A teacher probably wouldn’t have to cut his firewood to heat a schoolhouse these days, but that doesn’t mean a modern day teacher doesn’t face real challenges in public education.
From class sizes, to dealing with distance learning, masking, testing, and other protocols demanded by COVID-19, educators everywhere are facing their own hurdles to overcome.
Although flexibility and innovation are key components of public education, administrators sometimes encounter the problem of low morale among staff, students, or parents. It’s something that Dr. Jeff Solan, now in his seventh year as Superintendent of Cheshire Public Schools, takes very personally as he prepares the area for another school year.
“We want students to be in a good position to navigate the real world, whether it’s a pandemic or not, and most of all, we want to deliver great academic experiences. That has been derailed a little bit (due to COVID-19),” admits Solan.
Before classes officially begin on Tuesday 30 August, Cheshire Herald He had a chance to catch up with Solan as he looked forward to the new school year. There is no off-season in public education, but Solan took a short break in August before returning to Cheshire in time for a city council meeting on August 23. There, a proposal to send a $166.6 million referendum to the polls in November was approved unanimously and enthusiastically, as by the Board of Education and the School Modernization Committee.
Having been part of Cheshire Schools since 2006 and superintendent since 2016, Solan has witnessed the long and arduous process of moving the school’s modernization to a place where there is political support from Cheshire leaders as well as economic commitment from the state. As a district employee, Solan is now restricted from publicly calling for the referendum, but has been an outspoken supporter of the project, spending some time over the past few months meeting with organizations and residents to discuss what he sees as the benefits of moving forward with the proposal now.
However, this is a concern for the future. Now, after two years of relative turmoil caused by the impact of COVID-19, the 2022-23 school year will begin with a sense of normalcy gained through experience and experiment.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re maintaining the same guidance as last year,” Solan said, referring to a mask-choice policy that encourages anyone not feeling comfortable or showing symptoms such as a high temperature or cough to stay home, get the PCR test if possible, and follow current CDC recommendations regarding isolation and recovery time. The mood is cautiously optimistic, but Solan is satisfied with what the staff and students have learned about keeping everyone as healthy as possible.
Concerns have been raised over the past two years that hiding, increased screen time, lack of physical activity, social isolation, and other stressful situations have had adverse long-term effects on some children. Solan, who has a master’s degree in counseling and psychological services, stresses that he and others in the system are well aware of these potential issues and have taken steps to provide a range of resources to support students and families.
“We are always well aware of what students are feeling, and this plays into the goals we set for all students, which are to graduate complex thinkers who are also strong social and emotional learners,” he says.
Solan describes meditation techniques that are used in some classes, such as taking “dandelion breaths, in which one imagines blowing fluff” to control their emotions through breathing. A program called Pet Partners is helping bring therapy animals – rabbits, dogs and guinea pigs – to different primary schools to make school a happier place.
At the high school level, some federal funding has been used to administer adolescent mental health first aid training, giving sophomores a chance to be the first line of defense for any of their classmates who might be having difficulty with the novelty of the new school year, or whatever.
However, even with this money, the expenses of running a Tier 1 district remain serious. Solan sees the cost of some resources coming down, including necessities like diesel and food, describing it as “not as big and not as horrific as it could have been.”
Regarding school lunches, the plan is to provide free meals to all students for as long as possible.
“It’s about doing everything we can to support the students on their journey.”
Solan hopes the year will be smooth, but there are always surprises. If there is any lesson he has learned in his career, it is that the ability to persevere in the face of adversity will always be a part of life, and always will be a part of the job.
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