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FLOWERS: Lower Merion Scrooges Cancel Kids’ Halloween Wonder

I have a small Halloween Tree on my desk that my mother made over 20 years ago.  I pull it out every October 1, mostly because it reminds me of Lucy, but also because it’s a festive note in an otherwise dour professional office. Tiny goblins, witches, ghosts, and ghouls hang from its branches, and it’s been a useful distraction for little kids who are bored out of their October gourds sitting on their parent’s laps as we discuss immigration options.

Halloween is, after all, about the kids. It’s true that adults have hijacked the holiday with their sexy zombie costumes and their spiked beverages (bobbing for apples can lead to serious bobbing and weaving as parties progress,) the 31st of October will always be a time for childhood wonder.

At least, that’s how I grew up. Today, sadly, there are adults who want to ruin that wonder, and some of them live right here in Lower Merion. The school district recently announced it was canceling the Halloween parade this year, out of concern for those who “don’t celebrate.” They also mentioned that they were worried about the safety of kids. But that’s an old trope that’s been around since I was 5 over a half-century ago and we were told not to bite into that Hershey Bar without first checking for razors.

No, the real reason that Lower Merion has decided to destroy the happiness of countless elementary school children is that they want to promote “inclusivity.” According to an email sent to parents, they were worried about offending students who don’t participate in Halloween because of the dreaded “religious reasons.”

I’m trying to figure out what those might be. There are some Christian sects that seem to believe dressing up as ghosts and witches and begging for candy is akin to some satanic ritual, but they are few and far between. Frankly, there are a lot of things that are much more satanic than cute little kids trotting around politely asking for treats. Politicians canvassing for votes come to mind. So do those Fetterman signs on Delco lawns. But I digress.

Amy Buckman, who used to be with Channel 6 and is now the director of Lower Merion’s school and community relations, insists that there’s nothing nefarious about the move and that the district is truly concerned with the safety of the kids, noting that “just the thought of having an entire school population of young children in a field surrounded by adults that we couldn’t possibly screen was worrisome.” I’m wondering why, after decades, this is the year that they decided to squeeze the last drop of joy out of a treasured holiday, decades after the first missing child appeared on a milk carton. What makes today that much more dangerous for a little tot than yesterday?

The question answers itself. Adults have become overly cautious, overly triggered, and overly concerned with control. They monitor every move of their tots as if they were General Eisenhower and the kids were about to storm the beaches of Normandy. And they want to impose that iron-fisted control on other people’s children as well.

Add in the additional, rather suspicious concern about religious freedom and you know that this is all of a piece to train our kids to be afraid, timid, and apprehensive of offending others in this pristine society of pure tolerance. I find it rather laughable that we have a school district worrying about the religious concerns of some parents even while school districts across the country are punishing people for not using the correct pronouns, even when this violates someone else’s religious beliefs.

Eliminating this holiday parade is much scarier, in my opinion, than anything a child might encounter on a dark and chilly October evening.

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New Children First Report Paints Mixed Picture of Delco Kids’ Condition

It took Delaware County Council Chairwoman Monica Taylor Ph.D. a year to find childcare for her nearly 2-year-old-daughter.

“Last year we were on a waiting list for quite a while and she got in,” said Taylor. “We were going to start in September…And they had to close the baby room and the young toddler room because they did not have enough staff. And our daycare was not able to re-open that room. She did not get back into daycare until the end of May of this year.

“During that time we were on several other waiting lists and we were not able to get into any other daycare center,” said Taylor. She and her husband cobbled together childcare, relying on her mother, mother-in-law, other family members, and friends.

The problem is a dire shortage of childcare workers, according to Donna Cooper, Children First executive director, discussing the child advocacy organization’s new report about how Delaware County’s 123,94 children fared during the COVID-19 epidemic and its aftermath. There are 52 fewer childcare programs and 540 fewer staff members than before the pandemic.

