Sunday, May 3, 2020

Thinking About Supporting Our Students When We Go "Back"- The New Normal

Governor Murphy has already said that whenever students do go back to school, it is more than likely it will not look the same as it did when they left.  In videoconferences sessions between administrators and parents from local high schools, administrators have already broached the idea of getting outdoor tents, staggering days of the week students come to campus, and start and end times.  Even a discussion of staggered breaks and lunchtimes have been reported.  This falls in line with what is already happening in Denmark as schools return.  Schools in Denmark are allowing children up to age 12 (5th grade) return.  They have strict protocols for handwashing, sanitizing, and social distancing.

I could imagine our state doing any less than this whenever we do choose to open.  I agree these measures will most probably be needed and, in fact, required by law.  Today, I want to approach the subject of how we will support our students emotionally and academically when we get back to this new normal because while each student left one way, none will be the same upon return.

Our students left us worried, but largely healthy.  The effects of the virus had not yet touched the lives of most people our community knew.  Within a few short weeks, people all around us started being rushed to hospitals, put on ventilators, and dying.  Some of those people were our students' neighbors, some their family, and even some a teacher.  The situation is scary for everyone.  Yet, our students, as either children or young adolescents, do not have the life skills us adults have for tackling the understandable anxiety and depression this situation can provoke (not to say all adults do either).  Paul Gorski, principal of Fair Lawn High school, explained that many of our students, those who were successful students before leaving may now be struggling when we return.  There are a few areas we need to focus in on in order to help our students overcome the challenges they may face when returning to school.  They are grieving.  They may be grieving:

  • family loss or physical loss of someone they knew
  • the loss of their social network 
  • the skills they no longer remember or the learning they did not understand
  • the sense of financial security their home might have had once before this crisis
  • the sense of family they might have had and emotional security that went with that before this crisis (they might not have lost a family member, but a family member could be struggling emotionally as a result of this crisis and that could impact a student profoundly)

As educational leaders, our job will be to work with teachers and support professionals to identify these students, creating plans to address the needs of these students and work with these students, their families, and our staff to implement the plans.

Some additional ways we will need to help rebuild the loss for our students is through:

  • Working with guidance staff and faculty to create for students peer support groups
  • Reaching out to parent organizations to establish parental support groups
  • Collaborating with student council groups to create peer tutoring groups
  • Developing after school/ virtual tutoring and support
  • Taking a needs assessment
    • parent surveys of needs
    • student surveys of needs
    • teacher surveys of needs
  • Crafting PD for teachers on student trauma 
  • Establishing support groups for teachers
  • Thinking creativity about the role of the school nurse and any guidance staff
  • Utilizing Assistant Principals to work with teachers to address the needs of at-risk students and facilitate much of the above

Before and after students "return," administrators can lead grade level Zooms to inform parents of the steps we are taking to support students globally (to protect their physical and emotional safety and to help remediate any areas of learning they are behind).  Administrators can also take this opportunity to let parents know how they can reach out to inform the administration of further support that they think is needed.

Either way, one of the most crucial elements of this entire strategy must hang on redeveloping and growing the relationships between the administration and faculty.  The faculty are the eyes and ears of our institutions.  They are on the ground level.  They see the children in-class daily.  While we must be present at lunch, breaks, arrivals, and at the end of the day, in the halls, and the classrooms, they will see things we cannot.  Having that connection and trust is vital to assisting all students are helped when needed.

This help needs to expand to families.  Once we identify those students who need the most support, we need to go to people's homes (either physically or via videoconferencing depending on the situation) to meet people where they are at.  We will need to work closely with other government agencies and nonprofits to help families and thus our students through this recovery.  The world around us will not be the same when we "return," but it is an opportunity for us to become closer to those we care most about, our students.

There certainly are legal issues that we need to address.  Michael Rebell, Columbia University Teachers College, and Columbia Law School Professor and Executive Director at the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College (also my former professor), wrote a telling article about the impact this crisis could have on equity and diversity in schools.  In short, he argues that it is possible that many families, especially affluent ones, may keep their children home whenever we do return.  This, he argues, could have a huge impact on who does go to school and who does not.  In the end, it could be that those who have no choice will send their children to school and those who do have the ability to have one parent at home will not.  This will create yet further divides in our system.  It could undo decades of integration.  He also worries that if teachers, many experienced and qualified who are nearing retirement age, choose to not return in the fall, this may leave many districts with less experienced teachers.  This is for another post.