• Casey Gallagher

Rhode Island Educational Leadership: There is no ‘normalcy of learning’ in the midst of a pandemic

Yesterday, an article came out in the Boston Globe discussing the differences between the educational plans in the neighboring states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Rhode Island is a state that has state educational standards, while Massachusetts sets district to district educational standards that are overseen by a state board.

In Rhode Island, districts have provided tablets to every student who needs one, and have provided families with either low cost internet options or helped connect parents phones up as free mobile hot spots. In addition, the expectations for teachers throughout the state is that they are functioning similarly to how they did prior to schools closing. Teachers must provide 4-6 hours of instruction, students must learn new information, teachers take daily attendance and keeping a record of the assignments that students turn in. The only difference (in the eyes of the leaders who endorsed this plan) is that students are learning online and that grades went from letter grades to pass/fail.

Massachusetts has run their educational plan quite differently. They have not provided technology to districts throughout the state – although some districts have provided this to students. Districts in Massachusetts have been guided to reinforce skills already learned this year, instead of teaching new skills, as well as capping students day at half the time of an average school day (approximately 3 hours).

Both states worry about educational equity and ensuring that students are able to get through this crisis without causing more harm. In Rhode Island’s eyes, this means that students should have a learning experience that mirrors that of their school experience. In Massachusetts’ eyes, this means that teachers should focus on each student’s individual social-emotional wellbeing. Both intentions seem to be valid, however as the mother of a 6-year-oldo and a licensed mental health therapist who has counseled hundreds of children, teens and their families for over ten years, I believe that we need to do both, in order to ensure that our children and their caregivers build more resiliency during this time.

It saddened me to hear Rhode Island educators discuss their educational plans as being what “our kids need… the normalcy of learning.” There is a huge difference between what children get out of going to school and “learning.” Any one with a background in trauma informed education would explain that our circumstances around COVID-19 are not normal. Our children were pulled from their schools with no warning. They were told (some explicitly, some vaguely) that they can no longer see their classmates and their teachers. They cannot engage in the fun activities that they love, such as after school programs, art classes, and basketball in the gym. Their parents could not, until April 23rd, give them a concrete answer when they asked, “for how long?” or “why is this happening to me?” Students do so much more throughout their day, other than “learn.” They navigate friendships; they learn social skills; they get to explore things without a parent watching over them; they develop relationships with adults other than their parents; they create and build; and yes, they learn how to read, write and complete math problems.

We, as parents and caregivers, cannot recreate this environment for our children. We have also had to adjust our lives, our finances and our schedules to meet our children’s needs and the expectations of their teachers. Our children are grieving right now. They are also feeling high levels of anxiety, depression, and some are experiencing acute stress or re-experiencing PTSD. We, as caregivers, are experiencing this too. Children absorb the stress of their caregivers, and for many of us, this is an incredibly stressful and anxiety provoking time. We should be able to enjoy some of this time with our children, but it’s nearly impossible, when we feel the pressure of forcing them to complete work while they are melting down. We are watching our children struggle to sit still, focus and concentrate; recall and retain new information; and have racing thoughts. We are watching our children collapse under the pressure of small issues; have regressive behaviors; engage in power struggles; sleep too much or too little; eat too much or too little; have nightmares; somatic complaints; isolate themselves; or become overly compliant. All of these things are normal responses to grief, depression, prolonged anxiety and stress, and/or PTSD. Our children may be “checking in” online at rates of 90%, but trust me when I say that a lot of them are mentally and emotionally checking out. This is a struggle for them, but they want to do well, as that is their expectation. We, as caregivers, want them to do well too, but something has to give.

My concern is that placing continued high academic expectations on children who are struggling during a pandemic is adding fuel to a fire. In my field, we are anticipating a huge wave of crisis counseling needs as soon as the economy opens back up. Think about the lack of counselors available in our schools and how these children are going to need these social emotional supports upon their return. This is where Rhode Island’s Educational Leadership Team should be pouring more resources into.

If we are measuring our success during COVID-19 around the fact that we were able to provide tablets and internet to every student in Rhode Island, we are sending the wrong message. This is a smokescreen for all of the ways that we are failing our students, as the students who are struggling the most (bright students who are ashamed to admit they are struggling; Black students and students of color; students with mental health issues; students with physical health issues; students with different abilities; and/or non-English speaking students) are more hesitant to ask for help, due to the response/messages that they have gotten from educators in the past. These children and teens certainly need some educational structure in their day, but we as the adults who are participating in their learning (or as my son’s school calls the caregivers, “learning partners”), need to recognize that every student is going to have individual needs at this time. The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards recommend that elementary students should have 1-2 hours a day of distance learning instruction, middle school students 2-3 hours, and high school students 3-4 hours. This is significantly less than the expectations of most of the students I work with. Some high schoolers are currently expected to sit in class from 8am-3:30pm with a break from 11am-1pm and then they have an additional 2-4 hours of homework on any given night. This adds up to 8-10 hours of work. This is not okay in a world that is in crisis. This is not normal.

We know for a fact that there are some students who are severely behind in our schools and some students who excel. In Governor Gina Raimondo’s address to the state on April 23rd, she stated that distance learning has been “particularly challenging for those with differing abilities, and it’s frankly stressful for teachers who are working more and harder in many cases than with traditional classroom learning. It’s hard, and I don’t deny that.” My question to the Governor is why don’t we take some of this burden off of our stressed students and teachers? Is it because we want to lead the nation in our approach to Distance Learning? Sacrificing the mental wellbeing of children, caregivers and teachers is going to have both short term and long term effects.

There are some students who need more academic support and those who need more social emotional support. This is an incredible opportunity for Rhode Island educators to be flexible in providing more individualized instruction to their students in order to lift up the students who are struggling. Students who are excelling in their courses could begin to explore topics that engage and excite them, instead of being in a class lecture.

When we force teachers to teach all day and students to learn all day, this does not build resiliency in the face of trauma. When our students feel listened to and supported, and adults meet them where they are vs where they should be, our students become more engaged in the learning process because a connection has been made. Let’s show our students that we are invested in them, not their compliance with classwork, homework, or overall academic performance.

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