April 15, 2024

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Science It Works

Education shifting from crisis management to recovery as pandemic persists | COVID-19

TRAVERSE CITY — Casey Petz calls March 13, 2020, a “day that will live in infamy” for students, educators and families across Michigan.

Petz, the Suttons Bay Public Schools superintendent, and most others did not know that an expected two- to three-week school shutdown would spiral into the rest of the school year — canceling graduations, proms and many other cherished school memories.

Each friend who was missed, each milestone that passed, each day away from class, each auditorium and stage left empty, each game that went unplayed — each loss lashed students, and left lasting marks.

This doesn’t include the trauma and fear for those who contracted COVID-19 or knew someone who did. That stark wake-up call often made the pandemic real and frightening for students.

Some have healed. Others are still reminded by the scars. Either way, the grief remains.

Petz said the negative energy of grief is just like any other type of energy — it cannot be destroyed, only transformed into something else. Now is the time to transform grief into action, Petz said.

How exactly that’s done, well … Petz said he’s “working on it.”

“We’re at a unique point in time where we have to start putting our time and effort into how we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get out of this,” he said. “People are really craving that mindset, but maybe they’re not able to see it.”

Instead, people seem stuck, Petz said. No one has yet to articulate an actual and specific plan on how education will exit the pandemic.

With little guidance yet to come from the state or federal level, educators remain in limbo.

Petz said he is in near constant contact with other superintendents, his principals and teachers seeking input, trying to formulate something that resembles an exit plan.

“No one has ever tripped into a million dollars without buying a lottery ticket,” Petz said.

He cited a to-do list, including laying out responsibilities for educators and parents, putting benchmarks in place for academic growth and regression, a hyper focus on mental well-being and a general post-pandemic shift in thinking.

The spectre of COVID-19 is likely to roam hallways and classrooms for several more years, as educators expect students to have anxiety when they return to a school without the strict safety protocols required under state and federal orders now.

Julie Brown, Elk Rapids Public Schools superintendent, has already been vaccinated against COVID-19. So have the three administrators she sat in an office with last week. But all four wore face masks and maintained social distance.

“That’s the way we’ve lived for a year,” Brown said. “Normal doesn’t mean that we’ll never see masks or social distancing, but how do we make sure people feel comfortable coming back to those crowded spaces?”

Brown hopes to have an answer by the time the 2021-22 school year gets underway with plans to have all students in building.

Planning is one thing. It actually happening is another, and parents are well aware of that.

Heather Harrington is the mother of twin girls in second grade and a daughter in fifth grade. Harrington chose to keep her twins at home to learn virtually, but her daughter, Emma, attends Central Grade School in person to be part of the district’s talented and gifted program.

With the return to a normal school environment in sight, Harrington said the gray areas cause the most uncertainty.

“Can we do this? Can we see these people? Is it safe for them to come in?” she said. “There’s going to be that anxiety of not having a black-and-white answer all of the time about what is safe and what isn’t.”

Harrington remains optimistic about next school year, but she’s a realist as well.

“We’re going to be living with this for a while longer,” she said. “It’s not going to go away in an instant. We’re not going from one day everything is bad to one day everything is good.”

But maybe the edge of the forest is in sight.

Matt Olson thinks so anyway.

Olson, an assistant superintendent with Northwest Education Services, said everyone in the education realm has gotten better at living and working within the restrictions of the pandemic. Teachers are making education work in less than ideal circumstances, he said.

“We’re starting to see the clearing, starting to see the light,” he said.

Teachers teach, but Olson said there is a lot of learning going on for educators. Instructive practices have changed. A greater focus has been placed on social-emotional health. Grace has been given, and relationships are no longer taken for granted.

“We’re going to come out of this smarter,” Olson said.

National testing data seems encouraging, too.

Educators expected students to experience a significant amount of learning loss during the six months school was out of session. But the much-feared COVID slide wasn’t much of a slide at all.

“I don’t want to declare victory. That would be unreasonable and premature,” Olson said. “But we’re not in as negative a position as I think the average person thought we would be given what we were up against.”

Recovery won’t be just about grades or missing prom — anxiety in children rose as the virus dominated every aspect of life.

Parents and physicians reported escalating depression and moodiness. Parents also said their children were more easily bothered, quick to be flustered and ran a greater risk of being negatively overstimulated.

Ginger Kadlec, executive director of the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center, said an alarming trend of greater needs for suicide assessments and formulating suicide safety plans for children grew during the pandemic. Children talked much more about self harm, she said.

Whatever recovery phase there is, Kadlec expects it to be long.

“We thought we’d get 2020 in the rearview mirror and things would be a lot better. But 2021 has proven to be more of the same,” Kadlec said. “That extension of time, for kids especially, has really taken its toll.”

Numbers of reported cases of child abuse to the CAC plummeted when the pandemic struck and schools closed. Kadlec said that was because other adults — teachers especially — didn’t have eyes on children. Nationally, between 70-80 percent of such reports are made by educators, Kadlec said.

Reports of physical abuse jumped dramatically during the summer but fell again when classes started with many children learning virtually. Kadlec said reports are increasing again as in-person instruction is now more the norm.

January and February case numbers align more with the pre-pandemic numbers, Kadlec said. She warned that it is too early to draw any definite conclusions, but it could be a sign “that we are at the cusp of a recovery.”

“I wish I had a crystal ball and could tell you this is what life is going to look like after this is over, but I don’t know,” she said. “We just hope we’re going the right way.”