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As school restarts, UW experts say supporting academics, social-emotional health is key
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COVID-19 BACK TO SCHOOL

As school restarts, UW experts say supporting academics, social-emotional health is key

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Idled buses

School buses will be largely idle at the start of this school year, as Dane County's largest school systems begin the year entirely online. Regardless of how schools start, academic and social-emotional support will be key to a successful year.

When Wisconsin students begin school this fall — regardless of whether it’s online, in person or a hybrid of both — supporting students’ academic and social-emotional needs will be intertwined, crucial components for a successful year, UW-Madison experts say.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put new stressors on students and their mental health, could lead to larger losses of learning, and poses challenges to the social experiences and bonds children gain at school.

“The academic side is not separate from the social-emotional side,” said Gloria Ladson-Billings, a UW-Madison education researcher and emeritus professor. “There is a different kind of temperature taking, if you will, that kids will have to really be able to process this experience. What has it meant to be away from school, to be away from friends, to miss loved ones, to process the fact that some loved ones have passed on?”

As school plans are rolled out, districts are similarly highlighting the dual importance of attending to the traditional learning needs of children while ensuring students form and maintain healthy relationships, understand and manage emotions, and work toward positive goals.

Some Dane County districts, such as Madison, Middleton-Cross Plains and Sun Prairie, are planning all an-online start to the school year. Others, such as DeForest, Edgerton and Verona, are offering some degree of in-person learning.

In his first news conference last week, new Madison Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said the social-emotional and mental health of students will be a priority in the fall.

“Trust me, I want our academics to move forward, fast,” Jenkins said. “But not at the expense of harming our children, harming our staff and harming our community.”

Mitchell Nathan, a UW-Madison professor in educational psychology, said it’s too early to know what sort of effect the closure of school buildings in March has had on learning.

While researchers can look at school disruptions caused by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to make projections, there’s no exact match to compare to the pandemic, he said.

Students are normally at risk of losing ground over the three-month summer break — known as the “summer slide” — made worse this year by the hasty move to online learning in the spring.

“There certainly is going to be an experience of a substantial loss of academic progress as a result and combination of the disruption in the spring and on top of that the summer seasonal loss,” Nathan said.

That slide typically leads to a larger loss in math skills than reading, Nathan said, because math is something students need to regularly practice, while reading can happen informally and independently.

And research finds the time out of school inequitably affects students based on socioeconomic status, he said.

“One of the things that’s very promising about the projections based on other kinds of disruptions is that it’s not necessarily the case that the loss of progress is irreversible,” Nathan said. “Kids who in the past who have shown the largest loss due to school disruption also subsequently then show the greatest gains when they return to school.”

Beverly Trezek, an associate professor at the university’s School of Education, said coming out of summer break, teachers typically identify student needs and intensify instruction in those areas. That’ll be especially important this fall, she said.

But a complicating factor, Trezek said, is that mandatory statewide assessments such as the Forward Exam, which gauges how well elementary and middle school students are doing in math and reading, were canceled in the spring. Districts, too, may not have been able to administer their own year-end assessments, she said.

That could leave schools at a disadvantage of not knowing where students left off last year to compare it to how they’re returning in the new year, Trezek said.

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Nathan said teachers will need to tailor instruction to children’s specific needs even more than they already do.

“Teachers do this all the time during the normal school year anyways, but I think we can expect these variations are going to be more dramatic in the fall than they have been in prior years,” he said.

Ladson-Billings encourages teachers not to presume because students haven’t been in school they haven’t been learning. But she also “would probably urge educators to not be so quick to just try to pick up where they left off.”

To aid learning, she encourages schools to bring in more educational partners such as community centers, museums and libraries to “complement the education process.”

Ultimately, Ladson-Billings sees the disruption caused by the pandemic as an opportunity for a “hard reset” to the ways schools have traditionally operated.

“There’s been a lot of discourse about getting back to normal,” she said. “I want to suggest, particularly for the students who are most vulnerable academically, that normal is not where they want to go, because normal was where their problems were.”

Seth Pollak, a psychology professor at UW-Madison who researches child development, cautions schools and parents against sending a message that students need to hurry and catch up. Rather, it’s better to share a message of “let’s get back into it,” Pollak said.

“If we send this message that they have to get caught up, they won’t get caught up really,” he said. “That could just be starting things off for maybe years of feeling because of 2020 they’re spending a lifetime of being behind.”

Supporting students

The social-emotional needs of students can vary by age, Pollak said.

For younger children, a routine provides comfort, he said, and a hybrid class schedule where they’re in school a few days a week and learning online other days may throw off the routine and lead to problems with sleep patterns and mood regulation.

Nathan also said it’s important to keep young children to a schedule as much as possible. For those learning online, the younger children are, the less attention they can devote to sitting at a screen, he said, suggesting breaking up online instruction into “manageable portions.”

For districts holding in-person classes, Pollak suggests schools let students engage in conversations and hold lessons about what factored into the decision to reopen.

“This is an important time. How do we bring together lessons about biology, but also lessons about economics and lessons about individual choice?” Pollak said. “Schools should actually let kids talk about what the rationale was and what the risks are and why they decided to do what they did in a way that’s kind of not biased in one direction or the other.”

Pollak’s biggest advice to parents: Don’t make assumptions about what children are feeling.

A parent could think a child doesn’t like a hybrid model of schooling because of the online lessons, Pollak said, but the child might have concerns unrelated to learning, such as a best friend being assigned to in-person classes on opposite days.

“We really never know what’s going through an individual kid’s head,” he said. “Something that’s concerning us as a parent might not actually be the worry for the kid.”

Ladson-Billings stressed schools will need to strengthen mental health supports, particularly for students who have lost family to COVID-19.

Funerals serve as a way for family and friends to come together and heal, she said, but public health restrictions on gatherings to slow the virus’ spread have also limited how the dead are mourned.

“There’s going to be some trauma that kids have experienced, particularly those kids who have had a death in the family or in the community that did not have the same degree of resolution that most deaths have,” Ladson-Billings said. “That is unresolved for our kids.”

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