The Year of the Pandemic: Silver Linings for Public Education

Mon, 04/12/2021 - 7:15pm

What a grueling time it has been for all of us as a result of the pandemic. However, in public education, there have been some curious upsides --  many silver linings. Here are a few:

Parent Partnerships - Our parents in RSU 71 have always been good partners in their children’s education. But I have never received so much heartfelt appreciation for teachers’ work as I have in the last year. During the shut-down that began in March of 2020, parents had occasion to see teaching and learning in action and appreciate anew just what it takes to engage students and enable them to become invested in their growth through rigorous, relevant and meaningful work. We asked parents, grandparents, and guardians to help teach their children to wear masks, frequently wash their hands, and stay socially distanced from friends. They did. Even families who don’t believe in germ theory and safety requirements helped convey these expectations.

We asked families who were able to help transport their children to and from school to help keep down the numbers of students needing bus transportation and allow for social distancing on school buses. They did. My favorite example was seeing a father drop off and pick up his daughter on a bicycle-built-for- two.

Not only did teachers need to learn new skills to access their students last March quickly. Our terrific parents, grandparents, and guardians did, too, to access education for their children.  They, too, did a superb job in very trying circumstances.

Instructional Technology - In March of 2020, we needed to learn a lot about teaching remotely in a hurry and did. CRF and ESSER I and II helped us purchase a vast range of instructional technology, hot-spots, and video-conferencing equipment so that all K-12 students have 1:1 devices.

This technology allowed us to help families choose whether students would participate in-person or remotely during the 2020-2021 school year. For health reasons, teachers who could not come back to school in person at the end of August were able to continue to teach students whose parents wished for them to learn remotely. We wouldn’t have been able to do this unless we had the financial assistance to purchase equipment and hire additional remote teachers.

Introverts and Students with Attention Issues - We have learned that the vast majority of our students wished to return to school -- a new kind of personal acknowledgment about how valuable school is to them. We also learned that some of our students, particularly our introverts, did very well in remote learning.

When we return to school in person, we will need to consider our introverted students’ needs. Schools are notoriously people-intensive, bustling, stimulus-intensive, and talkative places. We have learned that silence and uninterrupted time for deep thinking and reflection are also essential for students.

Student and Staff Well-Being - Thanks to CRF and ESSER funding, we could purchase 02 Prime HVAC systems that clean the air. 02 Prime is a bipolar ionization solution that clears the air and inhibits viral transmission when airborne particles are sneezed or coughed by infected people. Viruses can also be spread when someone transfers microorganisms to a surface by touch when they are sick. Not only has there been no transmission of the coronavirus in our schools. The instances of the common cold and seasonal flu this year have been very nearly nil. 

The USDA Summer Feeding Program and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program are federally funded state-administered programs that reimburse districts.  We’ve been able to provide free breakfasts, lunches, and snacks to all students, not just those whose families qualify for assistance. We were able to run a “Happy Wheels” program during last year’s shutdown and delivered meals to families via school buses. And we’ve been able to provide boxes with a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches during school vacations in December, February, and April. 

Thanks to our fabulous school nurses, community partners, generous donors, and volunteer staff, we’ve greatly expanded our district’s Food Pantry to provide additional food for families during the week. 

Our fabulous team of school nurses has been strengthened by hiring two more terrific nurses during the pandemic. Every school has a nurse, made possible by the additional federal funding during the pandemic.

Zoom and Google Meets - We have learned that not all meetings need to be in-person to be effective. During the pandemic, our school board meetings have been via ZOOM. It is always a lot of work to be a school board member, but never so much as now. We are blessed in RSU 71 to have a highly effective board that has risen to the times’ challenges and given us the leadership, oversight, direction, and investment that has been heartening to all of us. All our staff, faculty, team, department, and administrative meetings have been on Zoom or Google Meets, which has saved time and money.

The list of upsides could go on. Students, families, and staff who would like to give voice to other silver linings and considerations are encouraged to email these to me at mamclean@rsu71.org.

Mary Alice McLean is RSU 71 Superintendent of Schools