Testomony Before the Joint Committee on Public Schools
Hearing on Learning Loss, February 9, 2021
Good Morning. My name is Christine Burton, Superintendent of Schools for the Millburn Township School District. Today I’m providing testimony on behalf of my district and the Garden State Coalition of Schools regarding how schools have successfully reopened while addressing the learning loss and the social emotional impact the pandemic has had on the students and teachers of New Jersey.
As policies, regulations and standardized testing are being contemplated, we need to put into perspective the school environment that has suffered a tremendous shock to the system. The initial reality check was in the fact that this wasn’t going to be two-weeks at home and we’d all be back in school. No, this would be far from the case when the months of March through June came and went, as did the summer while the tragedies of lost loved ones and colleagues continued. The natural reaction is to try to stop the bleeding of these events; eliminate the hurt, confusion, anxiety and loss. The reality is that we are still in the midst of this pandemic attempting each day to keep students returning to school, instead of staying home in fear.
Our start to the year in Millburn was stymied by not having the number of staff available to be in the classroom due to having pre-existing medical conditions. This led to hiring classroom managers, to supervise students while teachers taught from home. We were able to get all students into school by November through a hybrid schedule allowing staff to keep their social distance while providing the nurturing environment that teachers thrive in every day.
The reality is that the teachers’ focus is on meeting the social emotional needs of students in school each day with their masks, hand sanitizers and in some cases desk sneeze guards. At the same time, teachers are addressing the needs of the virtual students on the screen that are streaming in live, and for our youngest learners, navigating with the help of their parents. We know that our students in Millburn are among the lucky ones who have the availability of Chromebooks given to them by the district as well as a hot spot for connectivity where needed. While our students have not had connectivity issues that hundreds of thousands of students have had, however they are still impacted by the same difficulties with anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief as their peers around the state. These mental health realities have required supports from guidance counselors and the child study teams. So, what are schools doing today and what is most important that they do in the future to address these learning delays and the additional social and emotional impact on our students as a result of this pandemic?
Before we can address the head, we have to commit to repairing the heart. Students have had their childhood or young adult worlds turn upside down. Our response as a school is to passionately create a routine that feels as normal as possible for students. They need to know and feel that they are going to be okay, as are their families. In the classroom, we’ve provided a daily structure that they can count on being the same each day with staff who check in on them and provide time to ask how they are doing and to let them put down their backpack of burdens and fears for a while.
This past summer the curriculum required a transformation that included a compacting of the most essential standards and expectations of skills, knowledge and understandings. This was in response to the time limits of the school day and the new reality of the virtual classroom. Teachers had multiple opportunities to prepare for this new reality that would most definitely push their teaching practices to new levels of patience, pragmatism and perseverance. Our staff have been amazing as they have stepped up to these new challenges with a fierceness and resolve that has been commendable. Like their students, they have learned in new ways that they never thought possible. They have helped students navigate the tumultuous waters of this pandemic by assessing where students were when they arrived at their classroom doors or virtual screens in September. Then they strategically moved them forward with Google Classroom assignments, Nearpod presentations, and breakout rooms activities. Just like we had to bring our schools back into operation with the slow, steady and safe approach, so did our staff bring their instructional expectations to our students.
So, educators have been asked how do we measure this “learning loss”? I pose the question as to whether now is the right time and what the purpose is if we know that there have been students who have not been in their buildings since last March. Isn’t it obvious that there is going to be a delay in what they’ve been able to learn? Does standardized testing students to reveal the obvious pose an even greater detriment to students’ mental health? As I ponder the notion of having students take on-line assessments at home, I can only equate it to when we underwent the field testing for the PARCC assessments. Even with days of preparations with the on-line tools, during the tests there were students in elementary through high school who were in tears over their frustration in not being able to navigate the on-line testing expectations. Is this the environment that is best able to address students’ current fragile mental health in the middle of a pandemic? Will these scores be valid and reliable data of student performance? In a recent webinar sponsored by LinkIt, the comparison of student performance from in-district assessments from a year ago suggest that there is limited to no change in ELA and a slight decrease in Mathematics for students in grades 4-8th. I point to the work of Dr. Maurice J. Elias, Director of Rutgers University’s Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab and Co-Director of the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools. His research suggests that schools who focus on social-emotional and character development skills, have students who have shown improved attitudes about self, others, and school; positive classroom behavior and experienced 10-11 percentile-point gains on standardized achievement tests. By meeting the needs of our students’ mental health, we will also be simultaneously addressing their academic performance metrics.
One way that our district is addressing students’ needs is by capitalizing on a pandemic opportunity. Last winter our district was engaged in an investigation on later school start times. While developing our schedule for reopening schools, we decided to implement an 8:00 start time which is later than the original 7:40 time and to rotate the set of the 4 classes each day to give students a different class to start their day. This revised schedule became a preliminary pilot of a later start time that has given our students more time in the morning and initial insights by students report that it has reduced their stress.
So, what are the immediate needs of schools? If we expect to maintain classroom learning for our students, it is critical that our teachers and support staff remain healthy. With access to the vaccine, we can assure the safety of our schools on our road back, which will immeasurably benefit our students, staff and families and even the greater school community. We certainly acknowledge the importance to provide vaccinations for first responders, healthcare professionals, senior citizens and individuals with high risk medical conditions. We must also recognize that the educators are essential frontline workers who directly interact with a substantial number of students and adults each day. Vaccinating staff who work closely with our students will allow us to significantly increase the possibility of a return to in-person learning in our classrooms across the state. In turn, this will enable us to address concerns about learning loss, social, emotional and academic effects on students.
In closing, while we do not yet see the end of this road, our districts have made the best path forward for our students, staff and communities. We can use more mental health supports, more appointments for vaccinations and less stressful standardized testing of students. I know that with my superintendent colleagues in the Garden State Coalition of Schools, around the county and state, we stand ready to assist to make this a reality.
Dr. Christine Burton
Superintendent of Schools