State and local education officials said Tuesday that schools face a dual challenge in getting students back on track both academically and socially, and that staffing issues are further complicating those tasks.
Nearly three years after the arrival of COVID-19 first disrupted schools in Massachusetts, lawmakers from the Board of Education gathered at the state house for a status update on efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on students.
Billerica Superintendent Tim Piwowar told the panel the schools and their students were “in a much better shape” this year. He said things that “bring joy and life to the day” – like group work, sitting down with friends over lunch and extracurricular activities like sports, theater and concerts – were regular features again, but other impacts of the pandemic were still present .
“On the surface, if you walk down our halls it looks like we’re back to normal, if you dig deeper there’s a lot there that we need to continue to address,” he said.
Piwowar said students have lost class time during the pandemic, with the impact being particularly noticeable in fundamental areas like early literacy. He said students also lost peer interaction, which helps develop social and emotional skills.
In Revere, Superintendent Dianne Kelly said both students and teachers would have to adjust to returning to face-to-face school after an extended period of distance learning.
“I think the biggest misstep we made last year – when we returned to school at the start of the 21/22 school year – was that we were so hoping to return to some sense of normality that we didn’t Expect the level of dysregulation we would encounter,” she said. “And of course that wasn’t just among the students, it was also among the adults, but those things reinforced each other. Because the teachers and staff were a little upset with everything they had to endure during the pandemic, they had less tolerance for students who were upset themselves, and those things created quite tense situations.”
Kelly said her district, like many others, has been able to use federal aid to increase the number of social workers, school psychologists and behavior analysts on the staff. She said she worries about what will happen when those funds are no longer available.
“If we lose all of these positions in just two years, we’re really going into a crisis because I don’t feel like all of the students and all of the staff have recovered emotionally from what they’ve suffered during the pandemic, be it a lost parent, a lost sibling, a lost child, a lost job, a lost home,” Kelly said. “So many different losses suffered by so many people that we all have to deal with.”
Piwowar said last summer was “the most challenging hiring season my colleagues and I have ever had,” with a large number of apprenticeship and professional vacancies but a smaller pool of applicants. He said extra money for school staff is part of the solution but work needs to be done to increase the number of people wanting to enter the educational field, particularly for support roles.
“But unfortunately, the public discussion about education right now doesn’t provide an incentive for people to get into the field,” Piwowar said. “While most families across the Commonwealth are happy with their schools, there is a small but vocal minority in every community who believe the word ‘civil’ no longer applies in the expression ‘civil discourse’, be it at public gatherings or in attacks via social media.”
He urged lawmakers to find a way to work with districts to “change the narrative around schools, education and jobs.”
State Secretary of Education James Peyser said labor shortages and supply chain bottlenecks have posed challenges for some school districts as they try to spend the money allocated to them through the federal emergency relief fund for elementary and secondary schools.
Peyser said of the $2.6 billion in ESSER funding allocated directly to school districts, about $965 million, or 37%, has already been claimed.
In addition to those encountering supply chain and staffing issues, he said some districts may try to budget conservatively amid overall economic uncertainty.
“At the same time, I remain concerned that some districts are sometimes using these funds primarily to fill holes in general operating budgets, rather than significantly increasing study time and providing additional assistance now to the students who need it most.” , both inside and outside of school,” said Peyser. “I know this is easier said than done, but while learning recovery is a multi-year effort, we all need to have a sense of urgency to do what is necessary and start right away.”