Although they concede that the past year’s disruption in school routines and curriculum has affected traditional education goals, a panel of local educators said the experience has produced some positives as well.
“Focus on what you have gained,” Greater Johnstown High School Principal Michael Dadey said. “That’s important to mention to these students, to these parents.”
Dadey was among those participating in the latest “COVID Questions” town hall Tuesday, organized by In This Together Cambria.
Other panelists included Becky Castiglione, elementary principal for Conemaugh Valley School District; Thomas Mitchell, superintendent at Westmont Hilltop School District; and Jessica McConnell, a school-based outpatient therapist for Alternative Community Resource Program.
The disruptions and impact of the pandemic have not only affected students’ education, but also are affecting students’ emotional and mental state, McConnell said.
“I am seeing a lot of anxiety,” she said. “There are kids who are afraid to get COVID at school and bring it home to their family. There are kids concerned because they are falling behind in their classes.”
After being isolated at home for months, the return to a school environment can also lead to social anxiety, McConnell said.
Depression is another issue, with students missing family and friends and grieving the loss of family members who were among those who died from COVID-19.
“They are also grieving the loss of experiences and events that they were looking forward to,” she said.
She described some signs that parents should watch for.
“Kids aren’t always going to come out and say, ‘I’m scared,’ or ‘I’m sad,’ ” McConnell said.
Red flags may be frequent headaches or stomach aches, change in behavior or change in attitude toward schoolwork.
Although it hasn’t been a traditional learning year, Mitchell said students have adapted to what he calls 21st-century skills, such as Zoom classes and computer learning.
“Whatever the pandemic, whatever our society throws at them, they have been outstanding,” Mitchell said. “They have adapted their learning to meet the needs of the pandemic and their learning environment.
“They are going to carry that with them for a long time as they work toward post-secondary goals.”
Mitchell addressed the situation that put about 100 Westmont students in quarantine this week.
The district learned that some students had tested positive and were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms last week, before the Easter holiday break. Contact tracing required those who may have been exposed to quarantine at home.
“The students that tested positive were actually in the building last week, so we had to do some large-scale quarantining,” Mitchell said. “What it boiled down to was a handful of cases leading to a large-scale quarantine.”
Castiglione said teachers learned the value of what she calls social-emotional education.
Conemaugh Valley introduced activity days focused on areas of social and emotional development.
“One of the things this pandemic brought to the forefront was that academic and social-emotional learning are not competing interests. They are co-interests,” Castiglione said.
The COVID Questions series is presented through a partnership between In This Together Cambria, the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and The Tribune-Democrat.
Upcoming events include a vaccine update April 13, discussion on the 1918 flu pandemic and its parallels to the novel coronavirus April 30 and an exploration of higher education May 4.
Recordings of the forums, COVID-19 resources and more can be found at www.inthistogethercambria.com.