Area School Psychologists Share Thoughts and Tips
Stratford (OnFocus) – Area schools have been back in session for two weeks, and the return of students to the schoolhouse has been a welcome sight for everyone.
When schools went 100% virtual in March, students and staff were sailing in uncharted territory, navigating school experiences never seen before.
One of the big questions heading into this school year was how the closures impacted students?
We reached out to area school psychologists to get their thoughts on not only this question, but also to find out their thoughts on challenges schools face this year.
OnFocus: With school going 100% remote for the last two and a half months last school year, how did that impact students?
Denise Marg, School Psychologist/Director of Special Education, School District of Stratford: School Districts are about to find out how the spring public health closure impacted students and whatever we find, we will work to create a balance between academic needs and student mental health needs. For many, the pandemic has been significant in disrupting all aspects of the lives of students, parents and school staff. Assessing the academic loss from the spring closure is critical as is shoring up any academic loss that is identified. However, some of our students who did not present previously with mental health needs may show those needs upon return to school. Students are contending with loss from last spring: loss of their sports and musical competitions, traditional graduations, loss of social connections. Many students find reprieve at school from difficult circumstances in their personal lives and that was abruptly lost to them last spring. Students will be returning to school this year in a situation that is not their normal school experience, whether that is a virtual delivery or an on-site attendance with small cohorts, masks, restrictions on movement. That is a lot to process emotionally for everyone, including school staff.
Stacy Fronk, School District of Abbotsford School Psychologist: With school going 100% remote last spring the greatest impact on students in my opinion, was the social and emotional loss that in–person school provides. School is an outlet for many students. It provides a daily routine that is comforting and enriching. Academic engagement, peer relationships, physical, art and music education are all key factors in providing a robust learning environment that virtual options cannot provide. School was missed by all!
Tonia Anderson Ruskin, Ed.S., NCSP, Director of Special Education, Neillsville School District: In 2007, I obtained my Education Specialist degree in School Psychology with a thesis entitled “THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP: COMPARING CHILDREN’S READING TREND LINES BY SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS OVER TIME.” Research from that time, as well as current research, indicates that extended breaks from school (such as summer break) lead to gaps in academic achievement, particularly between students from high socioeconomic status and those with low socioeconomic status. In May 2020, a study by Kuhfeld, Soland, Tarasawa, Johnson, Ruzek and Liu from Annenberg Brown University estimated that students will return this fall with “63-68% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year and with 37-50% of the learning gains in math.” Other studies indicate that learning loss may be greater than this. The Annenber Brown study predicts that the impact of COVID-19 will not be universal, with students scoring in the top third of academic assessments potentially making gains in reading while school was closed. Their conclusion was that educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind and further differentiate instruction considering these gaps in student achievement that may be larger than ever before. Likewise, it is plausible to expect that students with disabilities, those with already struggle to make comparable gains in achievement when compared to same-aged peers, will be more greatly impacted by school closure than those without disabilities.
OnFocus: As we head into this school year, what do you see as the biggest challenges schools face?
Stacy Fronk, School District of Abbotsford School Psychologist: I believe the biggest challenge schools will face this school year is getting a pulse on where students are mentally. Students, teachers and parents alike are all facing unknowns in an already stressful situation. Mental health awareness for both staff and students will be key. As teachers, we are able to make up ground academically and reach students where they are. We are very good at providing academic interventions to help move students forward. We need to focus on our own mental health and that of our students as we face the challenges this school year will bring.
Tonia Anderson Ruskin, Ed.S., NCSP, Director of Special Education, Neillsville School District: Demands on school staff will also include adapting to new schedules/modes of teaching (such as cohorts, A/B days, using mobile classrooms, etc) as well as adjusting to meet the needs of students who are learning in person and the needs of those learning remotely. Likewise, school leaders anticipate that staffing our building in a manner that consistently supports the needs of all students may be a challenge.
Denise Marg, School Psychologist/Director of Special Education, School District of Stratford: Children and teenagers are incredible and regularly impress me with their resilience and their ability to rise to a challenge. They are technologically savvy, fast learners and the vast majority of our students are in great health. A challenge that concerns me is involving staffing of teachers and difficulty finding substitute teacher coverage should several of our teachers have COVID-19 restrictions at the same time in the same school building. I also envision a challenge of adequately meeting the needs of our students in cases where virtual instruction is wholly inadequate for them, but becomes necessary for public health reasons.
To help parents and students alike, we also asked school psychologists for advice they can offer in these unprecedented times.
OnFocus: What advice do you have for students and parents as the year gets underway?
Tonia Anderson Ruskin, Ed.S., NCSP, Director of Special Education, Neillsville School District: We are still in the mists of a pandemic. The health and social emotional well being of students and families is truly the first priority that we have. As we attempt to return to school, frequent and open communication is key to meeting the needs of students/families. We must work together to ask what is possible as we redefine how schools will look and how we will support the children in our communities.
Denise Marg, School Psychologist/Director of Special Education, School District of Stratford: I advise parents and students to be in direct communication with someone from school as soon as a concern arises. Most schools have a directory on their school website providing contact information for teachers, principals, counselors, school psychologists, etc. This is an unprecedented time in history and as educators, we are all learning how to adapt instruction as we go and preparing for an increase in mental health needs. There will be mistakes and frustrations, but don’t wait to let someone at school know so issues can be addressed early.
Stacy Fronk, School District of Abbotsford School Psychologist: The biggest piece of advice I can give students, parents, and teachers is to be patient. We are all working on making this the best school year we possibly can make. We love what we do and we want all students to have a happy and healthy school year.
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