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Helping Roaring Fork Valley kids recover from two years of COVID

Local nonprofit groups aim to help students get back on track

Amanda Petersen, program director for FocusedKids, helps preschool students understand how their brains work.
FocusedKids/courtesy photo

Remote learning, isolation, masks and rattled nerves have threatened to derail the academic performance of students in the Roaring Fork Valley over the past two years.

Two midvalley-based nonprofit organizations aim to help students and teachers reset and get back on track.

FocusedKids works in person with 500 elementary school students in 50 classrooms on a weekly basis with the goal of empowering kids to take control of their brains and improve their learning. Staffers with FocusedKids have witnessed the toll of the pandemic firsthand.



“Everybody is worn out,” said Kathy Hegberg, founder and executive director of FocusedKids. “There is nobody to turn to to talk to because everybody is worn out. Kids especially feel that way.”

While there is only limited research available so far on the setbacks the pandemic caused in academic achievement, it is clear from anecdotal information that the past two years have been rough.




“We have a (member) on our team that is a learning specialist for preschool,” Hegberg said. “She cannot believe what she’s seen. They’re calling it virtual autism. Kids are coming in that were born at the beginning of the pandemic and basically were cared for by a device so their parents could work at home or whatever was necessary. Their whole development has slowed.”

Kids are entering preschool and even kindergarten with undeveloped speaking skills, Hegberg said.

The learning obstacles extend throughout elementary school, according to Amanda Petersen, program director for FocusedKids. Veteran kindergarten and first-grade teachers have reported to her that they are struggling because they have so many students who don’t have the interest or skills to learn compared to pre-pandemic years.

Petersen said FocusedKids has expanded into fifth grade this year, and she has personally led sessions where she discusses with students what is going on in their brain. In one recent exercise, students were urged to list their worries on a small piece of paper that would be attached to a “worry rock.”

“It was really hard for them,” Petersen said. “They first of all didn’t want to write down all their worries because that would make them face their worries. One kid said, ‘I feel like all of my worries are staring me back in the face.’”

Others have commented to her that all their worries could not fit on the paper provided.

“With that many worries going on in your brain, how do you learn?” Hegberg asked.

The exercise is an opportunity to get at FocusedKids’ core mission — helping children understand their brain and putting it to good use in education and life. Petersen said kids learn why they cannot focus and why they are having trouble learning. In this particular exercise, they were given the option of tearing up their worry sheets and throwing them away as a sort of cleanse.

“Reaching the adults is the only way, I think, that kids are going to feel there is a safe place in the world again.” Kathy Hegberg, FocusedKids

The broader effort to channel students’ brainpower continues. FocusedKids provides a monthly professional development series for teachers. The series is a conduit to get to teachers information that otherwise would be hard to find. Teachers can discuss issues with one another and take information back to their classrooms.

A special virtual presentation sponsored by FocusedKids will complement that monthly series. On April 4, clinical psychologist Christine Runyan will explain the physiological effects of two years of the pandemic and social isolation.

Runyan is a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Hegberg heard her speak in a podcast and sought her help in speaking to FocusedKids’ audience of teachers, parents and interested community members.

“Her whole talk was about normalizing what we’re all feeling,” Hegberg said. “Basically what she said was our bodies are beautifully built to manage stress and recover from stress, but they are not built to be under stress for two years in a row without relief.”

The local presentation will be online from 4:30-5:30 p.m. April 4. There is no cost, but participants must register at focusedkids.org/classes-workshops.

“Kids missed two years of social development, two years of academic development,” Hegberg said. “How do we get the adults in their lives back on track so they have someone to rely on, with the tools they need to recover?

“Kids mirror back whatever behavior they are being surrounded by,” she continued. “Reaching the adults is the only way, I think, that kids are going to feel there is a safe place in the world again.”

Meanwhile, another midvalley-based nonprofit is cranking up efforts to do what it does best. Summit54 has teamed with the Roaring Fork School District for 10 years to offer Summer Advantage, a free academic and life enrichment program for all elementary school-aged children in the Re-1 school district.

“The program is more important than ever, because there were learning losses when kids weren’t in school,” Summit54 founder and executive director Terri Caine said.

She credits the Roaring Fork School District for getting kids back in classrooms quicker than many schools. Nevertheless, the various distractions caused by the pandemic took their toll on learning.

Between 525 and 550 students typically sign up for Summer Advantage. The program is provided at the Basalt, Glenwood and Crystal River elementary schools. The school district provides transportation to the sites, and kids receive breakfast and lunch.

The Summer Advantage program includes a session after breakfast with FocusedKids that features brain exercises to reduce stress and prepares students to learn before they dive into two hours of literacy, one of math and other endeavors.

There are more than 70 educators and an educator-to-student ratio of no more than 1:11.

Caine said she is alerting returning families that the registration date is earlier this year on May 13. Student registration is available online at http://www.Summeradvantage.org in both Spanish and English. Registration is also available via phone: 1-866-924-7226 (*9 for Spanish).

“Over our 10-year history, participants gain an average of 2.5 months in reading and math skills during the five-week Summer Advantage program while having a blast,” the program materials said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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