As the bell signals time to change classes, a stream of students moves quickly through the hallway outside the office of principal Nicolas Wolfe at George Read Middle School. The bright chatter of the students is not at all diminished by them all wearing face masks.
A young student comes in through the office door to check her schedule, shifting rhythmically from foot to foot as she waits for the printout. As she leaves, a male student takes her place at the counter, slouching slightly and looking a bit drowsy.
It is mid-autumn, and, after nearly two years of remote classes and hybrid learning, Delaware schools from grades K to 12 are fully opened.
In his office, Wolfe summarizes what he has learned from his teachers and his own interactions with the youngsters over the first few weeks of class: “The students are very resilient,” he says, “but I think the jury is still out.”
“Obviously, there has been some academic impact, and our pre-assessment before classes started was a little lower than previous years,” says Kevin Dickerson, superintendent of Milford schools, “but we’ve seen significant progress in the first 10 weeks of school. In fact, students have generally thrived.”
By and large, through these early weeks and months of the return to classes, Delaware educators are expressing more concern about how the students are adapting socially and emotionally than about their academic status, and they were prepared to address that from day one.
Like Wolfe and Dickerson, they are cautious in their assessment, but most report that after the long period of remote learning, students are in general adapting rather well to being in class again.
“We tend to forget how much learning took place during the pandemic on the part of the students,” says Bridget Amory, director of learning and Dickerson’s academic colleague in Milford, “especially involving technology and adapting to different learning environments.”
Naturally, there are huge differences with students socially and emotionally in the range of ages between those just beginning their school career and those getting ready to go off to college. Each age group has its own challenges, and each has its emotional resources. But for one group, it seems easier—at least on the surface.
“They are just so happy to be here in person,” says Laura Jezyk of her 16 kindergarten students at Sanford School. “They are so adaptable at this age.” Indeed, the youngest students may be the quickest to “get back to normal” because they have so little experience that they seem be ready to accept changes in any environment they are given.
They also want to be sociable. “Last year, my son, who is in the fourth grade, had to miss a couple of weeks of school, and he really missed being with his friends,” Jezyk says. She also thinks that young children may also have fewer struggles academically. “They pick things up so quickly,” she says, “and the ease with which they learn languages at this age is proof of that.” Nevertheless, Jezyk says her students do run out of energy in the afternoon. “By then they would be taking afternoon naps if they were home.”
Eighth-graders are another story, say Ronald Shaw and Dan Ramer, who tandem-teach a class at George Read Middle School. Shaw says, “Now that everyone is back, there is a spirit of excitement in the halls,” but he recognizes there is also some anxiety as students transition into their teen years. “Eighth-graders struggle with how to express emotion,” Ramer says, “and they are getting unbelievably tired, both from classes and from being around people.”
Students at George Read spend a day each week on social-emotional learning, a process that is taught in many schools nationally and which the school piloted pre-COVID-19. “We use a restorative practice model that emphasizes ‘connection before content,’” Shaw explains. “Some of the discussions can get quite weighty.”“On the bright side,” Ramer adds, “we’re seeing a bit more initiative on the part of the students, more self-reliance and a spirit of resiliency. They are being better advocates for themselves.”
Everyone knows that teens need their rest, and Jennifer Schaffler, a special education teacher at Concord High School, reports, “They miss the food at home, and they miss not being able to roll out of bed until around 7:20, as they could last year when they were at home.” But overall, Schaffler says, “It’s been great—the kids are asking questions, and they are asking for help when they need it. They are catching up, although we may still have to slow things down a bit.”
At the same time, Dover High School principal Courtney Voshell points out a large difference in the ability to adapt between Jezyk’s kindergarten students and her school’s juniors and seniors. Somewhat to her surprise, it seems older students are having more problems in dealing with the interruptions of the pandemic than are younger ones.
“High school students tend to be set in their ways,” Voshell says. “They don’t welcome change. And this year, there was no ‘honeymoon period’ as there are most years. Incidents have come much sooner than usual,” she says. “But adjustments are being made, and eventually things will settle down.”
With the anxiety, however, also comes excitement—graduation and perhaps college for seniors and virtual campus visits for juniors narrowing down their lists of potential colleges. “While there is anxiety, we’ve been helping the seniors with the counseling, references and documents they need for college,” Voshell says. For juniors, she says Delaware college and university representatives are making visits to schools rather than hosting on-campus events, and out-of-state colleges are being visited virtually.
Of course, there are other parts of the education equation besides the students, and all stakeholders are interdependent. Jon Cooper is the director of health and wellness for the Colonial School District, and over the summer and in the first few weeks of school, he says he received a lot of feedback from the educational staff and from parents.
“Some parents expressed concern about children returning to the classroom,” he says, but only a few continued to have their children learn remotely. “However, there was no organized opposition to starting again,” he says.
With teachers and other staff members, “We did a virtual rally before classes started and more than 1,000 staff participated. We also reduced their off-hours demand,” he says. “They needed time to reenergize.”
As far as students are concerned, Cooper says, “We tried to mitigate the pressure for them to be successful [in academics] right out of the gate. We are trying to normalize and destigmatize,” he says, adding that, “We’ve seen no data to show that there is any increase in student medical concerns.”
“We expected to see some [emotional] issues,” says Milford’s Amory, “so we brought in additional counseling staff from the beginning. And we’ve had very good support from parents.”
Now that the first semester is completed and everyone looks at the remainder of the school year ahead, what will the new “normal” look like and when will it arrive?
At George Read, Shaw says, “Assuming no additional shutdowns, I see a return to making the community whole again. Right now, we are each still somewhat in our own vacuums.” At Concord, Schaffler is also optimistic. “Each kid is different,” she emphasizes, “but many of them are already fully ‘back.’”
Voshell sees reaching “normal” as being a collective effort for all parts of the educational community. “We teachers are problem-solvers by nature,” she says, “but we have to realize that we are not the only ones needed to solve these problems.”
One of the lessons Cooper said his staff learned during the pandemic and through remote learning is that there is no longer a bright line between school life and home life—for either students or staff. “Before [the lockdown], work was work, and home was home, and never the twain would meet. That’s all changed now.”
He also looks ahead to a renewed mutual effort by all concerned. “School should be an overall support system for the total community beyond the teaching duties,” he says. “Our staff should feel that they are part of the solution.”