New Paltz teachers and administrators are rising to the challenge of teaching during a pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has been traumatic for every school-age child. That’s one of the working assumptions being used by school officials who have adapted educational and emotional support systems for a world of isolation and unequal access to the school community. While that trauma varies in intensity, disruptions are commonplace and if there’s any routine at all, it’s been completely reinvented. Not every child finds that learning by sitting at a computer for hours on end comes easily — although some have really benefited from this model — and many students didn’t have adequate access to the technology they have needed to learn, or a quiet environment in which to focus. For some children, staying home all day hasn’t even been especially safe, but most are expected to have diminished stamina for classroom learning after such a long break.

Nearly a year has passed since schools were shuttered without notice or preparation, it’s very clear that these are the challenges that educators face. School board members asked for an update on how teachers and administrators are rising to that challenge, and the impacts that will be felt in the months and years to come. During the January 20 board meeting, those questions were addressed by a team led by Michelle Martoni, the deputy superintendent.

Social and emotional support

Social and emotional supports include counseling services for students, offered to individuals or groups as needs and resources warrant. Check-ins with students occur as needed, along with family consultations that may include referrals to outside agencies. Social workers also conduct home visits as needed when students are absent from remote learning sessions.

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There’s been coaching sessions on how and why to wear masks, especially for the younger students. Counselors were already tasked with incorporating mental health lessons in the curriculum for all ages; this has become all the more important with some or all students away from the building and experiencing isolation.

A monthly newsletter to staff members fills inboxes with information on wellness.

Flexibility is key

The massive school bureaucracy has had to have an injection of flexibility under these difficult circumstances. Students may need to be switched to a cohort that meets at a different time to fit with their ability to use technology, for example. Creative ways to provide access for remote learning have also been invented on the fly, such as bringing small numbers into the building to do their online work under the supervision of a teacher’s aide.

Bus drivers have had their roles completely retooled. Instead of bringing children to the schools, they deliver messages to the families of ones who are difficult to reach, or even printed learning packets to kids who just can’t do work on computers at this time.

Recognizing a need

Among the biggest challenges going forward, Martoni said, are lack of engagement and uneven learning progress during the pandemic.

Instructional support and case management teams focus on helping children who struggle with remote learning, or who have an environment that makes it harder to manage for them. Teachers are often willing to significantly increase their own workload by finding time to help individual students catch up when they are available. They also use breakout rooms to provide individualized instruction during class time; that’s the equivalent of standing at one child’s desk while others work independently. Additional resources are available for families where English is not as easily understood.

Older students often refer themselves for emotional and educational support, but they are also referred by parents, teachers, and other staff members who recognize a need.

One of the most remarkable statistics coming out of this period is that the number of students referred to special education programs by their own parents has more than quintupled; in a typical year four or five such referrals are received, but district officials have gotten 26 of them since March. Administrators do not yet fully understand all the reasons for this sharp increase.

A difficult road ahead 

When children are finally reintegrated into fully in-person instruction, Martoni said, there is going to be a long period of adjustment. “Standards may need to be stratified,” with creative approaches such as a blended seventh and eighth grade curriculum, for example, to help everyone get back to grade level. It’s important to be “open to things looking different” at least through the 2021-22 school year.

Trustee Glenn LaPolt imagined that students will be “shell-shocked” when they all return to learning in person, and that even attending school five days a week will at first feel very difficult. The board president promised administrators whatever support is needed to aid in this process.