The pandemic exacerbated students' academic and mental health struggles — but in developing recovery programs, states made several positive reforms.
Those reforms include comprehensive tutoring initiatives, sophisticated data collection and analysis systems, and partnerships across government and nongovernment sectors, said state education leaders during the Council of Chief State School Officers' Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 21.
Top education officials from Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois and other states talked about how their plans for recovery interventions had to be adjusted as pandemic impacts were better understood. They also discussed how they are looking ahead at the sustainability of pandemic initiatives once Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds run out.
In Tennessee, for example, Commissioner Penny Schwinn said a $1 billion state investment will help continue efforts funded by pandemic investments. But she emphasized the state is much more interested in programming efficiencies and less focused on securing more funding.
Implementing response to intervention strategies, cultivating strong partnerships with higher education institutions, and improving high-dosage tutoring are a few of the structural improvements Tennessee is undertaking, Schwinn said.
"It's less about the money and much more about how do we squeeze every single second of the minutes that we have with kids," said Schwinn.
She invited critics of spending practices to volunteer their time to tutor students. "I wonder how many of those people are actually getting in classrooms and tutoring for two hours a week. It's like I need you for two hours a week," Schwinn said. "Come join us."
Academic investments that work
Stephanie Siddens, Ohio's interim superintendent of public instruction, said the state recorded pandemic-era dips in reading and math, as well as an increase in chronic absenteeism.
"Just knowing that children are not in school enough to receive the important instruction they need to recover is a big concern for us," Siddens said.
To respond to needs, the state developed its Future Forward Ohio plan that prioritizes strategies for literacy, workforce readiness, student wellness and learning acceleration. The plan includes a grant program for colleges and universities to have teacher education candidates tutor K-12 students. The state has also created a list of vetted, high-quality tutoring programs that schools can use with local funding.
In Tennessee, Schwinn said, there is a high level of buy-in from districts for high-dosage tutoring, but the state's goal of having a minimum of three students to one tutor has been more difficult to maintain. State legislation requires that high-dosage tutoring be provided for any child who is not proficient in reading in grades K-4, Schwinn added.
"We're not investing in what doesn't work."
Tennessee Commissioner of Education
Tracking academic progress is also a high priority area for the states. Siddens said in addition to Ohio's own monitoring protocols, it also has formal external evaluations. In Tennessee, the state has partnered with universities to administer educator surveys in addition to other accountability efforts.
"We're not investing in what doesn't work," said Schwinn. "We are in a very conservative state, and we've gotten more funding even with the federal funding, because the outcomes and the buy-in from our districts has been so high, but that has been very much driven by data. And I think districts are seeing that when they invest in these things that work, they're getting the returns right away."
Mental health supports for students and staff
In addition to academic declines, many students experienced trauma, isolation and other hardships from the pandemic. Strains on students' mental health began even before the global health crisis, experts have said.
In December 2020, Illinois launched The Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing, or REACH, initiative with federal relief dollars. The program trains educators, school mental health professionals and community members to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and address students' social-emotional and mental health needs.
The effort began in 52 schools that formed REACH teams to build capacity for trauma-informed practices. Since then, the state has invested another $11.5 million in ESSER II funds to expand the program statewide, said Illinois Superintendent Tony Sanders.
In addition, the state dedicated another $90 million in ESSER money for grants to 136 partners to improve relationships between schools and community organizations regarding student mental health interventions, said Sanders, who became state superintendent in February.
"If there has been any silver lining to COVID, it has been the recognition and acknowledgment that mental health is important and we really need to address it."
Director of the REACH program in Illinois
Mashana Smith, a clinical psychologist and director of the REACH program, said their efforts started small with direct support to school staff and have evolved to identifying regional education levels who could help implement the model. Ongoing professional development and monitoring of the program's effectiveness will be key to moving forward, Smith said.
"If there has been any silver lining to COVID, it has been the recognition and acknowledgment that mental health is important and we really need to address it," Smith said.
Amy Blomberg, principal of Broadmeadow Elementary School in Rantoul, Illinois, said participation in REACH has helped her school better address students' mental health through professional development in student trauma prevention and emotional supports for staff. Part of this work included creating dedicated spaces in the school for students to take individually-designed movement breaks. The school also has an action-based learning lab with interactive workout circuits to help students meet physical and emotional goals.
For staff, the school designated specific spaces with massage chairs and staff-requested items such as puzzles and favorite snacks. Like the students, staff are encouraged to take short breaks when they need them, Blomberg said.
Sanders, who discussed his own efforts to seek mental health resources during the pandemic, said, "We cannot underestimate the role that we play in relationships and modeling good social-emotional learning for all of our students and being willing to be vulnerable and talk about our own journeys with mental health."