The Intersection

Homeroom with Education Leaders Webinar Recap: Supporting Student Learning and Well-being in Times of Crisis

June 9, 2020

“There are a bunch of kids concerned about what they see – they are getting a social studies lesson without a social studies teacher.” – Andy Cole

As the United States faces a moment of crisis, leaders work not only to understand and tend to the needs of those affected, but also to create plans for the country to emerge a more equitable and honest version of itself on the other side. A key aspect to accomplishing this goal is keeping school communities together and unified in this moment of crisis, as principals and teachers deal with the tremendous challenges of engaging students academically and meeting student needs during a pandemic, tragedy, and civil unrest. These topics were central in The Hunt Institute’s newest installment of Conversations with State Chiefs, featuring Andy Cole of the Wallace Foundation, Commissioner Katy Anthes of Colorado, Secretary Ryan Stewart of New Mexico, and Chancellor Betty Rosa of New York.

A Tremendous Pressure to Lead and Hold Things Together

Opening the conversation was Andy Cole, a Consultant for the Wallace Foundation and Foundation Board Member for The Hunt Institute. In his remarks, Cole stressed the need for flexibility and understanding that there is an immense amount of pressure to provide both academic and emotional support to students and faculty. Cole also talked about some of the greatest challenges we will see for schools in the immediate and long-term, including the facilitation of transitions between grades, the reduction of planning time for the upcoming academic year, and a better understanding of what is happening in students’ homes and on their television screens and how that will affect their performances and well-being upon return.

Combating Another Great Challenge: Learning Loss

Among the greatest concerns emerging from the pandemic is learning loss. This concern has been documented and researched in-depth, as the Northwest Evaluation Association predicts that students, on average, may retain just two-thirds of their reading gains and one-half of their mathematics gains from the 2019-2020 academic year upon return to school.

These alarming predictions make state leaders realize that while learning loss may not be preventable, work must be done to ensure that students remain engaged academically. As noted by Colorado’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Katy Anthes, educators in Colorado have been contacting students, delivering paper packets, and using other methods to the best of their abilities to ensure that students lacking adequate broadband and/or technological access can remain engaged and advance in their coursework.

Additionally, Dr. Anthes discussed how the work is being prioritized in Colorado to address education-related challenges amid the pandemic, stating that her department is focused on conducting needs assessments, providing non-academic supports for students, providing technical supports for remote learning, building online instructional supports, engaging closely with families, and using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to increase instructional hours.

Student Health and Well-Being

The discussion soon turned over to student health and well-being, as state leaders from New Mexico and New York discussed the work they are doing to address the non-academic needs of students. As stated by New Mexico’s Secretary of Education, Dr. Ryan Stewart, students have faced enormous levels of social and emotional strain since the outbreak of COVID-19, and that strain has likely led to even more grief, anger, and frustration as the United States faces a period of unrest and protests against systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd. With these unprecedented levels of social and emotional strain, the social-emotional supports being provided by states and districts are more critical than ever. Secretary Stewart stated that New Mexico has been focusing on the academic, physical, mental, and social-emotional well-being of students to combat these unprecedented levels of strain.

Some of the ways that the New Mexico Public Education Department is supporting students is by collaborating with the Department of Children, Youth, and Families to develop the New Mexico Connect App, which allows families to connect to tele-health services. Additionally, New Mexico is collecting data on how students and educators are experiencing life during the pandemic, having engaged with 20,000 people so far. Finally, Secretary Stewart has been heavily engaged in policy discussions with the state legislature, focusing on budget-related issues, education funding, continuous learning and improvement, and the renovation of the state’s comprehensive behavioral health framework.

Following up on Secretary Stewart’s remarks was Dr. Betty Rosa, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. New York is unique in that the state’s education department reports to the Board of Regents, not the Governor. The State Board of Regents has 17 members, is responsible for overseeing and executing the state’s education policies, and has the constitutionally-written authority to hire the state’s education commissioner.

Chancellor Rosa discussed student mental health and well-being, first providing information about New York’s student populations. In New York, there are 2.6 million students, 1.1 million of whom attend schools in the Greater New York City Area, and 50 percent of the state’s student body attends schools in the state’s five largest urban areas: Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Albany, and New York City. However, there are almost 800 districts throughout the state, meaning New York’s education department is a vast system overseeing an incredibly diverse number of schools and students.

Dr. Rosa, when providing her remarks, discussed the need to approach all issues in culturally-responsive and equitable ways. Dr. Rosa also noted that the pandemic has brought trauma onto students and educators and has also revealed the lack of infrastructure and resources in many communities to be responsive in moments of crisis. These concerns have only been exacerbated by the protests of the last two weeks. Finally, Dr. Rosa stated that thinking about student transitions will be critical, and this not only applies to high school seniors transitioning to their postsecondary education and/or the workforce, but to all students. One example she used was high school juniors, who will now be entering their senior year without many of the typical rites of passage juniors undergo, such as college visits, SAT and ACT exams, and college application training from their school districts.

Being Hopeful About the Future

In closing the discussion, guests answered a question about what leaders can be hopeful about for the future. As a country, we are all experiencing a great deal of grief,  both from the losses and tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic and the breaking point that we have reached when it comes to reckoning with our country’s history of inequitably serving our Black and brown citizens, notably within our education system. It was therefore important to take a moment to reflect on what our panelists are feeling hopeful about as a light at the end of the tunnel.

As stated by Andy Cole, students are concerned about the current state of domestic affairs, particularly relating to the civil unrest resulting from the murder of George Floyd. Cole, when discussing this matter, stated that students are getting a social studies lesson without a social studies teacher, and that lesson pertains to living amid an unprecedented moment in the nation’s history. Cole, however, is hopeful, as he stated that he is seeing people come together around several issues in a way that he has not seen before.

Dr. Rosa, when weighing in about her hopes for the future, discussed the push by young people to come together around a common sense of humanity, civic learning and engagement, and peoplehood as the nation looks deeply at the its racial tensions and disparities, working to form equitable and culturally-responsive solutions that can be practiced within and beyond the school system.

Dr. Anthes stated that she believes that opportunities can be born out of crisis, and current crises will push leaders to assume positions that, while uncomfortable, will lead to individual and collective growth and real change. Dr. Anthes stated that this growth will require the nation to confront its racial history.

Concluding this discussion was Dr. Ryan Stewart, who, in addition to echoing the sentiments of the other panelists, is hopeful that the country can use this moment to think about a future where it can create new foundations to serve students better.

To navigate crises, strong, determined, and ethical leadership is a necessity, particularly as state leaders work with districts to navigate emerging challenges and tend to the needs of students, families, and educators. Leading with a hope for change is equally critical, as setting goals for how states want to emerge from crises informs the work being done in the middle of those crises. As stated by the leaders in this discussion, despite the current challenges, there is much to be hopeful for, and that hope must serve as guidance for the push to emerge from these current crises stronger than before.

View the complete webinar here:

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