Back to school with covid in the rearview mirror
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Back to school with covid in the rearview mirror

Covid may not be completely over yet, but experts tell us that the end is in sight. Happily, this fall we returned to school without masks, without plexiglass barriers, and without social distancing. Yet I can still see covid’s shadow on our students and its lingering impact in the classroom.

While physical distancing and remote school were necessary to stop the spread of covid-19, those measures clearly have taken a toll on our children’s mental health, causing many to feel socially isolated, anxious, and depressed.  On the academic front, our students lost two years of in-person learning, depriving them of the ability to develop routines, to internalize structure, and to cultivate rigorous study habits. The cost of school closures has been devastating to kids of all ages. And that’s true whether it’s a second grader who has never experienced a full week of school and knows only a hybrid of remote and in-person learning, or high schoolers who missed out on sports leagues or special occasions like prom and graduation, or even just regular social gatherings with friends. Clearly the pandemic has had major impacts.

So, while we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the worst of covid-19 is behind us, and that the world as we knew it is back, there is a question that begs to be asked. How quickly can we expect kids to bounce back from an extended period of trauma and crisis and be able to pick up where they left off?

As an educator and school psychologist, I see the lingering impact of the pandemic that caused disruptions in students’ routines and social norms. According to the National Assessment Governing Board, there’s been a nationwide decline in math and reading achievement scores. Some students lack the intrinsic respect for school and classroom rules that they once had. Other students exhibit signs of anxiety unexpectedly and with no obvious cause.

Ironically, now that we are fully back in school, we seem to expect our students to return with the same level of social and academic skills that they had before the pandemic.  Yet we know that our students haven’t used these skills sets for the past two years. So are we being fair to them, or are we setting them up for greater stress and failure?

We cannot automatically go back to business as usual, expecting our students to reach the same exact markers and milestones at the same times developmentally as before. Rather we need to remember the two-year gap and allow our students time to catch up.

We must recognize that our students experienced the pandemic during significant periods of physical, social, and emotional development. They lost two years of interpersonal interactions, peer socialization, and normative play. Thus, returning to school after this crisis and partial hiatus can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression.  Therefore, in order to avert a greater mental health crisis, we need to be proactive, rather than reactive, and meet their needs head-on with appropriate expectations.

Most importantly, we need to reintroduce our students to the structure of school, to the demands of the classroom, to the routines of the school day, and to the protocols of social interactions. In short, we need to reorient our students to many of the social and academic behaviors they may have forgotten (or are out of practice doing). In fact, there are some behaviors that our students did consistently and routinely before the pandemic, and they simply need to relearn.

There’s no timetable for how long the adjustment period will take. Some students will glide seamlessly right back into school, excited to be back with friends and happy to be busy learning new things.  Others may take a much longer time to feel comfortable and safe in the classroom.  Students who experienced illness and loss during the pandemic understandably will be more hesitant to leave their homes and their familiar surroundings to return to carpools, school buses, and school buildings.

Our students didn’t lose just academic learning during the pandemic. Some lost family members, others had relatives who lost their jobs and sources of income, and almost all experienced social isolation. Faculty members were equally impacted by the ordeal of the past two years. All of us, teachers and students alike, will be recovering from the impacts of the pandemic for years to come.

As educators we will be there alongside our students, gently guiding them until each one is back on track, teaching each student what they need to know in the specific way that works best.  That’s one of the key values of Jewish education.

Dr. Tani Foger is the school psychologist at the Idea School in Tenafly

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