WATSONVILLE—As the pandemic recedes—along with the stay-at-home education model that upended the 2020-21 school year—thousands of young people across the county are set to return to the classroom in the fall.
This will be no easy task, as legions of students now accustomed to learning from home prepare to enter classrooms full of their peers, not to mention face a real-life teacher and hands-on lessons.
At the same time, administrators are trying to gauge how the past year has affected their students. This “learning loss” has affected students in every age demographic, from elementary through high school, says Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.
Rodriguez says that the district looked at a wide range of data from assessments such as the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test to help determine which students did not meet their expected academic growth.
While learning loss was evident at every grade level, the data showed that many first- and second-grade PVUSD students didn’t meet the one-year growth expected of that age range. Seventh-grade students also experienced higher-than-average learning loss.
To help lessen this impact, PVUSD is offering a seven-week, two-session summer program, to help begin the year with a “restorative start,” Rodriguez says.
The district is hiring additional socio-emotional counselors and mental health clinicians to provide support for students who need it, and plans to create a parent engagement and wellness center at E.A. Hall Middle School, Rodriguez says.
The district is also looking into additional contracts with organizations such as Life Lab, El Sistema and the Latino Youth Film Institute, Rodriguez says. In addition, it will hire another 16 intervention teachers, and increase its numbers of instructional assistants for transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students.
“We’re taking on a whole-child approach,” she said. “We really recognize that how our students are doing socio-emotionally affects how they will do academically.”
It is not yet clear how many students will be back in PVUSD classrooms when classes start on Aug. 12. In a survey sent out to parents—which garnered 3,122 responses—65% said they planned to send their children to school, while 22% were undecided. The remaining 13% said they would attend the district’s Virtual Academy.
That survey also shows that 64% of the respondents were worried about the loss of important experiences that came from distance learning, including graduation ceremonies. In addition, 33% said they wanted summer school programs for enrichment and “academic acceleration,” while 25% said they need after-school programs to aid in their return.
The PVUSD survey also shows that 18% of respondents lost a loved one to Covid-19, a fact likely to add to the stress of coming back to school.
Santa Cruz County Office of Education Superintendent Faris Sabbah says that the county is using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds it received during the pandemic to boost its number of behavioral health support staff and teachers.
“You’re going to see a significant increase in support services, interventions for students to help students make up for the learning loss that took place,” he said. “It’s not only about learning, [but] it’s also about well-being. So there is a big effort to provide support in that area.”
Olga Rechetova, a clinical social worker with Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA), says that students suffered trauma on multiple fronts after they lost the structure of the day-to-day school schedule, causing increased anxiety and depression. That was compounded in households with challenging family dynamics, she says.
“If home doesn’t feel like a safe supportive place, and now kids are spending more time there, they are exposed to it a little more,” she said.
The year was also hard on LGBTQ+ students, who in many cases lost the support network they find at school, Rechetova says.
“This has brought more light into these situations that are more challenging to begin with,” she said.
Some students found that they did better during their year of distance learning, including those with social anxiety or behavioral issues, Rechetova says.
“Once school was taken out of this equation, those issues decreased as well,” she said. “Now that we are preparing to go back to school, we’re anticipating that those issues will arise and kids and youth that didn’t have as much practice over the last year confronting those situations find it extra challenging to go back to school.”
PVPSA Behavioral Health Director Eric Ochoa says that staying at home likely compounded problems that were already there.
“What we know in mental health is that all serious mental illness requires isolation,” he said. “It’s a necessary component. What that means is that one of the major conditions for serious clinical issues is guaranteed during the pandemic.”
As a result, he says, mental health workers are seeing rates of depression, substance abuse, suicides and diagnoses of all kinds. And this will be a problem when students return to school with problems that have started or intensified, Ochoa says.
But this could also benefit students, as teachers and school support staff notice potential problems that would have gone unnoticed in a distance-learning model, and make referrals to appropriate organizations.
“It’s going to dawn on everyone the real need that’s there, which is hidden right now to some extent,” he said. “There will be a ton of awareness that’s going to increase the need for support.”
The most important thing for parents and caretakers to remember when sending their children back to school in the fall, Rechetova says, is to be patient.
“Understand that it’s going to take a little bit of time,” she said. “Maybe we redefine what normal is and what progress is. We adjust our expectations and really meet the kids and their families where they are at.”
This means that parents should be willing to provide an extra level of support, Rechetova says.
“We would encourage the parents to treat them as a younger child and comfort them and hold them and not push them outside the door and force them to confront this big, scary thing they are about to experience at school,” she said.
Also important, Ochoa says, is to seek help if needed from teachers, school staff or organizations such as PVPSA.
“The last thing we would want in a time like this is for people to be uncomfortable to ask for help or still concerned about the stigma of it being a sign of weakness,” he said.