the standards. These practices are the skills that students take with them as they progress year to year in science. These practices are consistent across classes and independent of the content. These skills include planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, and engaging in argument from evidence.
2. For Language Arts, Westfield is doing what so many educational guidelines have suggested, which is to focus as much as possible on skill-building and anchor texts. That means we are continuing to meet our curricular goals regarding writing instruction, critical reading instruction, analysis, research, and overall class engagement.
3. Westfield teachers at the intermediate and high school levels are paying close attention to quality summative assessments to gain a clear barometer of where students are in their growth. In Grades 1-5, we are using an online reading assessment, to assess our elementary readers, which has allowed teachers to collect actionable data to drive instruction. And our K-2 learners receive phonics instruction with unit tests administered at the end of each instructional unit, allowing teachers to provide additional instruction for those students who may require it.
4. In all subjects, students are receiving instruction grounded in essential skills at each grade level.
- Across New Jersey, instructional work in the classrooms is being supported by the new technology skills we have all acquired. Teachers, students – and administrators have become facile utilizing a myriad of software programs and apps that are providing a deeper understanding and a welcome efficiency. Technology is supporting differentiation and providing an ease for real time formative assessments that allows for better planning for the next lesson. These lessons are going to stay with us and improve instruction going forward.
- Even as school leaders are focusing on providing an academically meaningful level of instruction, we also worry greatly about the emotional well-being of our students and staff during this isolating time. School counselors and child study teams are working overtime, trying to deliver the same level of emotional support in a totally new way. They are connecting one-on-one with students via virtual platforms or by reaching out with a phone call. Teachers are collecting information daily about how students are experiencing workload. Districts are providing parents and students with mental health resources and have worked with their communities to provide opportunities for speakers to share guidance and suggestions with parents and students.
- From the beginning, the question school leaders continue to ask ourselves is how do we safely reopen our schools and how will we address both the educational and emotional needs of our students and staff as they begin to return to full time, in-person learning?
- Here is where partnership and direction from the State will be invaluable:
1. Clear guidance as to what constitutes a safe and healthy classroom environment as vaccines become more available, yet new variants of COVID-19 emerge.
2. Coordination with mental health providers to support not only the students, but their families.
3. Full funding of extraordinary aide to reimburse districts for the instruction and related services that have been provided to students this year.
4. Programs to support our staff, many of whom have set aside their own health and emotional well-being needs to tend to those of their students.
5. Funding - Additional monies outside the regular school formula to provide for after school and summer learning programs.
In my closing remarks, I indicated NJASA looks forward to working with all involved stakeholders to do what is best for our students from the standpoint of academic, emotional, and physical health.
All the Best,
Dr. Margaret Dolan
2020-2021 NJASA President