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Guest editorial: A year to reestablish standards of schooling

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Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests “establish minimum expectations” for student achievement across key subjects. While recent results for the 2021-22 school year showed noticeable declines in English, math, science and other subjects, our children’s chances to catch up hinge on the environment they will learn in this year.

Right now, that environment is tense. Adults rightfully are shaking their heads at the learning losses incurred during the roughest months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The list of possible people to hold accountable is wide-ranging: elected officials, school administrators, teachers, parents and more. It’s on adults to figure out the solutions.

While there is an urgent need to get Virginia students caught up, we can’t miss the upside of what they are experiencing right now. For the first time since 2019, they are starting a school year — walking into classrooms, libraries, gymnasiums and more — engaging face to face with fewer doubts about a historic public health crisis. There’s a sense of hope that the worst is behind us.

The past two years were a warlike experience for our children. There is no instant remedy to reverse the recent educational struggles that took place worldwide. We have to recognize the trauma of the past two-plus school years, and re-establish standards of schooling — expectations for how to build an engaging community for our kids.

As students settle into new classes, they are continually exposed to uncertainties that adults around them have been unable to address. Why is my class size so large? How come my teacher no longer is here? Why is my school building still crumbling?

Worse yet, some students and families still are coping with grief brought on by the pandemic — a lost job, a lost home or even a lost loved one.

The totality of these events far exceeds not being able to read a passage or navigate an algebra problem with ease. Even if a school building offers a child a safe space each day, home life might not hold the same stability.

Reestablishing standards of schooling means elevating resources that point children toward recovery and success. If students have a favorite subject, they should be encouraged to dive further into that area of study. That’s especially true if it involved a hands-on component — a science lab, for example — that could not be replicated via remote learning.

If students have a career path in mind, amplify the activities where our schools serve as a proving ground for those interests, like clubs and community organizations. If they have athletic ambitions, help them overcome unforeseen hurdles that could complicate success, like access to transportation, equipment or fitness facilities.

Reestablishing standards of schooling also will help struggling adults. Thousands of Virginians work in our school divisions, yet thousands of positions remain unfilled.

Give the people who selflessly shape our children’s futures — the teachers, the guidance counselors, even the bus drivers and cafeteria workers — more forums to open up about the challenges creating these shortages, and the ideas that might yield improvement.

Adults who are clamoring about how to fix SOL test scores, or other education issues, likely first learned how to shape their impassioned opinions in a school building. If our children are going to hit the ground running this year, and rediscover any sense of pre-pandemic stability, the last thing they need is a pressure cooker of what went wrong, or what should have been done.

Kids deserve a 2022-23 academic environment focused on what will go right — one that re-establishes school as a safe place to learn, grow and achieve their dreams. And behind that scene, it’s on the adults — in school and at home — to act with urgency and find some answers.

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