As students and faculty find their way back into classrooms this fall, many are looking forward to a more normalized school year than what we’ve experienced of late. With masks no longer mandatory, the CDC relaxing quarantining protocols and remote learning largely done away with, this year is certainly shaping up to feel more like the days prior to COVID.
That’s not to say that the lessons learned during the pandemic won’t carry over. But the return of that familiar feeling of students and staff together as one is generating quite a buzz in schools across the region. Having teachers and their pupils connect on a more personalized level once again is a big reason why.
“Having those nurtured relationships that exist [between students and teachers] is such a critical piece,” says Dr. Joe Meloche, superintendent of Cherry Hill public schools. “The most important thing we provide every day is a safe and secure environment for our students and staff. The second most important thing that we do is provide the opportunity for these relationships to thrive.”
Dr. Robert Tull, principal of Eastern Regional High School, says the transition back to school requires students to reorient themselves with schedule, routines and procedures, but that the benefits are clearly evident.
“Though the need to adapt and remain resilient will likely persist, this school year has fewer unknowns compared to the past two school years. We are looking forward to seeing students take full advantage of learning opportunities and observe their development into self-directed responsible learners both intellectually and socially,” he says.
Of course, the pandemic certainly took a mental toll on both students and staff, which is why several schools throughout South Jersey have increased their services and support. Some of the enhancements include having a licensed clinician available and contracting with third-party mental health consultants that match students, staff and their families with mental health providers.
“There’s a lot of triggers in high school, so having our staff recognize a student’s needs and stress levels so we can give them support, or time to maybe just take a break, I think is really important,” says Tammy McHale, principal at Haddonfield Memorial High School. “One of our goals we are setting for this year is for all of our students to be able to connect with at least one adult in the building and work on that sense of belonging, so students and staff are rejuvenated coming back here and know that we are a community again.”
And while every individual has dealt with the fallout of the pandemic in their own way, with all that’s transpired since 2020 it has undoubtedly made students more resilient. That should only benefit them as they enter into the next chapter in their lives.
“Students had to adjust to changes in schooling and demonstrate the ability to be flexible with in-person or virtual learning platforms. The ability to navigate rapid changes has helped many students become more resilient and innovative when addressing learning challenges and embracing new processes for socialization,” Tull says.
“I think this is a generation of kids who are growing up to be incredibly appreciative, grateful and thankful for what it is that they have the opportunity to do. At the same time, these are not kids sitting back and waiting for someone to do something for them, but rather they want to be part of that change. They want to be a part of redefining and reimagining what goes on in our schools. These are kids who are vocal. As a school district, we’ve spent more time on the board level talking about the value of student voice and what it means to listen and hear them,” Meloche says.
As COVID hopefully continues to fade into the distance, there is another big issue facing school districts in South Jersey and across the country and that would be the national teacher shortage. Here in the Garden State, the number of teaching candidates has decreased by the thousands and thus caused the New Jersey Board of Education to consider amending the requirements to become an educator, hoping to entice a new crop of undergrads. Locally, the problem may not be as dire as elsewhere, but the future outlook remains murky at best.
“The number of our applicants has definitely decreased,” says McHale. “We are able to staff all our positions, but we are not having nearly the pool of applicants that we used to have. Having everyone with the correct and appropriate certifications is a little bit challenging, especially at the high school level.”
Tull says Eastern was proactive in its approach to identify needs and pursue options. “We have been fortunate to hire a mix of new college graduates, out-of-state teachers relocating to New Jersey, persons beginning second careers as alternate route teachers and some New Jersey teachers relocating to Eastern for various reasons,” he says.
Meloche agrees that the candidate pool has dwindled in recent years and he cites fewer college students pursuing teaching careers as a big contributor as well as more job opportunities becoming available which are luring teachers to other schools and districts. That has made it difficult to fill certain staff vacancies, including finding adequate substitutes, at times.
“We are in pretty decent shape for the opening of the school year, but we are struggling to hire world language teachers right now, specifically. There’s just a very shallow pool of candidates out there right now. Over the last couple of years, we’ve struggled with math and science positions at times [as well],” Meloche says.
Despite some of these ongoing challenges, these administrators are looking forward to what this school year will bring and are hopeful on both a professional and personal level.
“Despite the disruptions, these past two years opened new opportunities,” Tull says. “We are looking forward to a full-year of resuming school routines and witnessing the positive benefits of teaching and learning relationships between both students and faculty.”
Meloche says he’s overjoyed to have the opportunity to go out and visit the schools in the district and see students and staff members interacting. “I love it when our schools are full. There’s absolutely no feeling like it and no other profession in the world where you get to experience such pure joy.”
For McHale, the biggest reward will be sharing that connection and building bonds with her students once again, admitting that she had taken those relationships for granted pre-pandemic.
“I’m really looking forward to building those relationships again. Those relationships can’t be ignored,” she says. “That’s part of our students’ well-being, our teachers’ well-being and a large part of how you can be successful in this environment.”