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4 Ways Schools Can Support Students and Educators as We Return to In-Person Learning

School districts nationwide have done their best to adapt quickly to evolving public health concerns during COVID, while not compromising the safety of students, families, and faculty.

Still, the return to “school” in the form of in-person classes, virtual coursework, and hybrid models has proven no less chaotic than the abrupt transition to virtual learning we experienced last spring. While academic learning and lesson plans are important, our priority when it comes to getting back to school needs to be clear. There is a childhood mental health crisis sitting just under the surface for an entire generation of children who are not getting what they need developmentally, emotionally, and otherwise.

Throughout remote learning, we’ve seen missed opportunities for adults to check in in-person on students’ emotional and mental wellbeing, leading to an inability to prevent violence, suicide surges, or bullying. There’s been a lack of socialization, especially for younger students, meaning missed opportunities to practice the social and emotional skills that come from play that will serve them for a lifetime, such as waiting turns, managing impulses, active listening, and empathizing with others.

Once we return to the classroom at full capacity, students will have a new set of challenges to overcome. Beyond decreased in-person interaction, the racial and economic disparities that the virus presents are also exacerbating the mental health crisis. Children in marginalized communities often experience high frequencies of trauma, grief, and loss.

Schools are the safe havens that provide an escape — and critical supports. Schools provide mental health resources, support for families in crisis, regular hot meals, a safe place to be, and adults who are qualified to care for children’s safety and wellbeing after experiencing trauma. During the pandemic, access to resources has been limited and students’ wellbeing has suffered as a result — even in scenarios where academic gains have not been compromised. 

So what can we do? Here are 4 ways schools can prioritize the mental health of students and educators as we prepare to return to in-person schooling:

  1. Prioritize deliberate, sequential, evidence-based social emotional learning programs for students and training for staff. In math and reading we learn the basics first and build on those tools to eventually master more complicated skills. Similarly, we base our social and emotional health on foundational knowledge we are taught as young children, and we continue to strengthen and practice these skills as we grow. 
  2. We have to put on our own oxygen masks prior to taking care of others. Be cognizant of educator wellbeing broadly, and understand the systemic impact this has on students. As we return to classrooms, teachers must be guaranteed access to mental health resources and their own social emotional support programs, PPE and safety equipment in their classrooms. Longer term efforts to improve educator wellbeing should include providing benefits like health insurance and a living wage. In too many states, this is not the reality for educators.
  3. Focus on ways to keep schools open, while protecting public health. In Europe, positive COVID-19 cases continue to rise, but schools remain open with limited incidents of spread. Their prioritization of both the near-term physical health of children as well as their long-term mental and emotional wellbeing is an example that we should emulate here. Recently the U.S.’s largest school district, New York City, closed in-person learning in an effort to prevent COVID from spreading. Like our friends in Europe, we should instead be prioritizing advancements and protocols that allow school doors to remain open in a way that protects the health and safety of our educators and students.
  4. Lead with trauma informed, anti-racist practices. For many school communities, the pandemic has compounded the economic and racial inequalities that affect our children. Trauma-informed, anti-racist practices not only support our students through this challenging year, but build safer, more equitable school communities for all of our children. We can learn from educators like Mathew Portell, principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary and 2020-21 Elementary School Principal of the Year at Metro Nashville Public Schools who shared the trauma-informed practices of his school in a recent episode of the Saracast: Conversations in Social Emotional Learning

As vaccines begin to be distributed, the light at the end of a very long tunnel is finally starting to show. However, it won’t be just this year that looks different for educators, families and students — it will be every year moving forward.

And maybe that’s a good thing. The reality is that our educational system wasn’t built to adequately support educators and students at a time as pivotal as this. In fact, these times have exposed that the system has been lacking for a long time. Let this be a catalyst for us to reprioritize how we think about education and how we can best serve students. The strides that we will need to make to account for the regression of an entire generation are significant, but not insurmountable. There is innovative, effective, life-changing teaching happening right now — but the system as a whole is too rigid to adapt to the 21st century, much less a global pandemic.

We can no longer ignore this, and the work starts now. We owe it to our future generations to make up for lost time and come out of this pandemic working toward a stronger, more innovative, more adaptable education system that supports our youth to navigate life’s inevitable challenges and stressors with resiliency and confidence. 