Childcare workers typically make 23 percent less money than people employed in stores, such as Wawa, she said. And the lack of childcare is a factor keeping women from returning to the workforce.

The report found that while 1,900 adults succumbed to COVID in the county, no children there died of COVID. And many families took advantage of the federal child tax credit and other government funds so that more than 3,000 children were no longer in poverty. Some 29,000 Delaware County families received over $50 million because of the child tax credit.

However, many students fell behind or further behind in school, more are suffering from mental health issues such as suicide and anxiety, and fewer children are vaccinated against communicable diseases.

”Pennsylvania’s statewide Safe2Say hotline fielded more suicide-related calls from students across the state during COVID, yet the number of these calls from youth in Delaware County jumped by 43 percent,” the report said.

“The children faced extraordinary anxiety,” Cooper explained. The closure of the Crozer-Chester Health System left a big hole in mental health services, she said, “so entirely new networks have to be built in the county. Estimates are that 14,000 teenagers in Delaware County still are suffering from some remnants of the stress, the anxiety, and the isolation and depression that COVID imposed on their lives.”

Students in some school districts fared better than others, the report said. But some 38 percent of the kids were not testing at grade level before the pandemic.

“The higher a school district’s poverty level is, the more the kids were behind,” Cooper said. “As your poverty rate goes up your assessment score goes down. Not because the children aren’t smart enough. But they are the same school districts that have the least amount to spend per child, so they have swollen class sizes, they have less instructional support…We have a gap of $150,000 per classroom between Radnor and Upper Darby or between Radnor and William Penn.”

Schools that have the greatest risk of children falling behind are the schools that were closed the longest, she said.

“They were also the schools that had the least resources,” Cooper said.

Critics of the extended closed-classroom policies say these numbers add to the evidence that the approach taken by many public schools in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. was flawed. A report released earlier this year by the left-leaning Brookings Institute found nationwide “test-score gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools grew by approximately 20 percent in math and 15 percent in reading primarily during the 2020-21 school year. Further, achievement tended to drop more between fall 2020 and 2021 than between fall 2019 and 2020, indicating that disruptions to learning have continued to negatively impact students well past the initial hits following the spring 2020 school closures.”

The Delaware County report recommends the county prepare for a future public health emergency by having a person whose job is to think about kids and to create a manual of lessons learned from the COVID pandemic. County districts received substantial federal support in pandemic funding and the state also put $1.1 billion toward education this year, according to Cooper. But they need to do more to make sure the kids caught up.

To make sure there is not a spike in poverty, the Senate needs to reapprove the child tax credit, she said.

Upper Darby High School student Tanveer Kaur said many of her friends had trouble with mental health problems. She joined a support and affinity group at her school and also volunteers as an assistant teacher at one of the elementary schools.

Those students have “missed out on crucial learning blocks that build up,” Kaur said. “And that missing of crucial education has really impacted them.”

“Because class sizes are so big even at the elementary level, it’s hard to have that one-on-one time,” Kaur said, even with two adults and a teenager in the classroom.

Seda Gok, a middle school counselor in the William Penn School District, said she supported students online during the pandemic. They felt isolated, had trouble with the virtual curriculum, and were falling behind, leading to anxiety. Some students were helping younger siblings with their schoolwork. And they worried about their parents getting sick.

“Now we’re in our first semi-normal school year…They’re so behind now. They’re just now starting to play catch-up. There was that anxiety of (taking the) PSSAs (standardized tests) that was a big concern, too.”

She said it was hard for them to learn math in virtual learning.

The students need access to more mental health support staff, she said. She is responsible for 355 8th grade students “so it’s really hard to give each student that time.”

There are also “huge waiting lists” to see an outside therapist.

While William Penn has 25 to 30 students in a class, for kids to need remedial help, class sizes should be no more than 17 to 30 percent, said Cooper.

 

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DILLMUTH-MILLER: Speech and Language Delays? It Could Be the Masks!

