The Next Bent Curve: Academic Versus Social Emotional Challenges Of Our Students

Commentary By: Joseph Conway

We have just completed a school year unparalleled in recent times.  Catapulting from a live in-person educational experience, to a virtual home schooling experience, our schools were tremendously impacted in their academic programs.  Our front line of teachers, on the stop of a dime had to turn and change all of their time-honored teaching strategies and bags of tricks and metamorphosis into a wholly different on-line persona for their children.  And our children themselves became screen time creatures committing untold hours in google classrooms, zoom room sessions, doing at home tutorials, and individualized online platforms to maintain their skills. 

Now that we have had a moment to reflect, we are still puzzling over that experience as it sits in our very near rear view mirror.  Conversations have begun in terms of the academic loss and how our children sit so far back in their curriculum and comparative scores on whatever measures exist out there compared to previous years.

As we look forward to our new year there is already pressure mounting on the notion of making up lost academic time and instead of “bending the curve” of COVID 19, accelerating the curve of academic gains.  The disparity among children’s learning is worried over their technological access, their rebound ability, and their learning regressions, and most importantly their learning gap. 

And yet we should take a moment of pause on this type of thinking.  Our children have experienced a traumatic change of events which they too have to process as our society also processes.  At all grade levels, one day schooling was as it has happened year in and year out.  Next, they were out of the building and their teachers care in what felt like a snow day, then a spring break, and suddenly the rest of the year.  There relationships with their teachers and fellow classmates were altered completely.  Their experience with schooling was changed forever.

As we look to the future, we need to mentally prepare for a process of re-educating ourselves and our children to the new reality.  This new reality will certainly be different.  And yet we are in a moment where there is a need to embrace the wonderment of the schooling experience.  There is a joy of schooling that needs to be rebuilt.  A relationship among students and teachers and programs that brings back the exhilaration and at the same time the safety in our schools in a dramatically different return.  A major part of our schooling in America is the socialization of our children among themselves and the society we live in. That focus needs to be thought about as equally carefully as the academic press that we need to ensure our students success.

If we sit our children in front of screens upon the reintroduction of school and standardize test them to exhaustion in order to understand their learning loss, and then drill and kill their basic skills to repair for lost time, this will work against the long term health and gains of our children.  It is a process.  And in that process learning will become the forefront issue again once we build our relationships and programs to meet the social emotional needs of our students.

We can learn from our history and there are many comparisons currently being drawn with COVID 19 and Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the New Orleans educational system.  Fifteen years ago, 110 out of 126 schools were completely destroyed with a displacement and or loss for students of at least an academic year.  Their return to normalcy was a process of years.  There were many lessons learned from this experience which we will be able to glean from as to our own academic return when school begins anew.

In contrast to that experience though, our students have been in an altered school environment for three months virtually, during quite a different technological age.  There has been learning.  Some have thrived and others fallen behind.  All have had an altered social realty.  One which may change the way we function in relation to each other forever.

We are still faced with the uncertainty of our September school year start.  Irrespective our attention should turn to the social dimension of schooling and safeguarding our schools as the source of the wonder and awe of learning as our first priority upon our return.  Especially with our most fragile populations.  Time is required to again settle into our school settings and find the joy in the educational programs that are part of our beloved schooling traditions.

Once this is accomplished, the academic acceleration will be phenomenal.  

Dr. Joseph Conway is the superintendent and co-founder of the Camden Charter School Network that includes four schools in the City of Camden.