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NYS Schools Face Learning Loss And Student Mental Health Challenges With New School Year

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Mayor Ben Walsh, Syracuse School District Superintendent Jaime Alicea, and others welcome students to the first day of school in 2019.

Much of the debate about returning to school elsewhere in the nation has swirled around masks and vaccines.  But, here in New York, there’s more concern about learning loss and student mental health.

The state’s roughly 670 school districts have been planning all summer for the return of students to classrooms this week. New York School State Boards Association Executive Director Bob Schneider says they’re all coming from a different place. Last year, districts were all remote, hybrid, or fully open.

"The majority of the students are going to be walking through the doors, which is great news. We know this is the best way to educate our students: In a classroom, with a teacher, amongst their peers, adult contact from teachers, counselors, principals."

To be clear, there’s been plenty of discussion among school district leadership about mask mandates and employee vaccination requirements. But Schneider says that was quickly settled when governor Kathy Hochul took office and issued a mask mandate for all schools.

"She's given the communities, school boards, teachers, and superintendents clarity, guidance and consistency throughout. It is frustrating, it is stressful, and people are not happy in certain pockets. But I think long-term, this should all work out."

Hochul followed up last week with more guidance around vaccination. She says all teachers, administrators, and staff must submit to weekly COVID-19 testing unless they show proof of vaccination. That’s similar to protocols many counties and districts have already put in place.

Schneider says the school boards association has largely been focused getting kids caught up after so much time away from the classroom. A national report from management consulting firm McKinsey and Company shows students on average are 5 months behind in math and four months behind in reading. Schneider says in their own back to school report, they examine what’s called high dosage tutoring. That’s where teachers and paraprofessionals work with students one on one or in very small groups throughout the school year.

"That will hopefully get most of those students back up to speed, close that gap. In addition, it gives a student a really close connection to a teacher or paraprofessional, and that might give that student who might have some issues a little more confidence."

The other concern lies with how the pandemic has impacted student mental health. Schneider says student struggles were on the rise before the pandemic, and have clearly worsened since then.

"Students are not going to be able to learn well if they have mental health issues. When those doors open, our administrators and teachers need to assess which students need help and which students might be in crisis and not be able to learn."

Thankfully, he says, districts are flush with long-overdue state foundation aid and federal pandemic relief so they can hire teachers, counselors, and psychologists to help students through their academic and mental health challenges.