Navigating Uncharted Waters in K-12 Education: How schools can balance academic integrity with student emotional wellness during extended school closures

By: Dr. Matthew X. Joseph and Christine Ravesi-Weinstein, M.Ed.

On March 11, 202o, The World Health Organization declared COVID- 19 a pandemic. In just a matter of days, our worlds took an unexpected turn. Professional and collegiate athletics started being postponed for weeks, or even months. “Social distancing” became an unfamiliar, household phrase. And the world of academia was put on hold for the foreseeable future; college campuses have been vacated for the year and K-12 schools have locked their doors.

It goes without saying that this is a historic and unprecedented time. Schools are known to be petri dishes during the winter months, that is nothing new. And for many of us, 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 here and there, 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.

Continued Learning Opportunities

When it comes to providing continued learning opportunities for students during extended closures, eLearning plans and lessons are becoming a must for schools. eLearning radically transforms the delivery of content to students. Unlike traditional teaching, eLearning relies heavily on digital tools that may be new to educational leaders and teachers. When districts start talking about eLearning plans, 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; video-conferencing and cloud-based technology for example.

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

District administration is driven to support schools in creating a digital learning plan with the right tools in place to enable a quick pivot to eLearning when/if needed. Because the development of any long-range plan in education can be a daunting process, it is recommended that district leaders chunk out short, attainable goals that can come together to create a robust, sustainable plan.

First Week Out of School: It’s all about the planning. 

Begin by looking at one week of eLearning. Treat the first few days out of school like inclement weather closure. Plan asynchronous student work, faculty training, and begin preparation for implementation in week two. Having a short eLearning plan before moving into full remote or online learning will help gain support and get everyone comfortable with the transition first. 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.

Something that must be considered during the first week of planning is digital equity. If districts are closed for over ten days, digital equity becomes a big obstacle to online learning. For districts that are not 1:1 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 don’t have Wi-Fi at home, districts must figure out how to buy or rent Wi-Fi hotspots and how to distribute said equipment. Lastly, in week one, plans for students who have individual education plans (IEPs) will need to be considered. Students on IEPs will have to have access to their specific accommodations during the extended closure.

Week Two: Feeling connected.

Entering the second week out of school, administrators and team leaders should begin with audio and video communication with the community. Video conferencing tools should be used for meetings and/or collaboration. This will be the time when the school community starts to digest the idea that school, as we know it, will be different for some time.

Even though teachers won’t be able to stand in front of a classroom with students, they must find ways to stay connected to their students and establish a routine. They should also plan frequent communication with colleagues to collaborate on future plans and stay energized. Leaders should plan at least one or two community-wide video messages to keep everyone updated and to let them know you care.

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

Week 3 and beyond

Once a district enters the third week of extended closures, they have to begin thinking of their schools as “online schools.” A teacher 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. These are the very challenges of an “online school:” how to assess learning, incorporating student voice, and supporting the individual needs of the students with accommodations.

