Hilliard Schools Connection: Stress contributes to 'COVID gaps' in education

John Marschhausen
Guest columnist

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has influenced nearly every aspect of our personal and public lives.

Since mid-March, our world has been chaotic and uncertain. The stress and anxiety are real; no one is immune. Each of us has good days and bad days.

John Marschhausen

For the students in our schools, the coronavirus has been traumatic. For some, this is the most challenging time in their short lives.

Our district has been operating in a hybrid-learning mode since August. In hybrid, with 50% of the students receiving face-to-face instruction on alternating days, we can maintain a 6-foot social distance with students wearing masks.

From our experience, hybrid works to keep our students and teachers safe. Even as the coronavirus community spread has increased, we have little evidence of any viral transmission taking place in our instructional settings.

Some parents would like to see Hilliard transition to an "all-in" instructional mode; others believe a fully remote environment is more appropriate as COVID-19 spreads in the community.

District leaders continue to collaborate with local health officials, epidemiologists and infectious-disease experts to make decisions. As science advances, as recommendations change, the district responds with purpose. Not everyone will agree with our course, but I'm hopeful our community understands our process, reliance on local health officials and continued efforts to adapt and adjust to changing conditions.

Our current reality, the reality that coronavirus isn't going to disappear in the coming months, requires school leaders to adapt and adjust.

In August and September, as we returned students in hybrid mode, instructional leaders and teachers worked together on delivering the classroom content to our students. At the time, our message was, "Let's do our best to cover normal content."

As the first quarter came to an end, it became clear that "nothing is normal."

Our teachers worked tirelessly to design both face-to-face and remote lessons. Our parents and students worked together to learn from home on off days; our teachers spent their days focused on the students in their rooms and their nights on the work students completed at home. Our pace is unsustainable.

I heard directly from high school students that teachers are teaching "from bell to bell" in a genuine effort to cover more content. High school students feel the stress of working alone at home, on new content, without support from their teachers. We've been trying to teach the regular curriculum in abnormal times.

No one performs at a high level in continued, ongoing periods of high stress. It is simple science: Students can't learn when their social and emotional needs aren't met. Teachers can't "cram" information into a child's brain; children must experience learning. Furthermore, our teachers need to be healthy to teach our children.

Our district has had more than a dozen students hospitalized for mental-health issues in the first two months of school. Our counselors report significant increases in stress and mental-health-related issues.

Although the stress from COVID-19 is our primary concern, our students also internalize societal anxiety from other factors.

We just finished the most vitriolic, hateful presidential campaign in my memory. The political environment in our country – the messages our young people hear from candidates – is stressful. Race relations in our country require skillful, open conversations in our classrooms. Our high school students had one suggestion for our teachers through our surveys: They just want time to talk.

I have instructed our teachers to slow down, to give themselves and their students some grace.

Today's students will have "COVID gaps" – that's a simple fact. We can't force a full year's curriculum into a hybrid instructional mode. If we try, we will fail and only serve to increase mental-health issues.

The COVID gap isn't a Hilliard City Schools issue, and it isn't an Ohio issue, but rather it is a global issue. Even in countries that are keeping schools open during nationwide lockdowns, school isn't regular. Hybrid models are being implemented worldwide, and social distancing and masks are the norms.

Our college and university partners are experiencing the same challenges.

Our college-bound students will be welcomed at the next level with support and understanding. Ohio State University is facing the same difficulties with its own students; no one is alone.

Districts will continue to implement assessments as diagnostic instruments. We will identify gaps and create targeted opportunities to close the gaps. In the future, we will offer "fifth quarters" and extended-learning opportunities. For an elementary student today, we have a decade to close the COVID gap.

Today, during this pandemic, we are committed to our students' and staff's health and well-being.

In the future, we are committed to identifying the gaps and providing each student the opportunity to be ready for tomorrow.

There is no easy answer; the conversations are uncomfortable and difficult.

We will focus on our students and families because we genuinely are all in this together.

Hilliard City Schools Superintendent John Marschhausen writes the Hilliard Schools Connection guest column for the ThisWeek Hilliard Northwest News.