The novel coronavirus COVID-19 upended education all over the world two years ago. Verona, which had been building a large supply of laptops for students, had tested online learning before the pandemic was declared and was able to alternate between remote and in-person education as the pandemic waxed and waned. That eased the concerns of some parents–and frustrated others.
Now schools are back in person and evaluating what needs to be done to get education back on track. A board of education cannot write curriculum, but it can support administrators as they assess what learning loss may have occurred and what remedial programs may be needed.
To help voters evaluate the five candidates running for two seats this November (Diana Ferrera, Denise Verzella, Michael Boone, Sara Drappi, and Aaron Spiegeland), MyVeronaNJ asked all five the same five questions, and then four additional questions specific to their platform and public statements.
Question two was about the aftermath of COVID, and the candidates’ answers to it are below. (You can read the answers to question one, more about the role of a school board, here.) The answers are presented alphabetically by the candidate’s last name:
COVID affected the academic performance of students in Verona, around the country, and around the world. How should Verona schools get student success back on track and how will you get the administration and the community to support that?
Mike Boone: It is a global problem. It’s not just a Verona problem. It’s not just a New Jersey problem. It’s not just an American problem. I think we all recognize this fact that we lost some ground, particularly in the areas involving reading, especially at the lower level. Anecdotally speaking, I hear from parents who feel that their children who weren’t great readers may have fallen back, maybe a year or so in their their reading skills. I would start with that. Everything comes off of that. I would love to see the administration find ways, very non-stressful ways to help those students get back on track with their reading programs. It’s going to have to take a public partnership, and one of the things that I was thinking about, again, at the very youngest level is the wonderful library programs that they used to have for toddlers at the Verona Library, and how that helped foster an initial joy for reading. I would love to see a partnership either through the Recreation programs or summer programs to provide these additional programs that help them in a stress-free environment. Get back on track with their reading skills in really a way that doesn’t feel punitive to them. And I think that that just comes from, again, using the model that they used at the library. It was just a wonderful program where it made the activity of learning and learning how to read fun, and I think that that would be a step in the right direction. As for the junior high and high school students, parents who have the means have been able to enlist tutors and to get caught up in their math skills so that they do not fall behind. And that’s great. But we need to recognize that not everybody in this town has access to those kinds of resources. I think that there are wonderful math tutoring programs, that if we can find a way to do some sort of partnership, again, to allow the students to find ways to supplement their current math to get back up to speed again. It’s going to cost money, and where we find that money, that’s, that’s a whole ‘nother challenge. But with our new business administrator, I think there are creative options to find funding to help students get back into the position so that they can succeed.
Sara Drappi: As a district, we’ve already started that, using the data that we’ve collected through MAP Growth, which is done throughout the year. We are able to track student growth, and it gives teachers better opportunities to identify deficits and strengths of our students. Last year, we approved the Edmentum Exact Path program, which is the companion program to MAP Growth. That is another tool that teachers have to help fill any gaps that developed throughout COVID. It offers remediation programs, so it’s really good for helping fill the gaps as an intervention program that we can use within the general education classrooms, and it also offers enrichment for students who are ready to be pushed to the next level. From a board perspective, it’s really about whatever programs the administration brings to the table that they feel are appropriate to fill those perceived and real gaps that students face and will continue to face after COVID. It’s not really a board role to dictate how to get students on track. That responsibility lies with the superintendent and the administration. We’re constantly revising policy to test and remedy student achievement and student impact. As a parent, I have ideas and, as a teacher, I have ideas, but as a board member, you know, that’s not necessarily the role of the board. It would come down to whatever the superintendent and the administration brought to us in order for us to approve.
Diana Ferrera: I love this question. Again, just kind of looping back to my platforms in the Learn aspect of it. There is a student-focused approach and specifically in that I speak to something called response to intervention, which is an intervention program where we have teachers who are able to support students who fall right in the middle of the road, right? It’s not necessarily students who already have an IEP [Individualized Educational Plan], but it’s students who, maybe just a little bit below benchmark, and teachers are able to go in and support. So those interventionists, that’s what they’re typically called, are there to support the general ed classroom teachers, as well as those students to ensure that all students’ needs are being met and to ensure that any gaps that we see with our students are being supported through this intervention.
Aaron Spiegeland: This also aligns with another one of my platforms, which is customizing curriculum for the students. And by that I mean, paying extra attention to what the students need. I’m not saying each student would get a unique lesson plan, but finding those students that may need a little extra help and making sure they get it. Those students that maybe weren’t as affected by COVID and are up for a challenge on the other end of the scale. Seeing about getting them the possibility of some accelerated curriculum. It’s really not trying to do a one-size-fits-all. So I think, looking to do a flexible curriculum that can address the needs of each individual student and, very top level, just making sure students who are in school have an opportunity to be educated. I think the big problem with COVID obviously was pulling them out. Now that they’re in there, we have an opportunity to not only instruct them on what they need to know but in this instance, catch them up on what they may have missed.
Denise Verzella: I think Verona started off well with this. We made a good switch even back at the beginning of COVID. We made a good switch to virtual instruction, quicker and better than a lot of other school districts in our area. That actually helped prevent some of the learning loss that other school districts are now experiencing. However, there has been learning loss, and I think that, working with teachers specifically and talking to classroom teachers, at the school level, and figuring out where those gaps in education are. And then using the resources that we have, using the teachers that we have, starting to fill those in. It’s not going to be a quick fix. It’s not going to be like, by the end of November, everyone’s gonna be back where they were. It’s going to be a long-term process, but it is going to be a process where we will see results. In the special education arena that is a little bit more difficult because a lot of those students were not really able to access their education virtually. For those students, there may need to be a more intensive type of remediation program happening, whether it’s additional students in an ESY, an extended school year program, or even a longer ESY program for some students. So they’re able to recoup the loss that they’ve had. But in a typical general education student, I think working directly with the teachers, making sure they have the resources necessary to meet the needs of the students. There is a lot of testing. Testing takes away from learning. Testing is a pet peeve of mine, too much testing. We do need to have some tests to see where we are, but let’s not over-emphasize them and let’s talk directly with our teachers. We have great teachers, and we really need to listen to them.