“Just hanging on” – Charlotte Central School begins the third year of the pandemic

Charlotte School teachers and staff approached the fall of 2021 with the expectation that the emergency response of the previous 18 months would be behind them. The elimination of remote instruction, extended quarantine and contact tracing were steps along the pathway to normalcy. Teachers remained worried about the reduction in student academic skills that had been demonstrated by school assessments. There were expectations that they would be able to spend time on remediation for those students who had significant losses. According to 5th grade teacher David Baird, “There was a new emphasis on keeping kids in school.”

Charlotte Central School file photo.

When Principal Jen Roth was asked if things are back to normal, she said, “It is hard to imagine catching up. We are still in an emergency response mode. Some students have never experienced a normal school year.” When asked how the year is going, world language teacher Sarah Pierson described a situation in which “we really can’t depend upon a regular schedule. We must remain flexible and be able to pivot quickly.”

The previous 18 months of changing restrictions and guidelines and the reconfiguration of the school itself meant that by the fall of 2021, teacher fatigue was high. In the fall of 2021 teachers were confronted with another set of pandemic effects: staff reductions and students suffering from social-emotional distress. Staff reductions resulted from the Omicron variant being very infectious, requiring at least five days of quarantine for each person affected.

National studies have documented the loss of student academic skills due to the pandemic, but effects on students’ social and emotional well-being have been dramatic. Students had been cut off from friends and activities. Many were having difficulty with remote instruction and dropped out of classes. Stresses on families included loss of income, scarce daycare, job loss and food insecurity. The result has been an increase in anxiety, depression and, in general, social distress among the school population.

The response of the school district to this challenging school environment has been to direct the teachers and staff to respond directly to the social and emotional needs of students first. One teacher said, “This is the best thing the district has done.” The district is increasing counseling and school support staff and programs. This includes support for teachers. According to interviewees, administrators have kept a significant amount of stress from teachers by taking on any problems resulting from the pandemic. The directive at CCS is this: find moments of joy in each day; take breaks, take classes outside, and plan special classroom events.

At the same time, academic progress is closely monitored and assessed, and teachers know where students are in their academic programs. Many students are behind where they would be if the pandemic had not occurred, but there is a sense that they will catch up eventually with good instruction.

In order to accomplish this in the midst of staff shortages caused by infection, teachers have given up lunch and free periods to teach others’ classes. In the process, they have given up their time to talk and plan together. Parent volunteers have come in to supervise some activity periods. As one teacher said, “We are well over our capacity to be doing this. We are just hanging on. Teachers are exhausted.”

The good news in all of this is that the community around CCS has been very supportive. Parents have taken on volunteer jobs and supporters have delivered special meals to staff. The PTO has established an Angels Fund that is providing funding for families experiencing food insecurity and needing other emergency assistance. The other good news is that spring is coming, and with it, an expected reduction in Omicron and a hoped-for reduction in exhaustion.

Thanks to Principal Jen Roth and teachers David Baird, 5th grade teacher, and Sarah Pierson, world language teacher, for their interviews.