Lessons learned and the best ways to move forward in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic were explored from a variety of perspectives during a Friday, Jan. 13 forum at Bucks County Community College in Newtown Township.
Organized by the nonprofit early education advocacy group Children First and emceed by that organization’s Executive Director Donna Cooper, the event highlighted Children First’s new report “COVID’s Impact on Children in Bucks County: The Case for an Ambitious Rebound.” Copies of the report were handed out at the forum, and it can be viewed online at childrenfirstpa.org/report/covidsimpactonchildren.
Panelists at Friday’s event were Bucks County Commissioners Chairman Robert Harvie, Centennial School District Superintendent Dana Bedden, Bucks County Opportunity Council Client Services Director Heather Foor, Bucks County United Way President & CEO Marissa Christie and Emma Torok and Jamar Mitchell, seniors at Centennial’s William Tennent High School in Warminster.
While schools might have benefited from advances in technology for remote learning forced by the pandemic, feelings of isolation and other negative effects still linger, Torok and Mitchell said.
“Students were isolated from their peers for a long time and that has given some an excuse to not reach out and participate in events,” said Torok, who wants to be a teacher.
She urged younger students to reach out to older ones for help.
“If I was an elementary or middle school student, I would want to be talking to high school students,” Torok said.
She added that the continuation of free breakfasts for anyone who wants them in the district has aided the recovery by helping many students feel more alert and ready for the start of their school days.
Bedden said the pandemic was “physically and mentally taxing” for children and adults alike.
“I don’t like the term ‘learning loss,’” he said. “I prefer to call it ‘unfinished learning’ and we’re trying to plug in what we missed.” Bedden said. He added one of the ways Centennial is trying to rebound from the effects of COVID is partnering with the YMCA on one-year memberships for district employees to “improve their mental health and physical well-being.”
Harvie outlined the many ways the county has tried to lessen the impact of the pandemic by allocating millions of dollars, both from county funds and state and federal funds funneled through the county, for items like Google Chromebooks for students, meals for those in need and many others.
“We found that our partnership with the county’s six hospitals helped during the pandemic, but there was no partnership with long-term care providers,” said Harvie, adding such a partnership could prove beneficial in the future.
Also touched on during the forum were the loss of so many childcare centers in Bucks County as the result of the pandemic, lack of affordable housing in the county and many other issues. Better wages for childcare employees could help that situation, panelists said.
Some of the good things that came out of the pandemic were easier procedures for gaining access to benefits like Medicaid and food assistance, panelists said. While the same level of public assistance cannot be kept up indefinitely, some of these benefits can be carried over into the future, they added.
Among the several recommendations at the end of the Children First report were that the county should craft a strategy and designate a structure now that ensures children are better protected the next time a public health emergency strikes; county commissioners must direct the health department to prepare now so it is ready to respond and protect children better when a public health crisis emerges; county citizens must unite and demand that state lawmakers deliver sufficient funds so that every school can afford to hire an ample supply of teachers, provide every student with a computer and, where necessary, free or affordable internet access.
Better access to early childhood education would improve the overall recovery of the educational system from COVID, Christie noted.
“Kids need to get to Kindergarten ready to learn,” she said.
While many in Bucks County and across the country assert that many school districts worsened the educational impact of COVID by keeping students out of schools for too long, Cooper said the most constructive path forward is to concentrate on how things can be made better for the future.
“Let’s put the debate behind us and focus on improving things and making the lives of our children better,” she said.