Image by iStock/Getty Images 


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Teachers Should Not Carry the Weight of Education Alone

SEL

Last spring, no one knew how much chaos the pandemic would impose on our lives, or how long the pain would last. The weeks have stretched into months as COVID-19 continues to spread in many parts of the country. The return to “school” in the forms of in-person classes, virtual coursework, and pandemic pods has proven no less chaotic than the abrupt transition to virtual learning we experienced last spring.  

Unfortunately, very few of the conversations around school reopenings have been about students and what is best for our children, or the families struggling with job loss, illness, or food insecurity unable to meet all of their children’s needs when school buildings are closed. The closures of school buildings are at the core of many challenges families are experiencing that have to do with more than just learning — a clear sign that our schools play a critical social service function for students.

Schools have long provided several social services for students—everything from mental health and nutrition to career guidance. When schools offer these types of wraparound services, students’ achievement rates improve. Conversely, when schools fail to provide comprehensive support, educators are overextended, leading to high burnout rates. 

We have relied too heavily on teachers and schools to provide these various services our children require without providing adequate resources and budget to do so. The stress the pandemic has put on school systems has exposed how untenable this model is, physically, emotionally, and financially for everyone involved. 

Schools Need to Help Teachers Support Student Well-Being

COVID-19 has given us a chance to rethink how many of these essential services, including education, mental health, and nutrition, schools should carry alone.

We now have an opportunity to reimagine what our schools can provide for children. We can do so by tapping into a broader range of community resources to share responsibility. Low-income and special needs children are at the most risk of suffering consequences for a lifetime, as many school districts cannot sustain the temporary relief models used last spring. The ongoing, multifaceted crisis many districts face from COVID-19 continues to threaten the emotional and physical well-being of our most vulnerable children.

In May, a survey reported on by The Conversation found that one of the most stressful aspects of teachers’ jobs during the pandemic is addressing the needs of vulnerable students. The report also cited that teachers need more support from parents and administrators. So what can we do to help?

Here are three immediate steps we can take to expand the help and support we extend to our teachers and students.

  1. Schools must prioritize children who have been impacted the most this fall. School boards, administrators, educators, and community organizations can work together to spread the responsibility of childcare and other essential services across different platforms and services. State and federal agencies, local companies, and nonprofit organizations can all step in to provide additional support, funding, and relief. Pandemic pods have been an example of an immediate solution, and some nonprofits have stepped-up to provide equity in this model for every student, including homeless students. For example, Nevada has created the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy to provide micro-schooling options for those who cannot afford pandemic pods.

     

  2. Rather than scrambling to support students properly during times of crisis, school districts can coordinate with parents and community partners to proactively provide educators with the budgets and resources they need. For instance, in Minnesota, Belle Plaines Public School District supplemented its mental health support for students by partnering with a community-based intensive therapeutic services center for teenagers. School districts and communities across the country should look to models like this when coming up with their own plans to increase support for students this school year. 
  3. Perhaps the most urgent service we can offer students and teachers right now is social emotional learning. Policymakers, local governments, school boards and districts need to allocate within their budgets so that  schools can implement SEL programs for PreK-12 classes as well as teacher training to implement those programs. Educators ought to offer all students the time and space to process their emotions and build the skills required to persevere through challenges, like the pandemic. To that end, carving out time for SEL in their daily schedules (online and in person), providing reliable resources to both teachers and families, and empowering teachers to put relationships first are important steps to take. Durham Public Schools in North Carolina has been solely virtual for the first 9 weeks of school, and have dedicated Wednesdays to social emotional learning. They call them Wellness Wednesdays, and there is no instruction on those days, just social emotional learning. This is a district-wide commitment to making time for SEL when students and teachers need it most.

We cannot expect educators to manage and support students’ mental health and other needs when their own have been overlooked. As we try to adapt to all of the new challenges of remote or hybrid learning, we ought to be intentional in how we provide both children and teachers resources designed to support them. That’s why we must see districts partner with community organizations, parent associations, and more. 

For most of us, COVID-19 has represented a significant and ongoing disruption in our lives. But we continue to move forward, and our educational system can, too. We have a chance to work with a new generation of parents, educators, and community leaders that has been forever altered by the pandemic — to rethink how to help juggle all the priorities surrounding education and build something better.

We must find creative solutions and work together to build a solid foundation upon which we can layer a series of wraparound services for children that can be implemented immediately and expanded upon over time. By doing so, we can design our educational system in such a way that it can weather a global pandemic while still meeting the long-term needs of students, families, and teachers.

Image by Getty


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