School leaders across the nation and world are scrambling to put reopening plans in place for the fall semester. With rare exceptions, the guidance for schools coming from state and national government has been vague and lacking support resources. Schools and teachers are feeling a bit overwhelmed as they prepare for the unknown challenges coming with reopenings this fall.
What started as a temporary shutdown due to a virus pandemic has quickly evolved into SO MUCH more!
The unprecedented events that have occurred so far in 2020 have impacted all of us. But as difficult and painful as the experience has been for adults, we need to think about how children are being impacted by these events. To discuss the impacts that our turbulent start to 2020 will have on the second half of the year, we first need to put the events in context from the eyes of a child. The following table includes just a few of the many events that have occurred since the beginning of March. In drafting the list, it was shocking just how many other events were excluded to keep the list somewhat manageable. Needless to say, a lot of potentially traumatic events have occurred in the three months since school closures began!
|March 1||New York reports its first case of COVID-19|
|March 9||Stock markets are down 20% from their February peak|
|March 16||DOW falls 12.93%|
|March 19||California orders all schools closed.|
|March 28||Over half of all states have ordered school closures|
|April 6||48 statewide school closures in effect. "Non-essential" businesses nationwide rapidly closing.|
|April 30||Unemployment rate increased from 4.4% to 14.7%|
|May 25||George Floyd killed by police in Minneapolis|
|May 26-31||Protests against police violence begin in Minneapolis. |
Protests spread to major cities across the country.
Reports of violence at protests
Police engage protesters with force in many states
|June 1-7||Use of military threatened against protesters.|
Tear gas used to break up many protests.
|June 7-10||Protests largely peaceful but ongoing|
The events in the list were somewhat grouped according to three categories of external stressors children are being exposed to:
- COVID-19 pandemic
- Financial insecurity
- Social Discord
Let’s briefly look at each of these external stressors to identify some of the impacts that they are having on children which are not present under previously normal conditions.
The impacts of COVID-19 on schools and society is unprecedented. At it’s peak, COVID-19 caused nationwide closures of schools in 195 countries. 1.6 billion children, of 91% of all global students, were affected by the closures. There has not been a pandemic like COVID-19 in a century during the Spanish Flu outbreak. But even 100 years ago, while the death toll from Spanish Flu was catastrophic, the impact to daily lives was as sudden and forceful as what we saw with COVID-19.
The school closures were only one aspect of the total impact of the pandemic on students. In addition to the loss of their physical schools and educational norms, students lost physical access to their outside activities, their social contact with friends and peers, and their support networks. Children also have been subject to a wide range of fear-inducing information concerning viruses and societal preparedness. For many children, the situation will have been truly traumatic as they tried to process information and understand what was happening in their world.
As schools and businesses shut down in rapid succession, the economy went into a severe recession. Without warning, millions of Americans across the country suddenly were without income of any kind. Recessions are cyclical, and they impact the economy in phases. But it is unprecedented for a recession to hit so suddenly and at such scale as what we saw. Financial difficulties can cause enormous damage to the home-life of children, and the most common and heated arguments spouses have are related to money. Additionally, many families were not prepared at all for a sudden financial downturn, and as many as 7 in 10 Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
In a normal situation, financial difficulties can cause enormous stress on a family and children. Schools are one of the primary ways that society can support children who are suffering due to severe financial problems in their home-life. But in our current situation, with children having no physical contact with their schools, schools and teachers really have no idea how severe or wide-spread the financial problems at home are affecting their students.
On May 25 in Minneapolis, George Floyd, an African American male, was killed by a white police officer. As video of his death spread, outrage gripped the country. George Floyd’s death would later be ruled a homicide by coroners. Within days, protests had spread to every major US city. Scenes of both peaceful and non-peaceful protests, mixed incidents of police forcefully breaking up protests, filled the media. While this chapter is still being written in American history, the impact that this movement on students is undeniable.
It is challenging to even properly label what children are witnessing with regards to the protests. For adults and leaders in society, the movement is being immediately recognized as something bigger than most of us have ever seen. For many students, this will be the defining moment of their youth.
Now that we have set some context, let’s look at 5 WAYS SCHOOL WILL BE DIFFERENT THIS FALL.
1. Logistics and Operations
It’s pretty safe to say that without exception, no schools were set up to deal with a post-Coronavirus social distancing policy. Whatever your educational objectives are as a teacher, a school administrator, or even a parent or student, your school was not designed to handle the situation we are in. Social distancing policies are being set at the national and state levels, often vaguely, and without any consideration for your specific classroom situation.
