After six long months, the Nevada Joint Union High School District (NJUHSD) welcomed students back to our campuses on Oct. 12. Although their return remains subject to unprecedented circumstances and challenges, it has brought us local educators much joy and renewed sense of purpose.
This was not easy. To prepare for the transition, district staff invested countless hours planning, retooling and adjusting almost every aspect of our programs, services and operations. Teachers’ workloads have increased significantly as they now deliver instruction in-person and online synchronously. Administrators and non-instructional staff have also had their workloads increased addressing the myriad of unforeseen hurdles and issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district is now operating under a “Hybrid” instructional model. Approximately half of our students attend classes in one cohort Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half attend on Thursdays and Fridays, and all students learn online (Distance Education) on Wednesdays. Seventy-eight percent of NJUHSD students enrolled in the hybrid model; 22% opted to continue in our Distance Education program.
Since resuming in-person instruction, the district has adhered to strict health protocols as recommended by state and local public health officials. Masks are worn by all at all times. Physical distancing is maintained with assigned classroom seating and directional arrows on campus. There are hand washing/sanitizing stations on campuses and in rooms, and student/staff health symptoms are checked at the beginning of each school day.
I am happy to report that students have exhibited remarkable maturity and responsibility during this transition. Students are closely following health guidelines largely without complaint. In fact, they have been better than some adults I know. It is ironic, yet comforting, to hear students returning to campus say, “It’s awesome to be back at school, but I’m not happy about having to do homework this weekend!”
Now local educators face one of our most formidable challenges. We must assess learning losses that occurred during campus shutdowns and quickly develop effective academic interventions to mitigate those losses. This will be a herculean task requiring all our community’s support and participation.
A recent analysis reveals approximately one-third of our students are earning a failing grade in at least one of their classes. While grades are only a snapshot in time, they are a reflection of student mastery of skills and subjects. Over 80% of students at Silver Springs Alternative/continuation High School suffered substantial learning loss during the school shutdown.
Although alarming, NJUHSD is not alone. School districts and high schools across the state and nation are reporting similar data. Nonetheless, we are taking aggressive efforts to attack this problem and turn it around. We are examining the data and identifying the scope of the problem, student by student. We will work with stakeholders – students, teachers, parents and the community – to quickly develop and implement intervention strategies.
Currently, teachers and administrators are quickly designing plans to offer such assistance as additional tutoring, targeted intervention, enhanced academic and mental health counseling, along with other intervention strategies. The district is also exploring partnerships with other organizations that offer youth services. When needed, district staff are conducting home visits to ensure no students fall through the proverbial cracks in the system.
Working with our dedicated teachers, administrators, and staff, we are confident we will backfill students’ learning gaps. Curriculum will need to be modified or condensed. Class schedules may need to be expanded, and new and creative ways of educational instruction will need to be analyzed and implemented.
Fortunately, we have other models to consider and school districts that implemented the hybrid model before us. Such learning losses are not unique to our district; it is happening across our country. As such, we are closely monitoring successes and failures of other districts and learning from them.
We are certainly in uncharted territory. Our best efforts may require a multi-year approach. Yet we are confident, based on early signs of renewed student engagement and academic progress, that NJUHSD students will graduate fully-prepared to assume their roles as successful, contributing members of society.
The human connection afforded by the return to campus is critical. Where there is connection, there is accountability. Where there is accountability, there is success.
Fortunately, we are finding out that high school students are resilient, and with the right assistance, can be prepared to resume the rigors of on-campus instruction. A study analyzing student behaviors and reactions during May-June 2020 compared to a similar 2018 survey showed teens’ mental health did not collectively suffer during the pandemic. Surprisingly, the percentage of teens considered depressed or lonely was lower in 2020 than in 2018.
During those first months of the pandemic, teens — whose circadian rhythms shift to later schedules during biological puberty — were able to sleep in without the pressure of early class schedules. More sleep likely improved their mental health, as did enhanced family relationships: 56% of teens said they spent more time with their parents than they had before the pandemic. More than two-thirds of teens surveyed said their families grew closer during the shutdown.
Technology use, especially time spent using social media, is often associated with mental-health issues among teens. Surprisingly, teen use of technology did not increase dramatically during May-June 2020 compared with 2018. Quarantined teens spent more time video chatting with friends and watching entertainment on electronic devices, but they spent less time gaming, texting and perusing social media.
That is not to say there has not any negative effects to our students’ mental health and overall well-being. We know firsthand that many students struggled with the loss of social interaction and school related events and activities. Many of these students did not fare as well with distance learning as they would have with normal in-person instruction.
The take-away from the survey seems to be that teens may have managed the challenges of the 2020 shutdown better overall than we adults anticipated. Although teens were worried about health, economic stressors and protests, 53% surveyed said the experience made them feel stronger and more resilient thanks in part to increases in sleep and family time.
No doubt, significant challenges remain, but we believe our NJUHSD students are ready to resume learning in the ways we know work best. NJUHSD’s return to on-campus, in-person instruction is a step in that direction. We are preparing and practicing for the resumption of sports and other extracurricular activities in the spring semester. Based on achievements during these past two weeks, I am confident the remainder of the school year is going to be successful.
I also realize the timeline leading to the return of full-time, on-campus life is uncertain and ever changing. We remain in the stubborn grip of a deadly and complicated pandemic. Many foreign countries are experiencing new waves of coronavirus infections and deaths, and some are implementing stringent curfews and reinstituting business shutdowns. Here in the US, many states face similar resurgences of the virus in their populations.
Locally, we are treading a delicate balance between fulfilling our nation’s guarantee of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and protecting the health of our students, staff, and community. We understand there will be ups and downs, triumphs and challenges.
The fact that Nevada County is a close-knit, rural community presents both advantages as well as challenges. Educators, alongside other community leaders, remain mindful and vigilant as we continue on the trajectory toward the “normalcy” we want for our families, businesses and schools.
Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 30 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.