A Closer Look at the State of Public Education in 2021

Posted on: February 22nd, 2021 by Kristen Miller

Parents in South-Central Pennsylvania Express Gratitude

As you approach the one year mark of living in a global pandemic, you’re still feeling the intense weight of stress and anxiety it’s brought you and your neighbors.

Health concerns. Financial concerns. Emotional concerns. Social concerns. 

And as a parent, a caregiver, you’re concerned about your child. Your children. And their learning and development. 

No matter what stage you’re in… from first-time parents of school-aged children – yes, Kindergarten registration is underway – to the most seasoned caregivers, you have questions.

So. Many. Questions.

Questions like… 

Is your child falling behind? Is she keeping up? Struggling? Learning and retaining information? How is he doing emotionally? How will missing out on major milestones and life events impact her? 

What are the long-term effects? And if all students are “in the same boat,” what does “falling behind” even mean?

It’s been hard, impossible even, to find answers, good, quality answers, because this type of shutdown and major pandemic pivot is unprecedented in our modern system.

Yes, the school system, nationwide, is built on in-classroom learning. And this past year has been a struggle. One you see and feel daily as you lead your family through it. 

You are living through what will be looked back on as a historical shift. In so many ways, but most notably, in education. Take solace, you’re not alone.

A Look at the Pandemic’s Impact on Education from a National Level

While many of your friends may have felt like this past year put a pause on life and on learning, current research says differently.

A recent study conducted by NWEA – with data from over 4 million students in third through eighth-graders – is helping to shape preliminary results on the state of education year over year.

A snapshot of their findings gives us a better idea as to how students in late elementary through middle school are doing, an opportunity for us all to better understand the challenges of this unprecedented disruption.

Here are the key findings…

Reading Advancements

Good news here. The report reads “In some ways, our findings show an optimistic picture: in reading, on average, the achievement percentiles of students this fall are similar to those of same grade students last year, and in almost all grades, most students made some learning gains since the COVID-19 pandemic started.”

It shows caregiver involvement, technology, and a forced but evolved response by the education community worked. Students made educational gains in learning, particularly in reading, during the pandemic.

Decades of research tell us the most important thing you can do to prepare young children for academic success is to read to them and promote reading as they enter the K-12 system.

Math Performance

Okay, so it’s not all positive. The study concluded, “Student achievement was 5 to 10 percentile points lower than the pre-COVID-19 performance by same-grade students last fall [2019], and students showed lower growth in math across grades 3 to 8 relative to peers in the previous, more typical year.”

Math performance has proved to be a challenging area for students with the barriers and hurdles experienced this past year. Not so surprising, given the circumstances. But something to pay attention to as a parent, a caregiver.

Varying Results 

It’s what you probably figured. Each child, each grade level has varying levels of academic achievement and challenges. 

The researchers share, “Our findings show that the impacts of COVID-19 disruptions on student achievement were not the blanket declines many expected, but were instead uneven across subjects and across grade levels.”

You see this in your own home, and as you talk to your peers and your friends. You’re experiencing the pandemic and its challenges uniquely, both independently and as a family.

But be reassured. The data is a sign of hope; and it’s a testament to the innovation of our educators, the strong will of our children, and how we all are rising to the occasion.

The Advancement of Education in South-Central Pennsylvania 

A quick look at neighboring states tells quite a story. One of the biggest differences? The public education system. It’s come a long way in the past year and risen to the occasion, showing care and concern as well as flexibility.

And as a Pennsylvanian, I’m proud of our response as a community to this health crisis, and I’m proud of our youth, our educators, and our systems for showing up strong.

To better understand our public school system, and get to the heart of it, listen in on the perspective of an administrator and parents right here in our region.

A Leadership Perspective

Faced with what seemed like impossible decisions, Nathan Van Deusen, Ed.D., Superintendent of the South Eastern School District in York County, shared his approach. 

He said, “Over the course of the pandemic, we worked to simplify a very complex problem by focusing on our just cause, our “why.” The following statement helped us moor decisions as a public school entity.  

The SESD exists to INSPIRE and IMPACT learners.  We do this by providing a comprehensive, innovative, and personalized educational experience that removes barriers.

As we began to make decisions on our reopening plan, we consistently went back to the question, ‘which teaching and learning frameworks will inspire, impact, and remove barriers for our students?’”

Even during unprecedented times, administrators and leaders in our region asked hard questions and were committed, really committed, to helping students succeed. One way they did that was by offering choice for students and families. In the case of South Eastern School District, they offered four options: full-time in-person, hybrid, virtual, and cyber.

A Parent’s Perspective

What are parents in your region saying? How are they encouraging their neighbors, their friends, and those first-time school-aged parents registering for Kindergarten as we speak? 

Let’s take a look.

“I feel blessed that both my kids (3rd & 1st) are safe and learning in the classroom – social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands frequently. They are so adaptable and enjoy interacting with their classmates and teachers. And I’m still engaged in their learning, with apps like ClassDojo and Google Classroom. I appreciate all that the staff and teachers have provided during this challenging school year.”

– Nicole P.

