How schools can balance academic integrity with student emotional wellness during extended school closures

Communication is key from the first week out and beyond
Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts and a featured speaker at FETC. Christine Ravesi-Weinstein is an assistant principal at Milford High School in Massachusetts. 
Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts and a featured speaker at FETC. Christine Ravesi-Weinstein is an assistant principal at Milford High School in Massachusetts.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In just a matter of days, our world took an unexpected turn. Professional and collegiate athletics started being postponed for weeks, or even months. “Social distancing” became a household phrase. And the world of academia was put on hold for the foreseeable future; some college campuses have been vacated for the year and some K-12 schools have locked their doors.

For many of us in K-12, school closings aren’t abnormal; snowfall has dictated the uncertainty of a summer release for decades. But for students and educators to go from an unexpected day off to a complete shutdown for multiple weeks is uncharted water.

While the health and safety of our students, staff and the general public are paramount right now, providing some semblance of normalcy for students is also necessary. As schools formulate plans to respond to current and/or future extended leaves, two priorities must take center stage: continued learning opportunities for students and student emotional wellness.

Read: Continuing to teach through coronavirus closures

Planning continued learning opportunities

E-learning plans and lessons are becoming a must for schools now. Leaders must begin with a clear vision of what teaching practices and pedagogy they want to leverage. Once a vision is established, districts can layer in a platform that creates the least amount of disruption, such as videoconferencing and cloud-based technology.

But is it as easy as having a vision and an implementation plan? In a recent study by Schoology, nearly 42% of school leaders said that a lack of student access to technology at home is the most significant obstacle to e-learning. Only 50% of schools are 1-to-1, and only half of that population allows students to take those devices home. Lack of connectivity and devices makes e-learning a difficult proposition.

We must continue to be there for our students in the face of extended closures. We must show students the definition of perseverance—that even in the face of unprecedented adversity, we continue forward.

Because the development of any long-range plan in education can be daunting, it is recommended that district leaders start with short, attainable goals that can come together to create a robust, sustainable digital learning plan. Here is what to consider from the first week out and beyond:

  • First week out: Plan. Treat the first few days out of school like an inclement weather closure. Plan asynchronous student work and faculty training, and begin preparation for e-learning implementation during week two. Having a short e-learning plan before moving into full remote or online learning will help gain support and get everyone comfortable with the transition. Teachers should plan or refine activities that can be completed independently at home. School leaders should offer technical and instructional support to make the transition to subsequent weeks smoother.

    Read: Four ways to manage the influx of learning apps in the classroom

    Digital equity must be considered. If districts are closed for over 10 days, digital equity becomes an obstacle to online learning. For districts that are not 1-to-1 and do not have devices to send home, leaders must survey teachers and families to determine who has at-home connectivity. This data is crucial to understanding who will need devices and bandwidth. For teachers or students who do not have Wi-Fi at home, districts must figure out how to buy or rent Wi-Fi hot spots and how to distribute equipment. Lastly in week one, plans for students who have individual education plans will need to be considered.

  • Week two: Make connections. Administrators and team leaders should now begin with audio and video communication with the community. Videoconferencing tools should be used for meetings and/or collaboration. This is when the school community starts to digest the idea that school as we know it will be different for some time.

    Read: Coronavirus: LA schools open community resource centers

    Even though teachers won’t be able to stand in front of classrooms of students, they must work with district leaders to find ways to stay connected to students and establish routines. They should also plan frequent communication with colleagues to collaborate on future plans and stay energized. At least one or two communitywide video messages should be planned for leaders to keep everyone up to date and to let everyone know they care.

    Read: Engaging students in an age of distraction

    The common goal during week two should be helping everyone feel connected and getting everyone used to connecting digitally. Find avenues for students and staff to receive instruction about content and next steps, and focus on engaging learning tasks. If work is being disseminated, ensure that it is relevant and not just busy work.

  • Week three and beyond: Think like an online school. Educators must shift from assigning short-term work to introducing structures for learning feedback, informal assessment, and developing calendars and timelines that are best suited for online learning.

Following an e-learning checklist

During a long-term closure, continued communication, daily schedules and e-learning platform/tools are important. Here is a checklist to consider.

