Photo by Jacqueline Kelly on Unsplash

As I sit at home with my 5 1/2 year-old and 2 year-old attempting to figure out some kind of routine and manage my own anxieties, I have been struggling not to cringe as I watch the entire country turn educating kids into a huge social and technological experiment. 

The approaches range widely, with some schools and districts switching entirely online, requiring students to submit work for a grade and running daily Zoom “classes” for kids as young as elementary, and some districts, like mine here in Philadelphia, directing teachers not to teach online at all due to FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) law and instead providing families with enrichment materials. 

Before all of this, a common buzz phrase was “trauma-informed teaching.” For all of the buzz, I have not seen a lot of these specific conversations happening (please prove me wrong). Yes, kids need structure (although, I’m learning that schedules are not for all kids—raises hand) and yes, kids need something to do that feels normal. However, in talking with my students this week through Hangout, the ambiguity of the work they are being given and the potential for it to count later is stressful. The difficulty teachers can have trying to address kids’ individual needs digitally (especially students with IEPs or our ELL population) are also stressful. Students are also finding it hard to focus as things as they watch the SAT they registered for be canceled, as they follow events on social media, are distanced from their friends, feel the stress of their parents, worry about how/if they will graduate or if they will get to wear the prom dress or suit they were so excited to wear.

We have kids whose family members are working in healthcare and at grocery stores who are directly on the front lines. There are kids with parents or other family members with compromised immune systems, or whose own immune systems are compromised. We have families where a parent has lost a job, and families where there is not enough food on the table. Even for families without these issues, often both parents are working from home and trying to balance their own jobs and their kids. Single parent homes are struggling to balance caregiving, remote work, or going to work and attempting to find child care. These are not normal times. Trauma abounds.

Another buzz word that was buzzing around before all of this happened was social emotional learning, the idea of teaching and modeling empathy, teaching students how to manage emotions, and building relationships in the classroom. Any experienced teacher will tell you that without relationships, learning just doesn’t happen. So it’s great to provide content and all, but how are we addressing the trauma that our students are experiencing and providing them with strategies for managing their fear and anxiety as well as maintaining the relationships that we have built with them over the last few months (and for some of us, years)? 

In addition, expecting educators, who are dealing with their own trauma, to run their classes as if everything were normal is doing harm to both teachers and students and their families.

I propose:

  • Providing resources and “stuff” for kids to do that is both academic and fun (ABCya, Starfall, Storyline Online, Cosmic Kids Yoga, Podcasts, Khan Academy, GoNoodle, indoor scavenger hunts, outdoor scavenger hunts–when possible, baking, card games, board games, learning a new skill or hobby from a family member or from YouTube).
  • Checking in with families to make sure that they are OK. See the ideas proposed by Allyson Apsey on how to check in with students and families.
  • Being realistic with deadlines (if you even give them).
  • Give kids one to two assignments a week and encourage them to do non-academic work if they finish (virtual museum trips, career exploration, art).
  • Communicate with families that their well-being right now is more important than academics at this time.
  • Provide families with an avenue of communication if they need anything, making sure that there is an option that does NOT require access to the Internet. This, of course, also needs to be communicated to families directly by phone or mail.
  • Providing an avenue for staff and teachers to communicate if they need support and be flexible when a teacher’s home life may prevent them from working (child care or care of an elderly parent or family member with special needs, etc…)
  • Taking time to check in with colleagues to make sure they are OK.
  • Lots of other great ideas that other have that can’t fit in one blog post and that I haven’t even thought of

I commend schools and districts who have worked extremely hard and thought deeply about how to move the education of their students to the home. This includes giving out devices to families, running training for staff on using digital tools for learning, helping families gain access to low-cost internet, printing packets for families and mailing them home, providing food through pick up locations or trucks, and making themselves available for families. Educators have worked tirelessly to put their content and lessons online and to learn as much as they can about distance learning while working from home and also supporting the learning of their own children.

In talking with my non-educator friends, this is a huge burden for them as well, as many try to juggle the expectations of their job and their own children’s needs and education. These are not normal times.