The damage done to our children due to the pandemic, or our response to it, has been rearing its sick head. Approaching the two-year anniversary of the March 2020 shutdown and mask-wearing, speech-language pathologists have been reporting sudden surges in speech and language referrals, with some reporting over a 300 percent overall increase,  especially in the infant and toddler age group. Meanwhile, scientists at Brown University found that children born during the pandemic had a 23 percent significant drop in their early learning composite score which includes measures in expressive and receptive language. Could masks have anything to do with the significant uptick in young children needing services.

Considering information known about mask acoustics, frequent ear infections in very young children, and speech and language development, the possibility that masks present harm to the speech and language learning process should be considered, especially for those children who spend significant portions of their day with masked caregivers. After all, parents should be informed of risks so that they can consider the pros and cons and make the best decision for their children.

Infants arrive into the world primed to learn spoken speech and language. Rapid development occurs during this critical language-learning period typically defined between birth to three years of age when they develop from quiet, active observers to a sentence-speaking preschoolers. During the critical language-learning period, the brain is especially primed to learn language, but it’s also vulnerable if deprivation occurs. Developing clear, spoken speech necessitates clear, consistent auditory input day in and day out.

After observing the increased difficulties people, especially those with hearing loss, are having understanding conversation when masked, researchers, such as Ryan Corey, measured mask acoustics in different mask types. He found that all masks muffle high-frequency speech sounds, mostly some of the quiet consonants which are more difficult to hear to begin with. Imagine not being able to hear /s/, /t/, /f/, /ch/, /sh/ or word endings. Consonants enable the listener to determine what is said while vowels being more intense, gives speech power.

In addition to some sounds inaudible through a mask, add to the mix, the elimination of the ability of speechreading, the more accurate term for lipreading, and difficulties understanding speech is not surprising even in those with normal hearing. To allow the listener to speech read, some started using masks with clear, plastic windows, but these presented their own issues. Corey found that these clear mask types block the most sound. Plus, the clear masks fog up limiting visibility anyway. The masks filter sound giving us all what is equivalent to a mild hearing loss. Even mild hearing lossis known to cause speech and language delays, reading struggles, and academic difficulties.

Children are not immune to hearing loss either, and in fact, temporary loss is quite common. Children aged 6 months to 4 years, which happens to be within that critical language-learning period, are particularly vulnerable to middle ear fluid, or Otitis Media with Effusion (OME), due to their inefficient and immature Eustachian Tubes.

In fact, 80-90 percent of children will have experienced middle-ear fluidby the time they enter school, and two thirds of them will have experienced a recurring episode. OME decreases the ability of the eardrum to conduct sound resulting in hearing loss, albeit temporary, but the fluid can last 2-4 weeks at a time and reoccur resulting in periods of auditory deprivation. Hearing loss at a young age is associated with speech and language delays. Hearing loss in addition to the sound reduction caused by masks would have an additive effect.

Through studying faces, listening to sounds, and practicing through babble, babies learn how to speak. Patricia Kuhl, a researcher internationally known for her work on early language and brain development, found that babies as young as 4.5 months old could hear a vowel sound and match the corresponding face pronouncing the heard vowel sound.

Often, the babies would make the mouth movement themselves. These findings suggest not only do babies connect the auditory and visual modalities, but also a connection is made with the mouth movements when learning speech.

The fact that blind babies can develop speech does not mean seeing the face is not important. Rather, this fact shows support that hearing is the most important sense for learning spoken speech and language and seeing takes a supportive role. Hearing consistently is integral to developing speech and language and can be limited by temporary hearing loss and mask acoustics without visual cues to compensate.

Professionals should be arming parents with information so that they can make educated decisions regarding the health and well-being of their children. For example, if masks will be worn, a clear mask while wearing a microphone to enhance speech loudness may be a viable solution to address the above concerns. Parents may also decide to send their children to a daycare that does not institute a mask mandate. When given the facts, parents can weigh the pros and cons and make an educated decision regarding their children’s interactions.