Teachers will need to become innovators within their limited physical spaces. Children will need to follow distancing guidelines, and teachers will need to find ways to make it work. This will be a great opportunity for teachers to showcase their creativity in getting students to proactively adjust to both distancing politics and the limitations of their physical environments.
Teachers can expect impacts on every aspect of their normal school operations. From how children line up at the drinking fountain to how they board the bus after school. Limited facility space will require entirely new classroom routines and structure. For some students, this will be a difficult adjustment to make. Many students who are seeking a return to normal with school re-openings will struggle to adjust to yet another change in their lives. Other students may relish the opportunity for “creative destruction” as they help rebuild school operations to accommodate their new situation.
Teachers will need to innovate and test multiple solutions to overcome their infrastructure challenges. For many though, it will be a great opportunity to involve the students in the creation of a solution to your collective problems.
The curriculum situation in schools for the remainder of the year will be a disaster. For three months, schools have desperately tried to engage parents and children in their homes via online lesson management systems like Google Classroom. The results have varied wildly, and in many cases, only half of students are actively participating with their online learning.
But in all of this, there is a much, much bigger problem. The curriculum outline and standards that schools and teachers had prepared for this year are simply not as relevant anymore. At this moment, children are living a history lesson. Their current world is the world that teachers and schools have been preparing them for. While it is unfortunate that children are being required to deal with stressful life events at such young ages, the fact remains that their daily lives are the best education a school can provide.
Teachers and schools will need to create plans for what parts of the school curriculum they want to focus on, and what parts they should replace with a focus on the world surrounding the children. There may never be a more relevant and purposeful curriculum in these children’s lives than the world they are seeing on television today. Schools and teachers will need to learn to work with that and make a unique and memorable learning experience for the second half of the year.
3. Student Activism
Student political activism is greater now than likely any time since the Vietnam war. Following George Floyd’s shocking death at the hands of a police officer, America erupted in protest. The speed and strength with which the protests spread across the country were stunning. But something else was occurring as the protests grew. Students increasingly took leadership roles organizing and supporting the protests. Image after image showed student exercising their first amendment rights at protests throughout the nation.
The social activism spreading throughout America’s students now will continue to grow and develop after schools re-open in the fall. Students have learned that they have a voice, that they are empowered, and that they can be heard. Across the country, young people are realizing that they have equal rights to adults, and that they can use their rights to hold people accountable. This sense of activism and empowerment will transform the traditional communication between the school and the student body for the remainder of the year, and potentially much further.
4. Social and Emotional Support
Schools do much more than teach children how to read, write and count. They also provide nutrition, health and hygiene services; mental health and psychosocial support; and dramatically reduce the risk of violence, early pregnancy and more. And it’s the most vulnerable children who are the hardest hit by school closures, and we know from previous crises that the longer they are out of school, the less likely they are to return.
Schools and teachers have long played a supporting role in the social and emotional well-being of their students. School counselors have been present in many schools for years, and teachers are increasingly trained on ways to identify students who are struggling to cope with their situations, and to offer guidance and support.
While in the past, teachers often viewed supporting students mental well-being as a secondary task, from this fall it will move into more of a primary role for teachers. Many children will be hurting inside and in need of help. For many children who had healthy and happy lives before the shutdown, they will be returning to school in very different emotional circumstances. Society will be asking a lot from teachers this fall when they are asked to support the social and emotional health of the students, in addition to trying to regain a sense of academic order in the classroom.
5. Home-Life Stress
If you are a teacher, you can assume that there will be children in your class who are enduring extremely stressful situations at home. The overwhelming stress of the situation can be severely impacting children and affecting their well-being. Many children will have parents who are now unemployed due to the economic downturn. Others may be living in physically or psychologically abusive situations that weren’t present before the shutdowns started.
During the school closure, teachers were often given a window inside their students’ homes as they logged in for Zoom meetings or Google Meets calls. In many cases, teachers have been able to develop communication structures with parents that did not exist prior to the school closures. These improved communication channels between parents and teachers will prove very valuable if three is a need for schools to intervene and support a child who is struggling with the stress of their home life and it is severely impacting their ability to succeed in the classroom.
When the school doors open….
Preparations for school re-openings are underway now. And in a few short months, schools across the country will be opening and students will be arriving for class. All children are unique, and all classes are unique. And while we don’t know exactly what will happen in every classroom, we do know that society will be asking teachers to do significantly more to support their students this upcoming Fall Semester than in previous years.
We need to remember that the children coming back into our schools in many cases will be very different than the children we last saw in March. We are all in this together. Teachers, parents, children, and society as a whole. Let’s not forget that.