Guest Commentary: Post-pandemic, Delaware students need all of us


Dr. Mark Holodick is Delaware’s secretary of education.

As data continues to emerge and be dissected, it is apparent that the pandemic has had long-lasting impacts on our students, impacts that are directly affecting student success in critical areas such as basic reading skills, math problem-solving and personal self-regulation. Anyone working in schools and classrooms today can attest to the fact that needs are high.

Even though Delaware educators, school leaders and state officials have intensified their support for school communities by focusing on providing more mental health resources and increasing learning-loss recovery efforts, too many of our students are still struggling from past disruptions and school building closures. Our efforts are not yet enough to produce timely results for every student in every school in Delaware.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress scores released this past fall directly represent the current academic situation of Delaware’s fourth and eighth grade students. In mathematics, Delaware’s scores experienced their largest decline since 1969. In reading, scores dropped greater than nearly every other state. When comparing pre-pandemic to post-pandemic results, these NAEP scores align with our 2022 state assessment scores. Most devastating are the results among students of color, students with disabilities and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Swift recovery from this learning loss is vital to the future of students, families, our communities and our state. Knowing that, Delaware schools immediately began to develop programs and leverage community partnerships to maximize support for students and families. In March 2020, every Delaware district and charter school began receiving significant federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funding to aid school communities. District and charter leaders solicited public feedback on how best to use the funds. Plans were developed and posted online on every district and charter website, outlining how the money is being applied in school communities across the state.

When diving into the programs that originated from this work, one sees a number of model, evidence-based strategies at work. High-dosage tutoring is now used in many Delaware schools to provide students with one-on-one and small-group tutoring at least three times a week (or about 50 hours a semester). Several districts and charters also now offer extended learning opportunities geared toward addressing students’ unfinished learning through high-quality after-school and summer programs. In fact, in 2022, every district and nearly every charter in Delaware organized some type of summer extended learning opportunity, and most have started planning this year’s offerings, as well.

Since we know that academic success requires a whole-child focus beyond the core curriculum, school districts throughout the state are using restorative practices to address students’ social and emotional needs. Restorative practices apply evidence-based tools and strategies to promote inclusiveness, healthy relationships and problem-solving throughout the school day and beyond. Research shows these practices not only positively impact social-emotional success but also directly correlate to student academic success. Students who are able to self-regulate can better attend to the task of learning.

Around all of this work, the Delaware Department of Education maintains the same expectations for each district and charter school, while also providing necessary supports, such as guidance for selecting and implementing high-quality instructional materials:

  • All students must engage in truly rigorous learning.
  • Every student should have an opportunity to participate in summer experiences, either through the student’s school or a community partnership.
  • Extended learning programs must be structured based on best practices with measurable student outcomes.

In turn, state agencies and community organizations are continuing partnerships that further help districts and charters meet these goals. The Governor’s Summer Fellowship will double its offerings this year, giving Delaware high school students real-world experience in education, community and government. This program leverages community-based organizations already doing great work reaching children who need the most support. The fellowship students are also working across these community organizations to tutor some of our state’s younger, most at-risk students. Fellowship applications close on April 21.

Just as Delaware’s educational losses did not occur overnight, we know recovery won’t happen overnight. We also know we can’t best support students in silos. Students and families can’t do it alone. Schools can’t do it alone. Community-based organizations can’t do it alone. And government can’t do it alone.

If we want to truly heal Delaware students, we must work together. We must acknowledge there is an urgency to this work. We must not only continue to utilize the systems that are currently in place but continue to ratchet them up and focus directly on each individual student. How are we measuring needs? What are we doing to directly target each individual student? Are we using data to drive instruction on a daily basis in every classroom? Are we differentiating for student needs with solid instruction and practices? What does the student need to learn right now that will make an immediate difference?

There is by no means an easy fix. It requires boots on the ground and a multitude of student supports in place. However, I fully believe that, as a state with such a wealth of caring educators, dedicated leaders and committed community members, we can handle the task. We have to. The cost of allowing an entire generation of students to struggle in our educational system is too great. Delaware students need us. All of us.

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