It’s Wednesday, March 11, 2020. I’m in the middle of the university semester, teaching a graduate course on research methods. Spring break is soon and we’re headed to visit a few colleges for my son, who’s a junior in high school. But one email after another comes to my inbox. It feels like a slow wind that picks up into a tornado. My university announces that it’s cancelling all classes for two days, so professors like me can transition to 100% online learning the following Monday (!!). Universities across the country suspend all events, including admission tours. Doctors advise stay-at-home orders. And, my kids’ high school and middle school decide they’ll be virtual for the two weeks after spring break, which starts the following Monday.
- Adapted excerpt from my essay in Parenting in the Pandemic: The Collision of School, Work, and Life at Home – A Collection of Essays, edited by Rebecca Lowenhaupt and George Theoharis
I’ve been reflecting on my own kids’ experiences from this past spring (2020) and how they must’ve compared to other children across our district, where over 90% of students receive free/reduced-priced meals. While my kids attend diverse schools in the city, they are magnet schools often touted as the “best” in the state by typical/official (standardized test) measures, and they are not reflective of our wider community … here’s one story that gives a sense of what life and learning and the racial divide is like in our city right now. So, I’m wondering — if our kids didn’t have a good learning experience and struggled at times, with all our privilege, with two parents who can work at home and be with them, with more than enough technology, computers, internet access, stable and secure housing, and so on +++, I honestly can only (cannot) imagine what other families are experiencing: sharing 1 cell phone across 4 kids? Working long hours at the grocery store while the eldest kid tries to manage the toddlers at home? Being a newly settled refugee without all the network and support one normally gets from the International Institute? Having a family member die?
- Excerpt from personal journal entry, May 31, 2020
I remember that initial time of the COVID-19 pandemic quite clearly – perhaps in part because I kept a journal, in part because it was such a change of pace, and in part because the constant ambulance sirens flooding to the nearby city hospital seemed louder, more often, and more alarming. This collision of school, work and life – of new spaces for teaching and learning – of constant, never-ending decision-making that seemed like life-or-death – all in the midst of the “dual pandemics” of COVID-19 and systemic racism – this all felt so very sharp.
And, yet, this collision is not behind us: this is something we need to keep talking about, as we face the third school year shaped by these pandemics. What do we know now, that we didn’t know last summer, and how can we prepare?
First, we educators are resilient and creative. This is a fact we cannot forget: although it’s been a year of stress, burnout, and loss, it’s also been one of a whole host of new efforts in education to support families, students, and each other. As my friend put it, “Social processes and practices can change very quickly, and do, when circumstances force them.”
Here are just a few things that teachers from across my state discussed learning during our recent Summer Institute for SEE-TEL (Strengthening Equity & Effectiveness for Teachers of English Learners), a National Professional Development grant project supported by the US Department of Education:
- Having parent-teacher conferences on Zoom removed a lot of barriers for multilingual families. All of a student’s teachers and their translator could be together at one time; there were fewer childcare issues or work-related conflicts for families. Consider what to keep from this past year, for example using technology to connect with families, even when we can meet in-person again.
- To help families acclimate to their community, one district held in-person, small group orientations for very recent newcomers. Another got special permission to provide one-on-one or small group instruction for newcomers grouped by language even when schools were shut down. Keep equity at the center and don’t hesitate to ask questions about trying new approaches: what works best for whatever is facing families and students at your school?
- Teachers said that they saw how access to and a shared understanding of technology were essential for all families. And relationships were central to providing that access and understanding. Using “show & tell” on families’ porches and sharing cell phone numbers and text messages helped teachers provide that extra assistance to their students. Make relationship-building central to your school culture: how can strong relationships support teaching, learning and access to resources?
- Students designated as English Learners didn’t all fall behind: teachers saw their growth, even after a semester of distance learning, which they demonstrated on standardized tests. They explained that co-teaching (content and “ESL” teachers working as a team) in virtual spaces helped tremendously. Don’t forget that you’re not alone as an educator – partnerships matter!
Second, we know a lot more about how to respond to a crisis in education. Since last summer 2020, I’ve worked with colleagues documenting a pilot school-community partnership that aimed to help families and educators respond to COVID-19. Meeting regularly throughout the year, we witnessed how educators, volunteers, community organizations, and families poured everything they had to support the immense challenges facing our school communities.
From this work, we created a checklist, a set of questions for school leaders to consider in “Getting Schools and Families Connected During a Crisis.” This is a living document we continue to adapt, not only as we learn more about schools’ responses and preparations for COVID-19, but also as we imagine how such a document could support a range of crises, such as those inflicted by natural disasters or events brought forth by climate change.
So, while there is perhaps more unknown than ever about this coming school year, and although we may face the same never-ending tornado of decision-making and choices, we are resilient and we have some ideas how to respond to a crisis. What is your #resilient story or successful #response to #COVID19 from last year? I welcome your thoughts @lisamdorner.