Where is our Normal?

If you sat down with someone in education and asked their opinion of the last 19 months, you would be likely to hear keywords that include: equity, struggle, learning gaps, strange, distance learning, burnout, different, absent, and impossible. When I look back on what we have accomplished as a district and a school throughout the pandemic, I am beyond thankful that I get to work alongside educators that will always do what is best for kids. Even with the talent that we put in front of our kids each day, we are feeling the effects of the pandemic, of spouts of hybrid and distance learning, and of a year where we didn’t see our kids’ smiling faces. I don’t think any of us imagined, even in the middle of the pandemic, that we would still be dealing with the daily ruction that has become our reality. Currently, our students are in person, we are allowed to teach in small groups, and our daily schedule more closely resembles that of pre-pandemic days. It’s difficult not to ask the question, ‘where is our normal?’

Going into the 2020-2021 school year we understood that there would be learning gaps from distance learning, hybrid models, and classroom setups that required separations from our teachers, bringing back memories of pictures from a 1950s classroom. We knew our students who had the spring of their kindergarten year taken away would be missing the most important 3 month stretch for mastering early literacy skills. And while those learning gaps certainly exist, we have worked hard to expand our strong systems of support and provide all students the intervention they need and deserve.

With all of those affirmations, the question that continues to keep me awake at night is, ‘where is our normal?’ Why doesn’t our school environment feel closer to pre-pandemic than mid-pandemic? Our staff are even more skilled and prepared, now having learned and utilized several engagement, instructional, and technology tools through distance learning, than they were before the pandemic. Our professional development opportunities are focused on Observable Impact Tools to ensure that our teaching strategies not only work but are effective in helping students to make gains. I believe that most educators and elementary systems are prepared to attack those learning gaps and make a difference in the years to come even though it will be a struggle at times.

In reading several articles over the last few weeks, many researchers believe our students are 1-2 years behind emotionally. Combine that with some of those same students being 1-2 years behind grade level academic expectations, and we can start to understand why our ‘normal’ will take years to recover. The pandemic has been a traumatic event for so many, and as much as we want to shelter our youngest learners from the outside world, they are likely to be the most emotionally impacted of any age group. Reading through an article like this and observing our students’ behavior/mental wellbeing, we can come to a quick conclusion that the uneasy feeling in education is a reflection of the mental health and social-emotional struggles than the learning gaps from the pandemic. In a system that was lacking in the number of emotional and mental health support staff for students and families before the pandemic, it’s clear to me that our ‘normal’ rests in being able to address the trauma, in our students, staff, and families, that the pandemic has left in its wake. The positive connections and ability to build resiliency within our students have never been more important, and there is no time to waste.