For the second straight year, the Monadnock Regional School District will begin the academic year with a “soft opening.”

The district instituted this three-day period last August, when schools were open by appointment for students and their families to familiarize themselves with new COVID-19 protocols, such as wearing a mask and physical distancing. And while these health and safety measures have changed for the coming school year, Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Rathbun said the soft opening got positive reviews last year, and offered parents and teachers a valuable chance to talk one-on-one about their students.

This year, Rathbun said, the soft opening is a simple step for the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — to begin addressing a complex issue: gauging the impact the public health crisis has had on children, and responding with academic and social-emotional support.

“So, we really have to start off with a baseline, and really understand where our kids are coming at,” he said. “... That’s the number-one way we’re going to get this information, is through communication, through talking to families, talking to kids.”

As schools prepare to return to some semblance of normalcy this year, the long-term effects of the pandemic on kids remain to be seen.

Throughout the Monadnock Region, school leaders say their response to the toll on students is a top priority this year, and districts are adopting a wide variety of strategies to assess student needs and implement programs to meet them. And while plans differ throughout the area, school administrators say they all start at the same place.

“All good instruction starts with pre-assessing what do the learners know,” said Hether Shulman, assistant principal of teaching and learning at Conant High School and Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School in Jaffrey. “What do they already know, what do they need to learn? We can’t assume we know until they’re here in front of us and we can pre-assess. And I’m not talking about a formalized test, but just talking with the kids.”

Still, Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, said standardized tests will play an important role in helping students recover from any academic effects of remote and hybrid learning. SAU 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — has been using data from the 2018-19 school year to determine where students have fallen behind.

Overall, Malay said standardized testing statistics from 2020 and 2021 show that pupils have not lost as much during the pandemic as many may have feared.

“I think in general there was a mindset that as a result of being remote, as a result of being hybrid, as a result of having to focus in on a more narrow curriculum, that our kids were going to go 10 steps back, or not make as much progress as they could have,” he said. “And the actual outcome we’re seeing is, while they’re not making the exact gains we expected in all situations, it’s not as pronounced as many people might have anticipated, which is good news.”

Still, he said, SAU 29 schools plan to focus particularly on math and English instruction in the year ahead, since the data indicate those are the areas that will help students recover the most.

“We look at the foundational skills of what’s going to help students in all content areas,” he said, adding that, for instance, math instruction can help students in science courses, and English skills benefit them in history and social studies.

In the Monadnock district, Rathbun said schools will stick with their usual standardized testing schedule, in which assessments begin a little over a month into the school year.

“About week five, their minds are going to be really engaged in school again, he said. “Then we’ll do some assessment and see where we are and really analyze that and figure out, ‘OK, how is this going to guide us for the rest of the year? Where do we need to pick up pieces, and where are we OK?’ ”

Schools can also take this sort of data-driven approach to monitoring students’ social and emotional needs and growth. The Jaffrey-Rindge district is moving forward with plans to implement a multi-tiered system of support for behavior and emotional wellness (MTSSB). This program, which the district is working on with the state education department, includes using a digital database to track students’ social-emotional needs to develop tools to proactively address them.

And, Jaffrey-Rindge Superintendent Reuben Duncan added, this behavioral support marks a continuation of the district’s efforts in this area, not necessarily a response to the pandemic.

“I wouldn’t say that anything that we’re doing is specifically tied to COVID,” Duncan said. “There are social-emotional trends that have been occurring throughout our society for quite some time, and we wanted to make sure that we were preparing our district to be able to handle whatever comes our way. COVID certainly sped things up, and did help us to initiate our conversations with the individuals who are helping us implement the MTSSB.”

As part of this ongoing work to support students’ overall wellbeing, Shulman added that Jaffrey’s middle/high school has added a new school counseling director, in addition to the school’s three counselors.

The ConVal School District — which covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple — has also added a new position to coordinate the district’s response to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Amy Janoch, who previously served as principal of Hancock Elementary School and a literacy coach, is now ConVal’s director of learning recovery. In this position, she will work to implement the districts’ recovery plan, which focuses on four main approaches: acceleration of student learning, providing high-intensity tutoring, expanding learning time and providing a supportive learning environment for all students.

In ConVal, like other area districts, this work has already begun with a range of summer programs, including implementing high-intensity tutoring, either one-on-one or in small groups, with elementary and middle school students.

At the high-school level, ConVal’s summer offerings focus on credit recovery. This year, though, instead of re-taking classes they didn’t pass during the year, high-schoolers can take a variation on those classes, designed to increase their engagement. For instance, Assistant Superintendent Ann Forrest said, instead of remedial math courses, ConVal is offering interdisciplinary classes like “Arts and Algebra” and “Construction and Geometry.”

In the Monadnock district, Rathbun said the Project Beyond the Bell Summer Camp, which has higher than usual participation this year with 264 elementary-school students, provides a valuable opportunity to keep kids academically and socially engaged. This becomes particularly important, Rathbun added, as schools prepare to reopen this fall, and teachers work directly with students to meet their academic and social-emotional needs.

“Before we jump into assessments and monitoring and that piece, we really want to get our kids back into school, feeling comfortable being back in school and talking to us so we can know,” he said. “Teachers are experts. Teachers spend their life with children, so working with them, knowing them, talking to them is going to be our first line of attack on this.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.