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Are Masks Helping or Hurting Our Children?

With the back and forth from the CDC on which masks are truly helpful in slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it’s easy to worry about the safety of our children. Pennsylvania has 500 school districts, and some still require students to wear their masks indoors while others move to make masks optional.

Some fear that continued masking mandates might spark mental health conditions for students. Still, Inna Leiter, Psy.D., child and adolescent psychologist and director of the Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy told Delaware Valley Journal that isn’t necessarily the case.

Inna Leiter

“I think that since we’ve had to start masking we have undoubtedly seen an increase in anxiety,” Leiter said. “But so many other changes have come along with that, including parents being more stressed and intermittent quarantines, that it’s really hard to point to a causal relationship between masking and any specific mental health issues.”

Leiter mentions many contributing factors are causing students stress and anxiety during the pandemic. One is the uncertainty surrounding guidelines.

“What I have seen anxiety about specifically in my clinical practice is that it’s really unclear what the guidelines are regarding safety and how to apply them consistently,” Leiter said. “Some parents are more strict, some parents are less strict, and so sometimes it can cause anxiety in kids trying to fit in if their parents are really strict. If they’re hanging out with their friends and their friends aren’t wearing a mask but their mom won’t let them go anywhere unless they’re wearing a mask. Sometimes they’re the only ones wearing a mask. That can cause some stress. I don’t know if that’ll turn into an anxiety disorder but it’s just an added social stressor of navigating when to wear the mask.”

Nicole Lombardi, the owner of Speech Matters, LLC, told DVJ it is also difficult to say if masks harm children’s ability to speak.

“While we cannot say definitively whether masks are inhibiting kids from learning to talk, we can absolutely see some negative impacts of masking,” Lombardi said. “Masking makes it difficult for our little ones acquiring language to see our faces, so they’re limited to only hearing sounds and words, which sometimes isn’t enough in isolation. Additionally, masking has impacted not only young ones learning language but also those who have already acquired language and are addressing the nuances of language in everyday communications.”

Nicole Lombardi

In addition to language skills, Lombardi has noticed masking impacts children’s social skills.

“Masking has negatively impacted children addressing social skills due to the inability to read a person’s facial expressions and nonverbal cues,” Lombardi explained. “Do I have a valid answer to this? No. But, I can say that the number of 1-2-year-olds who have joined our Speech Matters community since the implementation of masking has more than doubled from years prior to 2020.”

Lombardi said masking is n0t much of an issue when it comes to older students unless they are already seeing a speech therapist.

“From my purview, I do not see masking for older students learning new terms as an issue,” Lombardi said. “I do see it as an issue for older kids who are (a) working on speech sound production skills (perhaps they make an F for a TH sound, like “bad” for “bath”). As I mentioned, I have seen great impact of masks on older students working on their social language skills, particularly in reading nonverbal social cues (facial expressions are often key to reading a social situation).”

Lombardi added rapport is a big part of therapy in any specialty, and masks can have a negative impact on children building that rapport with their speech therapists.

“Masks make it difficult to feel that you truly know a child, their families and caregivers, and vice versa,” Lombardi said. “It’s not immediately obvious, but it is rather jarring to think that you could show a picture of three women without masks to a child who has been working with one of them for several months and the child would not be able to choose which woman was his or her therapist. It is both sad and concerning, thinking about the impact masks have had on rapport building.”

When asked if there was anything parents could do to help their children, Lombardi’s answer was simple.

“Model, model, model,” she said. “Parents are the face of therapy when with their child in a private and maskless setting. We as therapists will need to rely on you to model speech sounds, language skills, and social interpretation/use of language at home and in the community. While therapists and children can wear clear masks or masks with windows, there is still a barrier to the child’s direct access to facial cues. It is also helpful to monitor your child’s progress at home and report back. Share videos of your child working on their speech and language skills at home, maskless, so therapists are able to see what is occurring behind the mask and provide helpful feedback for practice and improvements.”

