By Sona Shah, MPP’s Chief Empowerment Officer

As I joined the last-minute frenzy of frantic parents & children snatching up the few remaining backpacks & binders left in the Target “Back to School” aisles, I couldn’t help but notice something uniting Americans, young & old, across the country in a phenomenon that’s bigger than all of us: an appreciation for Friends. 

No, I’m not talking about a sense of deep connection with our true BFFs or besties. I’m talking about Chandler, Monica, Joey, Rachel, Ross, & Phoebe. 

Seeing “Central Perk” t-shirts donned by tweens & “Friends” merchandise piled on the shelves, I had an epiphany: this sitcom, which so many of us watched while growing up & is now a source of levity for the next generation, has some great bits of wisdom on how to survive & thrive during this upcoming school year. 

So no one told you life was going to be this way. (Clap-clap-clap-clap-clap.) Let’s face the music, folks: the last 18 months was packed with more drama than when Ross thought he was on a break.

Who knew that one of our country’s most revered institutions – our educational system (no kids, not cable television) – would be forced to a screeching halt in March 2020, with schools & teachers having to pivot more times than Ross & Chandler hauling a sofa up a tight stairway. 

As the 2021-22 school year kicks off, students across the country are faced with an array of mask mandates, vaccinations, asynchronous learning, & in-person schooling that have more layers of complexity than Rachel’s English trifle recipe. 

And just like the massive Thanksgiving turkey that Joey polishes off in one sitting, this year will be tough to finish without some inevitable heartburn on students, parents, teachers, & administrators alike.

Just out of the gate, we are starting this school year behind the curve. The pandemic has had a cumulative deleterious effect on students’ learning last year, which has increased the gap between where students are now academically & where they are supposed to be, per state standards. 

The data on this is more ominous than Phoebe’s Gladys:

  • “[L]earning gains from the 2019–20 school year in reading [will] be only 63% to 68% of what is typical. Math likely looks even worse, with gains only 37% to 50% of what is seen in a normal school year.”  
  • “Students on average could lose five to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students.” 

Moreover, compounding this “learning loss” is the severe toll that the pandemic has taken on the mental & emotional health of our students, teachers, & parents. 

Students have been isolated from their peers while learning from home, depriving them of critical relationships & social interaction during this difficult time. Children have been left without the structure &, for far too many, the safety net, support, & meals that schools typically provide to students five days a week. 

Teachers are struggling as well, having to find ways to keep their students engaged while navigating hybrid & online classes through a battery of temperature checks, masks, sanitation stations, & plexiglass dividers that look more daunting than an American Ninja Warrior course – while at the same time finding a way to stay safe & sane despite the lack of support & resources needed to execute this plan effectively. Suffice it to say that over the last 18 months, teachers & schools have had to call more audibles than Tom Brady. 

And parents have been left with trying to pick up the pieces of this precarious learning system, filling in the gaps to support students with their educational & emotional needs, & doing so while many are trying to be productive at work at the same time. That’s a tall order, & is the reason why many companies are offering free tutoring as an employee benefit to help support working parents & their students. 

Ok, that clearly ain’t painting a pretty picture. True, it’s been a surreal year & a half. But let’s take a step back & put things into perspective with 3 cliche-sounding pieces of advice:

  • As trying as these times have been, it’s nothing that we can’t handle.
  • We are all resilient & will get through this together. 
  • There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel – the tunnel just got a little longer.

To help, here’s a few tips to help your students & you ease into another asterisk school year & be more “Ready” than Sam Smith & Demi Lovato. 

To tackle the academic slump: 

Feel like your student’s foundation of knowledge is flimsier than a Tokyo Olympics’ cardboard bed?  No need to lose sleep over this: there are plenty of resources available to help you know what they don’t know we know you will know.

    • “Far and away, the most effective tool we have to begin fixing [learning loss due to COVID-19] is tutoring,” says Robert Slavin, Education Director for the Center for Research & Reform at Johns Hopkins University. 
    • “Tutoring [is] one of the most agreed-upon and impactful tools available to educators for improving student learning.” 

And there are many fantastic free & affordable resources to help your scholar get up to speed & ahead of the game. Once students have had a chance to refresh themselves on the concepts covered last year, it’s just a matter of time before they belt out “It’s all coming back to me now!” ala Celine Dion. [Millennials: Celine Dion = Ariana Grande plus 25 years
minus a 25 inch ponytail]

          Soon enough, your students’ stress from not knowing their material will become a “moo point.” Just give your children some
time to let it all sink in & get back into the rhythm. 

  • To tackle the mental hurdle: Ask “How YOU doin?” Talk to someone. Students, check in with your school counselor, or speak to someone you trust who will lend an ear. Parents, we are all in this together, so reach out to friends & family when you need a little extra TLC. Let your student’s teachers & school administrators know that you appreciate everything that they are doing to help students stay engaged & stay safe. Also, make like a KitKat & give your students, their teachers, & yourselves a break (just not the Ross & Rachel kind). This has been a really tough year for everyone. We know that the circumstances of last year were not conducive to the most rigorous or robust academic mastery. And that’s okay. Sometimes, it may feel like you’re always stuck in second gear, when it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year (sang that one too, right?). That’s okay too. Let’s trust in the resilience of our students, parents, teachers, & staff & give them the extra support that they need. Students will catch up.So let’s all channel Aretha Franklin & give everyone some amazing grace. Goodness knows we can all use some of that in this coming year. And a never-ending supply of Nestle Tollhouse cookies. ????????????


Sona Shah is the Founder & Chief Empowerment Officer of My Private Professor, an innovative platform that inspires & empowers today’s students to reach their greatest potential & lead tomorrow’s world through customized tutoring & academic support for students, families, nonprofits, & businesses.