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An Open Letter to Administrators on the Upcoming School Year

A personal perspective: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on our children.

Dear school administrators,

I want to start by saying this is not a letter to place blame or fault. It is a letter to give you perspective about my children and many other children who returned to school in September 2021.

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From March 2020 to June 2021, many of these children were on an educational hiatus. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that you didn’t try, or that you didn’t struggle to make difficult decisions every day to keep school doors open and children safe. I thank you because I know you didn’t sleep, felt incredibly distressed, and worried a great deal—and yet you showed up every day.

How many pandemics have we lived through before this? For the vast majority of us, the answer is none. We all did the best that we could to balance the demands of our children, our jobs, and our mental health. Many of you also have children of your own. The demand was unbearable and again, I thank you.

Kudos to all of us that have made it this far. But I want to give you a little insight and feedback about why so many children are struggling so much this school year. Some are failing, some are falling behind, some don’t care, and many care, but don’t understand why they are failing or why school is so difficult this year.

My children, in addition to others, started a new school year in September. But this year was different. An entire year and a half had passed and school was just not the same. Last year, some students were all virtual, some followed a hybrid schedule, and some refused to do either. Many children went from being honor students with a high level of motivation to missing assignments and failing their classes. What happened?

For one and a half years, our teachers did the best they could to teach both the students in the classroom and the students on their computer screens. They did so often while wearing a mask or while presenting themselves as a head on a screen. They had to find all sorts of creative ways to present information. They tried to solve problems on the board and through the camera.

Yet many kids couldn’t see the board or couldn’t follow the progression of the process; they may have been unable to access it because of internet glitches or lags. They may have been missing very important facial expressions or the ability to watch other people’s lips move as they spoke. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated how much information we lose when we look at a face that is half covered. Again—no blame. It is what it is.

For the last year and a half, the level of academic instruction and rigor was not as high as it was pre-pandemic. Many kids didn’t study, take tests, attend to lessons, or participate in their extracurricular activities in the same way. As much as I hate to admit this, my own kids were distracted, consulted with Google for answers, and completed assignments and tests “collaboratively.” Many kids have not taken a real test in the classroom or had to prepare for one for a year and a half.

Yet with that said, it feels like many teachers returned to their pre-pandemic levels of rigor, instruction, and expectations as this school year began. However, many kids have fallen behind in their skills to attend, sustain attention, study, take notes, balance their schedule, write papers, and complete tests and assignments. They also lost their endurance to get through an entire school day or attend activities and clubs. They've also, frankly, lost key academic knowledge and skills.

My 8-year-old son does not have the skills of a third-grader right now and he likely won’t “catch up” during this school year. I know that other children besides mine are behind academically, too. My expectation is not that you are going to catch them up—but I hope you'll understand that we can’t pick up this year like the last 18 months didn’t happen. My hope is that you'll pick up where you left off in March 2020.

As a mom and psychologist, I know that kids have suffered a great loss of milestones such as graduations, field trips, concerts, and dances; my two older kids missed their 5th- and 8th-grade graduations. Time has been lost in friendships and building bonds over sports and plays. Our kids still can’t whisper in each other’s ears or sit shoulder to shoulder. They can’t see their teacher’s or peers’ facial expressions or watch their mouths as they speak. They may have to raise their voice or pull their mask forward to express a thought or emotion. And how well can you see sarcasm or humor from behind a mask?

The levels of anxiety and depression are overwhelming. Many children have lost, essentially, a year and a half of their lives. I know I’m biased, but mental health is so very important right now especially as we are trying to return to our pre-pandemic ways of living. There hasn’t been a transition time leading into the pandemic or out of it. We were all thrust into isolation—and now, our kids are going back to pre-pandemic school expectations without any real acknowledgment that life has been different for a year and a half.

Here is what I’m asking of you—once again, without blame. Please focus on our children’s mental health rather than worry about curriculum and assessments. Talk to our kids. Let them reflect on their experiences during the pandemic. Let them relate those experiences to present lessons. Let them reflect in writing and through projects and collaboration with their peers. Let peer group work be a thing again. Focus less on content and more on “How are you doing?”

After the last year and a half, we are not the same. You are not the same as teachers and administrators, we are not the same as parents, and our kids are not the same. Life is not the same. Please acknowledge this and incorporate it into your daily instruction. Transition back into academics, rather than starting there. For many kids, school is the most consistent and safe place. Let it continue to be. Process, talk, feel, and grieve together. It’s OK. We haven’t lived through a pandemic before.

Thank you for reading this far. Our children will learn. They will graduate. They will do it all. But first, let’s focus on your and their mental health.