It is difficult to say how masks will impact children long-term, and that uncertainty can add to the growing list of stressors for parents and their children.

“Uncertainty is really hard for people,” Leiter said. “For people with anxiety, uncertainty is like an Achilles heel. Uncertainty is the thing that anxiety latches onto. So, in this era of uncertainty, it makes sense that people are struggling with anxiety. Is it caused by masks? I can’t say that but the uncertainty about masks is likely to contribute to the pool of uncertainty that we’re all facing.”

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ROSICA: Will Parents Tip the Elections in 2022?

One day after winning the gubernatorial race in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin stated “We’re going to embrace our parents, not ignore them.”  Youngkin understood that angry and frustrated parents were essential to his successful bid to become governor.

All over the country, parents are dissatisfied with their local schools and school boards and concerned about their children’s future.  Extended school closures, hybrid classrooms, and overly conservative quarantine policies have harmed students academically, emotionally, and behaviorally.  Transitioning back and forth between remote, hybrid, and in-person creates continued stress for both parents and students, particularly the neediest children.

In Pennsylvania, Back to School PA PAC helped to mobilize and organize these distraught parents to recruit, train, and support potential school board candidates who put the students first. Supporting school board races in 17 diverse counties and well over 200 bi-partisan candidates, Back to School PA achieved a 60 percent success rate in its first endeavor. However, Back to School PA believes that 2021 was just the beginning for parent involvement in school board races and politics in general.

With no school board races in 2022 in Pennsylvania, these same advocates who formed Political Action Committees (PAC) to support school board candidates are trying to determine how they can influence and/or support other key races across the state. Parents have been activated, and most are now committed to remaining engaged in local and state government.

More parents may come out to vote in Pennsylvania in 2022 than any other election in recent history. Regardless of political affiliation, parents are exhausted and concerned about the future for their children and for the commonwealth.  If schools do not stay open reliably, it is difficult for parents to work.  Mothers bore the brunt of the school closures, as 33 percent of women left the workforce to support their children during virtual school. Single mothers and low-income families suffered the most during school closures. Domestic violence and child abuse increased. Pediatric hospitals are being overrun with mental health concerns, and suicide attempts have increased exponentially. More children are being hospitalized for eating disorders and depression.  Parents have watched their children falling apart literally before their eyes.

Parents have spent almost two years witnessing how local government works and how it failed our children. Many parents participated in their local school board meetings for the first time.  These parents would spend hours preparing their statement, and then they were dismissed as being selfish for wanting their children in school. In some districts, parent comments were actually censored or not included during virtual meetings. For the most part, parents have not been welcome at school board meetings and many have felt disrespected, while some have been escorted out of meetings by police.  Parents want transparency about what is happening in the classroom, and they want to be engaged and respected, not dismissed or labeled domestic terrorists.

The National School Boards Association labeled upset parents as “domestic terrorists” who should be considered dangerous and treated as such.  Instead of encouraging and modeling civil discourse, local, state and national government leaders have repeatedly shown that differing opinions and simply asking questions are not welcome.

These issues are likely to bring out more parents to vote in 2022. Parents want candidates who are not beholden to special interest groups, like the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA). They want candidates who will place the importance of children and their future first. Most parents want a balanced approach to government, diversity of thought, and transparency around decision-making.  Every parent wants to be respected as the person who knows what is best for their child.

Respect of parental rights may be the single biggest issue for the 2022 elections.  Parents have never felt as demoralized and hopeless as they have over the last 22 months.  Watching their children struggle academically, emotionally, and behaviorally and feeling helpless to support them has changed the game for many parents.  And those parents who were also forced out of the workforce or had to choose between work and supporting their children during virtual learning, will not soon forget the impact of these draconian measures on their children.

2022 may be the year when parents reclaim their rights at the polls.

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