I doubt that education will come out of this unscathed, for better or for worse. This pandemic has shone a light on both the bright side of the hard working educators that serve families and the dark side of the inequities of access that are not new and have always existed before schools closed. This includes the services provided to students with IEPs, 504 plans, disabilities and students for whom English is not their first language.

I’m not sure how cohesive my thoughts are here, but I am hopeful that, as this experiment in shifting school into the home continues, that we stop thinking of this as business as usual and consider the trauma this situation is causing students and their families, and that we use social and emotional learning strategies with our students and families during this time (and moving forward forever).

I would also remind both educators and parents that homeschooling and school-at-home are not the same thing. We cannot replicate school inside the home, and perhaps we don’t want to. Our classrooms are places of wonder, inquiry, exploration, collaboration, discussion, conflict, relationships, and yes, content. This is what learning should look like at home, however it ends up being structured.

9 Comments

  1. Bren

    Reply

    Your thoughts make lots of sense. Be sure you lay the blame where it belongs with regards to expectations, the state DOE are the ones that interpret the law and say what meets the law and approve plans. Teachers do not get much say, they are told what to do.

    • marybethhertz

      Reply

      Sorry for my extremely late response. I guess we are lucky that the PA DOE has stayed out of micromanaging these decisions and has offered a lot of leeway. I have also seen a lot of teachers speak up as both educators and parents themselves, and teachers’ unions have been working hard to make sure that this is working for all families. I hope that this forces the hand of some decision makers to make much needed changes in how we do school.

  2. Reply

    I run a school in San Francisco. I’d love for you to read our memo to the parent community. I’ve copied it here. Not all schools are “business as usual”.

    A Word on Our Expanded Distance Learning Plan, Parenting, and Coping

    Here at Sterne School, we are committed to a few fundamental things–providing your child with safety and security, nourishment of both mind and body, and opportunities to build on their foundation of strength.

    We heard the call from a number of parents last week to increase the instructional hours in the Distance Learning plan. We agree that this is important, as we look at many more weeks of school closure. You’ll see that change effective in both high school and UEMS, starting on Monday.

    This is where the balancing act begins.

    We feel that it’s as important for students to see and interact with their teachers and classmates right now, as it is for them to learn from them. We aim to balance the social-emotional with the academic.

    We understand that many parents are overwhelmed at the moment with the responsibilities that they have with their families sheltering in place at home. We’ve read the blogs, articles, and postings on social media, where parents bravely talk about crumbling under the weight of these uncertain times. Now, parents are expected to be homeschoolers, camp counselors, child therapists, playmates, screentime police, and outstanding employees, too. Many of our teachers share those exact struggles and sentiments, as they are challenged by teaching remotely with their own children at home.

    While we increase the instructional hours, and by extension, classwork and homework time, we also want to bring all this balance top of mind. We are a community. We are in this together. And we are not going to allow your child to experience failure during an already uncertain time. That is not what Sterne School is all about.

    We ask that you take some time with your family to find your balance. If your family’s top priority right now is academics, then please assist your child with their schedule by setting timers and ensuring that they are ready to log into video conferences on time, daily. Help with homework as much as possible. We hope these parent guidelines are helpful.

    If your priorities and responsibilities pull your family in other directions right now, we’d like to hear from you. And we want you to know that it is okay. We will meet you wherever you are.

    You already know that Sterne School is like no other. Your child is like no other. We won’t take a cookie cutter approach to their education, even in remote learning.

    Thank you for taking the time to have the balancing act conversation with your children at home and honing in on your goals for Distance Learning 2.0.

    Be strong, be brave, and be healthy.

    We’re here for you.

    Warmly,
    Sterne School

    • marybethhertz

      Reply

      Thanks for sharing this, Melissa. You can tell that this has been a heavy lift for me as it’s taken me this long to be able to respond!

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  5. Jeff

    Reply

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful article. Hopefully teachers and district supervisors will heed your advice!

  6. Bianca

    Reply

    You have put the finger on the right thing. Values, health and well-being first. Very well said. Worth sharing.

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