“We owe it to our students to safely reopen schools and make sure they have the best opportunity for learning, which we know as educators is in person.”
“… having our students come into the classroom where they learn by doing, learn social-emotional skills by doing … is critically important.”
— Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education
In early September, the New Jersey School Boards Association issued “Rebuilding Opportunities for Students” — the fifth in a series of special reports on the issues facing school leaders, educators, students and their families since the pandemic began some 18 months ago.
The report looks at challenges facing school districts and students in dealing with pandemic-related gaps in academic and social-emotional learning and provides information on effective practices and programs, meeting the needs of special populations, the role of arts education in social-emotional learning, and directing coronavirus relief funding so that it has the optimal impact on growth and learning for students. The full report is available here; the executive summary is on the following pages. The direction from federal and state education officials is clear: After 18 months of extended school closings and periods of full or partial remote learning due to COVID-19, students should receive in-person instruction this fall. In May, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that, barring localized outbreaks of the disease or other emergencies, school districts must provide full-day in-person instruction exclusively in 2021-2022, with no option for remote learning. He reiterated that position Aug. 24.
Even if circumstances compel the state to change course and require school districts to pivot to hybrid or full remote learning (as they have done in the past), educators will still face the same challenge: adequately assessing the academic and emotional impact of the pandemic on their students and developing strategies to address individual needs.
To help the state’s education community meet this goal, the New Jersey School Boards Association convened the Committee on Post-Pandemic Gaps in Academic and Social-Emotional Learning to provide information on effective practices and programs, guidance and support. The committee consists of local school board leaders, state and local education officials, educators and NJSBA staff. It has drawn upon the knowledge of experts in various fields and reviewed literature and research, including the Association’s previous work on education during the pandemic, student achievement, the career-focused learner, student mental health and other subjects.
The committee’s final report provides insights, findings and recommendations on the following topics:
- Identifying gaps in academic learning through formative assessment and other methods, and addressing academic learning gaps caused by the pandemic, using approaches such as accelerated learning and “Just-in-Time Teaching,” while providing meaningful instructional opportunities across all nine content areas of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards.
- Embedding social-emotional learning into the entire curricular and co-curricular program.
- Recognizing the role of arts education in social-emotional learning.
- Meeting the needs of special populations, including students with disabilities and English language learners.
- Promoting healthy organizational structures and cultures, designed to enable educators to close academic learning gaps and meet students’ social-emotional needs, through methods such as strategic planning and collaboration between labor and management.
- Directing coronavirus relief funding provided to school districts through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund, so that it has the optimal impact on growth and learning for all students.
- Ensuring adequate transportation for students when they return for full-time in-person instruction.
Nationwide and statewide data on student learning during the pandemic are valuable in informing federal and state education policy. However, the experience of each local school district and each student has varied widely over the past 18 months. Consequently, local school districts and educators should rely on formative assessment and other ongoing measures of the progress of individual students in grade-level work when developing strategies to overcome any academic and social-emotional learning loss.
Efforts to address gaps in social-emotional learning must precede or be simultaneous with efforts to accelerate academic learning.
New Jersey’s local school districts did an exemplary job in delivering an education program to students during 2020-2021, pivoting between virtual and in-person. School districts developed plans to ensure that every child had nutritious meals, either tech-based or hard copy instructional materials, and social-emotional support. However, numerous factors beyond the control of educators and families caused learning disruptions, the impact of which needs to be addressed through local school district post-pandemic learning plans and the use of federal emergency funding.
New Jersey Department of Education data based on locally administered summative assessments show that the majority of New Jersey students met grade-level standards in English language arts and mathematics over the past year. However, progress for students with disabilities, English learners and economically disadvantaged students was significantly lower than that for the total student population. Progress for Black and Hispanic students was lower than that for their white and Asian counterparts. The state data underscore the importance of ensuring that, as appropriate, local school districts address the needs of vulnerable populations in post-pandemic education plans and the use of federal emergency funding.
- School districts and educators should rely upon formative assessments, which are ongoing and diagnostic, to identify post-pandemic student learning needs and develop individual instructional improvement plans.
- To address academic learning gaps, school districts should implement acceleration and just-in-time teaching while also considering implementing a spiral curriculum.
- Efforts to close learning gaps should be applied with equal vigor in all nine content areas of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards, including those not subject to state assessment.
- To effectively address the pandemic’s impact on learning, educators should adopt an “asset-based” mindset, which places a positive focus on the strengths that each student brings to the classroom and builds upon those strengths.
- District action plans to address the impact of the pandemic on education should have a dual focus, addressing both social-emotional and academic learning challenges.
- Social-emotional learning practices should be ongoing, embedded in every lesson and activity, including co-curricular programs, and facilitated throughout the school year and beyond the school day.
- School leaders should be cognizant of staff members’ emotional health, which affects the ability of students to process trauma resulting from the pandemic, and should provide appropriate services through employee assistance programs, professional development and other activities.
- Boards of education policy should express a belief that social-emotional learning/character development strengthens social competencies, provides for the well-being of students and staff, and facilitates academic achievement.
- As school districts revise their curricula to align with the 2020 New Jersey Student Learning Standards in the Visual and Performing Arts, they should consider using the Arts Education Social Emotional Learning Framework, which connects the artistic processes with social-emotional learning competencies.
- To meet the needs of the students most severely affected by the pandemic, educators should consider effective practices being implemented in New Jersey school districts, as well as guidance from the U.S. Department of Education and the New Jersey Department of Education. Strategies may include accelerated learning, extended learning time and one-to-one tutoring, as well as enrichment in STEAM education and access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs and career-technical education pathways.
- School districts should consider developing multi-year financial plans that extend beyond the expiration of federal American Rescue Plan/ESSER funding to ensure continuation of effective programs to meet students’ post-pandemic learning needs.
- The planning, implementation and evaluation of district plans to address social-emotional and academic learning gaps should be based on proven practices that are inclusive and collaborative, enhance effective organizational structures and promote healthy school climate and culture.
- School districts should use the opportunity presented by the American Rescue Plan/ESSER funding and related planning to ensure a continued focus on equity throughout the pre-K-12 education system.
- To ensure adequate transportation services when students return to school full-time, the federal and state governments should address the shortage of school bus drivers by revising requirements for the commercial drivers’ license-acquisition process, removing requirements that are unnecessary for school bus drivers.
- In developing programs to address post-pandemic education, local boards of education should review recommendations and suggestions contained in the New Jersey School Boards Association’s research reports on school safety, special education, student achievement, mental health and the career-focused learner, as well as the five reports on education during the pandemic that have been issued since May 2020.