eLearning Checklist

  • Establish communications: During a long term closure, communication between administrators, staff, parents, and students is critical. Methods of communication need to be frequent, clear, and consistent. Leaders will need to prepare an FAQ outlining all the details of 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. Give them a list of educational sites and eLearning 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. Additionally, share information on how to login and what to do if the technology doesn’t work. Have online support hours for technical issues. Your FAQ should be written in various formats, such as video and text, and include screenshots of tutorials.
  • Determine a daily schedule: Expectations should be clear about when students need to be learning online, and when teachers are online to support. Expecting students and teachers to be connected all day is unrealistic. Create a consistent schedule with two check-in times (morning and afternoon). Whatever the schedule is, ensure it is consistent and focuses on maximizing the time – not spending the maximum amount of time online.
  • Select eLearning platforms/tools: Unfortunately, in a rush to get an eLearning plan developed, too often, leaders will look at availability, not impact. It’s more important to examine how teachers want to teach and what’s out there to match instruction and student learning than it is to just use what’s 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 build your platform and learning plan around those tools. Consider our big three: Flipgrid, Buncee, and Newsela.
    • Flipgrid is a simple way to see and hear from each of your learners and maintain a classroom community, no matter the distance. Educators create discussion prompts, and learners reply, anytime and anywhere, with short recorded videos. Click here for Flipgrid’s central resource and click here for a Wakelet filled with educators sharing how they’re using Flipgrid in remote learning situations.
    • Buncee is a powerful and easy-to-use creation tool that gives students a voice and a choice in communicating their learning. Buncee is used in classrooms to help students visualize and voice their thoughts and ideas, as well as to document their mastery of learning standards – all in a fun and engaging way! ​With Buncee, schools see greater engagement, build student confidence, and significantly improve learning outcomes – both across subject areas and grade levels​. Buncee also includes a classroom management tool that helps educators archive and document learning outcomes in the comfort of their virtual classroom. Click here to view their digital remote resource kit.
    • Newsela is committed to bringing authentic, engaging, diverse and accessible content to all learners. They believe the best lessons start with the best content. All teachers can now access Newsela ELA, Social Studies, Science, and their SEL Collection free for the rest of the year. Taking print material and converting it to digital platforms can be time consuming and overwhelming. Newsela is a tool that makes this process easy for educators.  Click here to view the website. Newsela is offering complimentary access to Newsela ELA, Newsela Social Studies, Newsela Science, and The Newsela SEL Collection through the 2019/2020 school year. Click here to access. Our connections to our class, context, and community are what make us impactful as educators. As former teachers, we know that keeping those relationships and connections through distance learning and new challenges can be difficult.  Christian Hartjes, Regional Manager, said “I am proud of our ability to quickly mobilize and offer engaging and accessible content and resources during such a difficult time.” We’ve built a toolkit to help you connect to student choice, your curriculum and content, and your communities in this uncertain time. Newsela is built to help educators connect students to the world around them and we feel now more than ever our charge to Unlock the Written Word for Everyone means helping to connect.

There is a flood of tools and schools can easily get lost in them. Leaders must select a few. Our big three are above, but you have to select what fits your platform and your learners. Other tools to examine can be found at the end of this article.

Student Emotional Wellness

While school is a place of academic learning and exploration, it’s also a place of certainty and familiarity for so many students; they can always count on it being there. Designing a plan for eLearning is essential for continuity in student learning. Too much time off can have detrimental impacts on student academic growth and development. But even more problematic is the emotional impact of the situation we currently face. Too much time off and students lose the sense of consistency and routine that school provides for so many.

Anxiety is inundating our schools in the 21st century. Between the societal pressures of academic success, and extracurricular participation, students are overscheduled and overtired. Couple this with the filtered “reality” students are consumed with on social media, and “keeping up with the Jones’,” becomes a driving narrative in their minds.

Media is difficult enough to manage for adults. It’s hard to determine a valid source from an invalid one. COVID-19 is omnipresent; TV, social media, “newspapers,” sports outlets, etc. The statistics change daily. Without a deep understanding of what is really going on, we are likely to think the worst. We become victims of our own addiction to media consumption; fueling our anxieties and fears. And now, the one certainty for students in the most uncertain of times is gone: school. Yes, we need to find ways to provide students with continued learning, but even more importantly, we need to find ways to remain the stability and routine in the lives of our students.

So what is the emotional impact of these uncharted waters on our students? Anxious: How to Advocate for Students with Anxiety, Because What if it Turns Out Right? (Ravesi-Weinstein, 2020), is a new release by Times 10 Publications that explores the anxiety crisis in schools. It provides strategies educators can use to support students with anxiety in the classroom. But many of the strategies discussed are not only applicable to our clinically anxious students, they are relevant to managing our students’ emotional wellness NOW.

Unlike with eLearning, supporting student anxiety over extended school closures does not need to be a slow roll-out. In fact, emotional support for our students needs to happen as soon as possible. The sooner we can reestablish routine for them, the better. The strategies educators can use to comfort students in these anxious times are coupled to eLearning in that they need to happen remotely. Here is what educators can do to curb student anxiety during extended closures:

Reach out 

Many students are reeling. No matter how often our students behave in a manner that suggests they want to be left alone and dictate their own schedules, as educators, we know they succeed when they have structure and routine. Many students see their teachers more than their families. They are confused, scared, and alone. Reach out to your students today, not because you have work to assign, but because you care about the people they are. We are social beings and need connection to feel whole. Send your students an email and let them know you are thinking about them and understand how unnerving this time is. Ask them questions, see how they are doing and let them know you are there.