  • Establish communication among administrators, staff, parents and students. Methods of communication should be frequent, clear and consistent. Leaders will need to prepare an FAQ outlining how the school will operate during the extended closure so staff and parents are on the same page. Inform families and students where to find daily assignments, and give them a list of educational sites and e-learning tools the students will need. Districts will need to prepare a step-by-step guide on how to access and use online learning tools and curriculum. It should include information on how to log in and what to do if the technology does not work. Have online support hours for technical issues, too.
  • Determine a daily schedule. Expectations should be clear about when students need to be learning online and when teachers are online for support. Expecting students and teachers to be connected all day is unrealistic. Create a consistent schedule with two check-in times (morning and afternoon), for instance.
  • Select e-learning platforms/tools. Unfortunately, in a rush to get an e-learning plan developed, too often leaders will look at availability, not impact. It is more important to examine how teachers want to teach and what is out there to match instruction and student learning than it is to just use what is available. Begin with finding a virtual platform to disseminate content such as Google Suite, Microsoft 360 or Seesaw. From there, find digital tools you like, and then build your platform and learning plan around those tools. Consider Flipgrid, Buncee and Newsela, for instance. There are a flood of tools out there, and schools can easily get lost. Leaders must select what fits their platforms and learners.

Read: 5 questions to ask before using ed tech in class

Considering students’ emotional wellness

While school is a place of academic learning and exploration, it’s also a place of certainty and familiarity for many students. Designing a plan for e-learning is essential for continuity in student learning. Too much time off can have a detrimental impact on student academic growth and development. But even more problematic is the emotional impact of the situation we currently face.

Read: Why trauma-informed teaching relies on trust

Read: How this district is improving emotional and physical mindfulness

Providing emotional support for students over extended school closures should happen as soon as possible. Here is how educators can help curb student anxiety:

  • Reach out. Students may feel confused, scared and alone. Reach out to students, not because there is work to assign, but because you care. We are social beings and need connection. Send students an email and let them know you are thinking about them.
  • Communicate only the facts. Students are curious. They are going to have a lot of questions about what is going on right now and they will look to you for answers. Communicate only the facts. Leave out any speculation, as speculation fuels fear. Facts calm nerves.
  • Admit your own fears and anxieties. The foundation of all good teaching is building positive personal relationships. To be successful, we must be authentic. Authenticity builds trust. When students trust us, we create a safe learning environment and students can thrive academically. Admit to students your fears and anxieties, as doing so will validate their own.
  • Be available. Select specific times during the day to be available, and communicate that to students.
  • Prioritize well-being over curriculum. We all have content, curriculum and standards to get through, but these are unique times. Educators are always trying to make teaching and learning relevant. What more relevant teaching is there than this? The lessons we teach our students about self-care, disease transmission, anxieties, fear and the future of our society during these extended closures will be more important than any of the lessons we teach our students in a standard classroom. Take the risk and provide students with work that prioritizes their well-being over the standard curriculum; these lessons will last a lifetime.
  • Assign something creative. Don’t overburden students with worksheets and research. Make a class blog, for instance. Have students make entries about what they are doing during their “social distancing.” Ask students to create a card for the elderly and mail it to a nursing home nearby. Make a photo journal for your students and ask them to do the same. What we ask our students to do needs to be more than just academic. We need to provide them with work that makes them feel connected and addresses their emotional well-being. Creativity is the way to accomplish this.

Read: When screen time is actually OK—or not

COVID-19 has been a game changer for everyone. Our lives have changed virtually overnight, and no one is an expert on how this will, or should, look or where we must go from here. But one thing we do know: We cannot get through this without one another. We must continue to be there for our students in the face of extended closures. We must show students the definition of perseverance—that even in the face of unprecedented adversity, we continue forward.

Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts and a featured speaker at FETC. Christine Ravesi-Weinstein is an assistant principal at Milford High School in Massachusetts.  

Additional e-learning tools

Answer Pad is a free visual- and student-based response platform that allows educators to blend learning and flip classrooms. Students can interact with teacher-developed resources from home.

BoomWriter is a free site that lets educators create student accounts and share engaging fiction and nonfiction stories and/or vocabulary-focused personalized writing activities in any subject.

BrainPop and BrainPop Jr deliver online learning opportunities in numerous subjects by showing animated videos and then following up with brief assessments and quizzes. (Access plans available.)

Classhook is a website filled with educational videos and pre-made playlists that can be assigned to students to view from home. (Free and paid options available.)

EDpuzzle is useful for flipping a classroom or lesson. Educational videos can be viewed remotely and followed up with assessments to gauge learning. (Free and paid options available.)

Explania offers hundreds of animated explanation videos—on subjects from biology to social media—that can be embedded and shared. (Free and paid options available.)

Kahoot is a game-based learning platform that allows educators to create their own content-related quizzes and games. (Free and paid options available.)

Khan Academy is a vast curated resource for online learning where users learn at their own pace through free interactive exercises and videos.

Nearpod is a mobile learning tool that supports student engagement and collaborative learning. (Free and paid options available.)

Socrates is a website focused on differentiated instruction through game-based learning. (Paid options available.)

TeachVid allows ESL, ELL and foreign language teachers to flip a lesson and have students work at home with the help of numerous videos and activities. (Free and paid options available.)

VoiceThread lets students develop their creativity and critical thinking, communication and collaboration skills through interactive digital stories and presentations. (Paid options available.)

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