A teacher won’t likely have to chop his or her own wood to heat a schoolhouse these days, but that doesn’t mean the modern-day educator doesn’t face real challenges in public education.
From class sizes, to dealing with remote learning, masking, testing and other protocols prompted by COVID-19, educators everywhere have their obstacles to overcome.
Although resilience and innovation are key components of public education, administrators sometimes face the issue of low morale among staff, students or parents. It’s something Dr. Jeff Solan, now in his seventh year as Superintendent of Cheshire Public Schools, takes very personally as he readies the District for another school year.
“We want students to be well-positioned to navigate the real world, pandemic or not, and most of all, we want to provide great academic experiences. That got derailed a little bit (because of COVID-19),” Solan admits.
Before classes officially began again on Tuesday, Aug. 30, The Cheshire Herald had a chance to catch up with Solan as he looks forward to the new school year. There is no real off-season in public education, but Solan did take a brief August vacation before returning to Cheshire in time for the Aug. 23 Town Council meeting. There, a motion to send a $166.6 million referendum to the ballot in November was unanimously and enthusiastically approved by the Council, as it had been by the Board of Education and the Schools Modernization Committee.
Having been part of Cheshire Schools since 2006 and Superintendent since 2016, Solan has seen the long, arduous process of getting school modernization to a place where there is political support from Cheshire’s leaders as well as an economic commitment from the state. As a District employee, Solan is now constrained from advocating publicly for the referendum, but he has been a vocal supporter of the project, spending time over the last few months meeting with organizations and residents to discuss what he sees as the benefits of moving forward with the proposal now.
Yet, that is a concern for the future. Now, after two years of relative turmoil brought on by the impact of COVID-19, the 2022-23 school year will kick off with a sense of normalcy earned through experiment and experience.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re keeping the same guidance as last year,” Solan said, referring to a mask-optional policy that encourages anyone who is not feeling well or who displays symptoms like high fever or coughing to stay home, get a PCR test if possible, and follow current CDC recommendations on isolation and recovery time. The mood is cautiously optimistic, but Solan feels good about what staffers and students have learned about keeping everyone as healthy as possible.
Concern has been raised over the last two years that masking, increased screen time, lack of physical activity, social isolation, and other stressful situations have had long-term adverse effects on some children. Solan, who has a master’s degree in counseling and psychological services, emphasizes that he and others in the system are acutely aware of these potential issues and have taken steps to provide an array of resources to support students and families.
“We’re always hyper-aware of how students are feeling, and that plays into the goals we have set for all students, of producing complex thinkers who are also strong social-emotional learners,” he says.
Solan describes meditative techniques that are used in some classrooms, such as taking “dandelion breaths, where one visualizes blowing the fluff off” the stem to control one’s emotions through breathing. A program called Pet Partners assists with bringing therapy animals — rabbits, dogs and guinea pigs — into various elementary schools to make the school setting a happier place.
At the high school level, some federal funding was used to run teen mental health first aid training, giving sophomores an opportunity to be a first line of defense for any of their colleagues who may be having difficulty with the novelty of a new school year, or anything else.
Yet, even with that money, the expenses of running a first-rate district remain serious. Solan sees the cost of some resources coming back down, including essentials like diesel and food, describing it as “not great and not as awful as it could have been.”
With regard to school lunches, the plan is to provide free meals for all students for as long as possible.
“It’s about doing everything we can to support students in their journey.”
Solan hopes that the year will be smooth, but there are always surprises. If there is any lesson he’s learned in his career, it’s that the ability to persevere in the face of adversity will always be part of life, and it will always be part of the job.