It is no secret that New Jersey schools are acclaimed for their education and career pathway programs, but after the unprecedented circumstance of the pandemic—especially for youth in their prime stages of development—adverse effects are inevitable. Students acclimated to remote learning and preferred the comfort and safe space of their own homes, and others had difficulty retaining information without a one-on-one or interactive classroom experience. Either way, the sense of normalcy in classrooms today is far from previous generations.
“The students’ academic growth has been strong, nevertheless learning loss is real and has been far greater than pre-pandemic levels. We are being as intentional and vigilant in our efforts to target students in need of additional help,” says George J. Rafferty, Ed.D., superintendent of Mount Laurel Township Schools.
According to the 2023 New Jersey Student Learning Assessment Data Presentation from the New Jersey Department of Education Office of Assessments and Division of Teaching and Learning Services, less than half of test scores charted in grades third through eighth—and eleventh—were reflective of “at target” or “advanced” levels (three and four, respectively) in English language arts exams. All in all, the findings showed 45% of students who are not graduation ready in mathematics, and 19.5% who are not graduation ready in language arts.
“The [New Jersey Department of Education] establishes learning standards, called the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS), which are overarching standards as to what students are expected to learn in each grade band in nine subject areas. One of those content areas specifically involves technology: computer science and design thinking. It is up to local school districts to adopt the day-to-day curriculum to help students achieve the state’s learning standards,” explains Mike Yaple, public information officer.
While these statistics may be concerning, it’s understandable considering the years-long learning and social disruption that is essential to affecting performances on par with one’s grade level, but also to a child’s development. With this in mind, there are recent discussions about eliminating New Jersey’s high school graduation exit exam altogether—which is only a requirement in nine states. In fact, a bill is already in the works.
Unfortunately, disadvantaged students or individuals suffering from mental health complications unrelated to school post-pandemic can have their anxiety and stress exponentiated by educational obligations. Regardless of a student’s situation, everyone was affected by the absence of major life milestones that come with education: graduations, sports games, performances and school dances, to name a few.
“Following the pandemic, Moorestown Friends is noticing that students need greater social-emotional support. The result of months studying online away from their social circles, has created a need for more structured social time and guidance. This, and a nationwide increase in youth mental health issues, have caused us to place a greater focus on student wellness,” says Meredith Godley, associate head of school and academic dean.
The silver lining in this decline is a recognition of just how common these struggles are, and addressing them to find a plan of action with the undeniable patterns of student decline in recent years is in progress as county and state officials are working together to find solutions for our emerging generations to succeed. Innovative solutions can yield stronger results.
“We added counseling services in our schools. At the middle school level we added another school counselor and a student assistance coordinator—addressing students and families impacted by substance abuse issues—as well as using federal assistance funds to hire additional school counselors at our intermediate and elementary schools. We partnered with county mental health service agencies and contracted with a mental health referral network (Care Solace) to help directly connect students and families with needed services,” says Rafferty.
While youth mental health has always been a concern, it has noticeably worsened during the pandemic. Students are increasingly attached to their devices, demonstrate less respect for authority or direction, and miss class altogether. Instead of faulting a child or reprimanding them, there is almost always a reason for this behavior. It could be isolation, fear, or resentment; all of which are natural responses to a global pandemic.
“We have hired a director of wellness and student support and increased the amount of time in our schedule dedicated to student-wellness as a result. The schedule highlights include time in small groups with faculty advisors discussing social-emotional topics, community time, as well as scheduled breaks for students to take a mental rest from studying and spend time in social settings. Our peer leadership program, peer tutoring program, clubs and activities also help students support one another as they navigate both academics and socialization post-pandemic,” says Godley.
One idea, for example, is to understand that students have different talents from one subject to another. It is often said that students passionate about writing struggle with math, or vice-versa. Other members of the future workforce are exceptionally talented with technology, which is a major asset in the modern age. Ultimately, every student is differently skilled, has invidualized learning techniques to achieve success, personal goals and unique situations at home.
“We have found many students lean more toward learning through technology after spending one to two years remote learning during the pandemic. School-aged children are now relying more on Google Classroom and online assignments and they are using laptops in school for many districts. Younger students have become more drawn to tablets and cell phone usage for games and videos and we feel it could also be a result of the years spent at home during quarantine,” says Jennifer Tenner, assistant director at Future Scholars Early Learning Center, who also notes that hands-on learning and a combination of techniques has been especially beneficial to younger students.
While school officials and department heads are implementing solutions such as increased funding for high-impact tutoring from the New Jersey Department of Education, steps to make sure children are caught up to their grade level expectations can begin at home. Especially when tailored to a child’s interests, learning can be exciting instead of a chore.
“Reading at home with your children is extremely important at all ages. The children who were unable to attend formal school during the pandemic may require additional tutoring to help bring them to current grade-level expectations, but many children missed out on those crucial months and fall within the same levels as their peers so we may need to adjust expectations across the board,” continues Tenner.
Of course, not every parent is able to provide additional, at-home education, and the New Jersey Department of Education also awarded $4.34 billion in federal funding to ensure school safety and to consolidate tactics for dealing with the repercussions of COVID upon education.
In conjunction with the high-impact tutoring grants, the NJDOE is “implementing RAPID funding to provide educator instruction that is designed to help teachers in the elementary grades more effectively promote academic recovery. … High Impact Tutoring and the RAPID programs specifically address the needs of elementary school students, as this population may was among the most impacted by the limitations of remote learning during their formative years, when the development of language and composition skills are at their most critical,” says Yaple.
With all of the collective efforts in progress, there is hope for schools, students and parents to overcome this temporary blip and readapt to a routine. It is also fortunate that New Jersey is spearheading initiatives to take care of its students and to promote their success despite irrevocable losses.
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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 20, Issue 9 (December 2023)