Social and Emotional Learning will play a crucial role when the Brownsville Independent School District’s 40,000-plus students return to actual brick-and-mortar classrooms two weeks from now, most of them for the first time since schools shut down in March 2020 in the face of COVID-19.

With the pandemic seemingly at bay locally and a high percentage of BISD personnel fully vaccinated thanks to an aggressive vaccination campaign, BISD will not offer a distance learning option.

And with students back in the classroom where nearly everyone agrees instruction is much more effective, the district can concentrate on bridging the learning gaps caused by more than a year of distance learning.

“Think about it, our seventh-grade students haven’t been in school since fifth grade,” said Anysia R. Trevino, BISD assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.  “They’ve never even walked into the middle school that they’ve supposedly been enrolled in. Now, our entering sophomores have not been in school since eighth grade, so they’ve never even set foot in the high school where they’re now going to be sophomores.”

“So you’re going to get freshmen, and you know how freshmen sometimes struggle, and you’re going to have ninth and 10th going through that process. It’s just a lot of learning how to be a high school student.” Meanwhile, “our second-graders haven’t been in school since kindergarten,” Trevino added.

In a word, there’s going to be a lot of rebuilding, she said, which explains why the leadership institute that was taking place last week at Veterans Memorial Early College High School was called Building a Brighter Future, “because we recognize we need to help the students rebuild,” she said.

Trevino said the Texas Education Agency recognized early in the pandemic that there was going to be learning loss, and that social and emotional learning would suffer, too.

She said TEA embraced the framework for social and emotional learning developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning developed over the last 26 years and known by its acronym CASEL. The framework defines social and emotional learning, or SEL, as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

CASEL developed five core competencies that define social and emotional health: Self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making, where people put the other four skills together.

Educators look through the provided online curriculum for incorporating social and emotional learning for students in their classrooms Thursday during a workshop at the 2021-2022 BISD Leadership Conference at Brownsville Veterans Memorial Early College High School.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Trevino said TEA in turn had several frameworks, or programs, developed for school districts to use to address the social and emotional needs of students coming back from the pandemic.

BISD has been vetting those programs for the past eight months and eventually chose the APEX Suite 360 SEL for secondary students and Quaver SEL for elementary students.

Secondary principals and other administrators received training on the APEX 360 framework on Wednesday and teachers started their training separately. Elementary teachers, principals and administrators were to receive training on the Quaver framework on Thursday. Training will continue during staff development days “so that by Aug. 17 everyone is trained,” Trevino said.

“The programs support student social and emotional well being. It’s going to afford teachers strategies on how to deal with situations that perhaps in the past they haven’t had to deal with,” she said.

Jean Sharp, the chief academic officer for APEX Learning, said research shows academic progress is tied to social and emotional learning.

“We know that when students are feeling safe and secure, when they have adults that are caring for them, that they will perform better in school. We can’t start with the academic if we haven’t dealt with the social and emotional needs of the students,” she said.

“Research shows there is a very strong correlation between SEL and academics — and ultimately it is the job of the schools to help students learn to their full potential,” she added.

Assistant Superintendent Alma Cardenas-Rubio talks with educators George Treviño, Ricardo Torres and Ricardo Vanegas Thursday about how the technology they are using for social and emotional learning (SEL) will combine new and old skills for their students during a workshop at the 2021-2022 BISD Leadership Conference at Brownsville Veterans Memorial Early College High School.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Crystal Ludwig, director of research and contact development for Navigate 360, the social and emotional learning component of the APEX 360 framework, said social and emotional learning “provides the bridge to talk about these topics, to learn about mental health, to learn about how they react to stressful situations, how to cope.”

“They’re going to learn healthy coping skills. They’re going to understand that they are not feeling what they’re feeling in isolation, that there are other students that feel the same way they do,” she said. “And if we have a student that we see through this curriculum that’s struggling, we’ll be able to provide our counseling staff and our administration the opportunity to intervene so that it doesn’t become a crisis. The student that is struggling gets the assistance that they need without even having to go into a crisis — because then we go into our crisis mode and we don’t want to get to that point.”

Ludwig led the presentation on Wednesday for secondary administrators. She said the program is vitally important because “it’s going to allow students to be seen and heard … and allow educators to provide those interventions before we go into crisis and provide students with the resources that they need to cope and heal and get stronger.”

Sara M. Garza, BISD Guidance and Counseling director, said teachers and counselors are looking forward to finally welcoming students back.

“We have planned for this and we’re ready to engage with our students once again,” she said. “We welcome them wholeheartedly back to our campuses.”

A participant looks over the QuaverEd’s resources to help teach students how to mentally and emotionally handle a pandemic, natural disaster or state of emergency Thursday during a social and emotional learning workshop at the 2021-2022 BISD Leadership Conference at Brownsville Veterans Memorial Early College High School.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

BISD is not alone in seeing the need to address mental health issues as students come back from a COVID-enforced absence.

The Region One Educational Service Center in Edinburg, which provides instructional guidance and professional development to school districts from Laredo to Brownsville, is holding a second annual Social Emotional Learning Conference and virtual workshop Sept. 24. The online conference will address topics related to the five core SEL competencies developed by CASEL, said Kathleen Estrada, an English language arts specialist at the Region One branch office in Brownsville.

“We’re kind of having an ‘aha’ moment right now about social and emotional learning,” Estrada said. “It’s a topic near and dear to all of our hearts.

The conference costs $125. Information is on the Region One website.

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