“We were very apprehensive at first about sending our kids to in-person learning. However, we knew it was the right choice for them (9th, 1st, PreK). We have been pleasantly surprised with everything so far. Within the first couple of weeks, it was amazing to see how well they were adjusting and how resilient they truly are. The teachers and staff have been absolutely wonderful and so understanding. We are truly grateful.”

– Mary J.

“Motherhood is a journey of learning to let go (4th, 2nd, PreK). And honestly, as I prepare to send my youngest to Kindergarten this year my heart aches. That said, I am choosing to focus on the joy and light that my little girl is going to bring to the world and this is the next step.”

– Eleanor L.

Wisdom from parents, caregivers, and leaders here in our community. Snippets of conversations being had all over the Susquehanna Valley, and beyond. And a behind-the-scenes look at how one district is making decisions for students and staff.  

Encouragement to Help Your Student Thrive

It has been a year. And wow, you are strong. And reliable. And caring. You’ve helped your child, your student, weather the storm, in the most challenging of circumstances. 

So take stock and pause for a minute. And breathe. You are doing the best you can. And so is your child.

To take some of the pressure off and give you a bit of encouragement, here are three ideas to consider in your own home; for yourself and for your children. Whether they are gearing up to enter Kindergarten in the Fall or are graduating in a few months, these ideas might just give you (and them!) an extra boost to end the year strong.

Make One Small Change

It’s easy to get caught up in overwhelm and just freeze. Head in the sand. When thinking of your child’s education, his future, you may panic and hit the pause button. 

“When making plans, think big. When making progress, think small.”

– James Clear

Instead, try thinking small. Focus on one small change.

Work together with your child to identify an area of progress. One specific area. Make it both doable and simple. Maybe a healthier breakfast will help them focus better; maybe a cleaner room or designated space for “school” will help them be more productive. 

Set aside five minutes, together, and work on it. Listen, really listen.

Advocate for Your Child

Talk to your student. Check-in, regularly. Reach out to his teachers. If your child is behind, really, truly behind, and you’ve had conversations with her teacher, start thinking about strategies for additional support. 

There are many options, and once again, it’s an opportunity to work together. What will help? Is it summer school? A tutor? Or after-school care? Maybe your neighbor loves to read and could be recruited to help on a weekly basis for extra reading support or math studies.  

Consider your local library. They offer free, valuable resources and programs to support children of all ages.

Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, suggests asking, “How do we ensure that our children get the best possible opportunities to learn under these challenging circumstances?”

It’s an interesting question, with the change and challenge of the past year. And please understand, Dr. Stipek isn’t suggesting giving your student ‘perfect’ opportunities. 

So go on, ask yourself how your child can get the best opportunities to learn under these challenging times. 

And if you have concerns about your child’s mental health, reach out for support in the same way you would reach out if you had a concern about his physical health. Early childhood education programs and schools have access to mental health professionals. Many of these services are free. Advocate, ask for additional support for your family or child.

For each family, each student, the answer will be unique. Your answer is unique. And it’s okay. 

Nurture a Growth Mindset

We all have either a fixed or a growth mindset. It’s the way we see ourselves, the way we see our abilities and our intelligence. 

A fixed mindset is just that, fixed or unchanging. An example, say your son is struggling with a math concept. Instead of recognizing the struggle as something that is temporary, a fixed mindset would tell him, he’s terrible at math and that he’ll never figure it out. 

A growth mindset is one where she believes in her potential, one where she understands she is developing her intelligence, her ability to learn and figure things out. So in the same example, a growth mindset would tell her it’s just a temporary struggle, one she can work through as she develops her math knowledge.

As a caregiver, nurture your child’s  love of learning by focusing on the process of learning and not the end result – the grade, the report card, the GPA. Encourage play and exploration. 

Give yourself and your child some space, some grace, and focus on what’s really important. Their socio-emotional health. Their mental health. Their sense of self-worth and esteem. 

“Parents can understand what kids are going through, understand how hard it is to stay engaged. Put the focus on the learning and improvement. Get the kids to understand that there is a world out there that desperately needs their contributions in the future. Parents have an important role in helping their children stay in the learning game.”

– Carol Dweck

Remember, you are resilient. Your child is resilient. 

You’re doing the best you can.Your child is doing the best she can.  

Take it one day at a time. Focus on your child’s emotional and mental health, encourage active learning, and celebrate the small wins. 

A centered, calm, well-informed you equals a more confident child. Love matters. The learning and growth will come. 

Community Connections for Children, Inc. (CCC) is a nonprofit centered in the heart of Pennsylvania. They are the backbone of the economy, serving childcare providers and low-income families ‒ the ones that have been impacted the most by the pandemic. 

For you and your business, CCC helps keep childcare options open for your employees ‒ saving missed work hours and lowering on-the-job stress levels. They work with early childhood education programs and home-based providers to improve the quality of care, ensuring that all children enter school ready to be successful.

Christy Renjilian serves as its Executive Director.

To learn more and to donate, visit

Did you know… February is Library Lovers Month? Now that’s a month we can all support. Check out all the wonderful things your local library is doing to stay safe while encouraging your love of reading.


Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students’ reading and math achievement and growth 

Worried Your Kid Is Falling Behind? You’re Not Alone

Carol Dweck on Nurturing Students’ Growth Mindsets Through Protest and Pandemic