Communicate only the facts

Students are curious. They are going to have a lot of questions about what is going on in their worlds right now and they will look to you for answers. Communicate only the facts. Leave out any speculation, whether it is your own, or that of many others. Speculation fuels fear. Facts calm nerves. It is our responsibility as educators to provide students with only what we know to be factual information, especially at a time like this.

Admit your own fears and anxieties

The foundation of all good teaching is building positive personal relationships. In order to successfully do this, we must be authentic. Authenticity builds trust. When students trust us, we create a safe learning environment and it is then that students can thrive academically. These times require us to face our fears head on, not to negate them. Admit to students your fears and anxieties, doing so will validate their own. Strength is not the absence of fear, it’s the ability to admit fear and still move on in the face of it. Being an example for students will not eliminate their fears and anxieties, but rather teach them that we are all feeling similarly and are here for each other.

Be available

This one is straightforward; be available. This is not to say that you will be on your email, Google Classroom, or whatever other platform you are using with your students, constantly, but it does mean that you should select specific times during the day to be available and communicate that to students. Like with eLearning plans, select a time in the morning and one in the afternoon. But in addition, select a time in the evening where you will be available to connect with students.

Prioritize well-being over curriculum

We all have content, curriculum, and standards to get through, but these are unique times. When students think back on their K-12 schooling, this will be something they will remember forever, right along with the league championship celebration for the basketball team in high school. 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

Step out of the box. Create lessons via eLearning that are creative; don’t overburden students with worksheets and research. Make a class blog. Have students make entries about what they are doing during their “social distancing.” Entries can be in the form of vlogs or journals. 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. The bottom line is that 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.

 

COVID-19 has been a game-changer for everyone. Our lives have changed virtually overnight, and no one is an expert in how this will, or should look, or where we must go from here. But one thing we do know, is that we cannot get through this without each other. School is the foundation of our childhoods. It’s the place where we grow-up. The place where in the face of all we encounter in the world is still there each and everyday. This is what we must, what we are obligated to, continue to do as educators. We must continue to be there for our students even in the face of extended closures. We must face these closures head on and show students the true definition of perseverance. That even in the face of unprecedented adversity, we continue forward. We change and adapt, but we never give up trying. For if our students lose school now too, what do they have left?

Additional eLearning tools

Answer Pad – 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 – A free site that lets educators create student accounts and share engaging fiction, nonfiction stories and/or vocabulary-focused personalized writing activities in any subject.

BrainPop and BrainPop Jr – Delivers online learning opportunities in numerous subjects by showing animated videos and then following up with brief assessments and quizzes.

Classhook – A website filled with educational videos and premade playlists that can be assigned to students to view from home.

EDpuzzle – Useful for flipping a classroom or lesson. Educational videos can be viewed remotely and followed up with assessments to gauge learning.

Explania – Offers hundreds of animated explanation videos, on subjects from biology to social media, that can be embedded and shared.

Kahoot – A game-based learning platform that allows educators to create their own content-related quizzes and games.

Khan Academy – A vast, curated resource for online learning where users learn at their own pace through interactive exercises and videos.

Nearpod – A mobile learning tool that supports student engagement and collaborative learning. Click here to view Nearpod content while students are at home.

Socrates – A website focused on differentiated instruction through game-based learning that adjusts to the student as they progress.

TeachVid – ESL, ELL and foreign language teachers can flip a lesson and have students work at home with the help of numerous videos and activities.

VoiceThread – Students can develop their creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration through interactive digital stories and presentations.

 

Dr. Matthew X. Joseph is currently the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in Leicester Public Schools. He has been a school and district leader in many capacities in public education over his 25 years in the field.  He is the author of Power of Us: Creating Collaborative Schools and co-author of Modern Mentoring, Reimagining Mentorship in Education from Times 10 publication. Follow him on Twitter @matthewxjoseph and visit him online: mxjspeaker.com

 

Christine Ravesi-Weinstein currently serves as a high school Assistant Principal in Massachusetts and previously worked as a high school science department chair for four years and classroom teacher for 15. Since March of 2019, she has had numerous nationally published articles, including the number one most read article of 2019 on eSchool News, and has presented at numerous national conferences including ASCD Empower20. Christine is a Times 10 author and her first book, Anxious, is coming out in March 2020. Follow her work on Twitter @RavesiWeinstein and visit her website: www.ravesiweinstein.com for more information.

 

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