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School & District Management Opinion

How COVID-19 Feels to Those in Schools: An Education Roundup

March 13, 2020 9 min read
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Brenna Bushweller, student:

When all of this coronavirus talk started happening, I wasn’t really concerned until everything started shutting down. Today, my school in Vermont and schools across the state got shut down till at least April 6th including our sports, clubs, etc. I’ve never experienced something that makes the whole country panic, and, in my opinion, the panic of others is more scary than the actual virus.

In school, I think a lot of the students have the same opinion because we mostly have been talking about how people are buying too much in groceries, discriminating because of the virus, and distancing themselves from society. At first, everyone made jokes about it but with it getting more serious, it’s not funny anymore. When I check Instagram, it’s all memes about the virus, and I think that’s a way for our generation to cope with it.

Brenna Bushweller is a high school junior in South Burlington, Vt.

Chad Towarnicki, teacher:

Currently in my district in southeastern Pennsylvania, we have students being pulled and taken to facilities for testing, as well as staff members already in quarantine. With so many digital scaffolds built into our curricula on a daily basis, the staff is wishing that we were in a better position to proactively close and have students work productively in a socially isolated setting. It is sad that in the current climate, the district administration is stuck waiting for partisan state officials, and the parents in our district are engaging in point-scoring screaming matches on community Facebook forums. What lessons are we teaching our students?

A science teacher colleague and I scrambled to establish a menu of informational texts related to the COVID-19 outbreak, trying to take advantage of an interesting topic developing in real time. The students had articles, infographics, news clips, and even a Skype chat with an Italian teacher in quarantine. We used the opportunity to put research skills to the test and to craft legitimate claims from a flurry of ever-changing global data. In the beginning, we joked about what is now our reality: Our students will be well-informed citizens as they head into a quarantine scenario.

Just one week ago, we assigned this research to students as a “what if” scenario for a journaling activity, and by Thursday the students were listening to Gov. Tom Wolf’s press conference, fully aware the necessary precautions that were being outlined. If and when we return to class, we certainly will have a lot to discuss. We are currently quarantined in Montgomery County, Pa., but are connected to the kids through the idea that we are living history.

Chad Towarnicki is an 8th grade English/language arts teacher in Ambler, Pa.

Paul Kelly, principal:

Confirmed cases have emerged in our attendance area, but with regard to our staff and students, we are still fortunate enough to be in preparation rather than reaction mode. Still, the uncertainty is taking an emotional toll on our students and families. For example, our district has cancelled or postponed all international travel, including a Japanese exchange program that had thrived without missing a beat for 32 consecutive years.

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For all our coverage of COVID-19, please visit: Coronavirus and Schools.

On the other hand, the unpredictability of this moment has pushed us to analyze internal processes and practices, with students even joining in the conversation. At one of our partner schools, students in the educator-prep academy have been tasked with designing prospective approaches to e-learning that would allow them to utilize school-issued devices to engage with teachers and coursework in the event of school closure. What better way for aspiring teachers to learn the process of selecting learning targets and developing quality assessments!

Paul Kelly is the principal of Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

Christina Torres, teacher:

Like many schools, we’re planning for remote teaching if the school needs to close. We’ve met three times already in departments, with department heads and other school leaders meeting even more frequently. Fortunately, our school has already set up systems of digital learning in grades 6-12. Many teachers already use online learning systems in which students receive, complete, and submit assignments online, and all students also have their own laptops. Our head of school emphasized that none of this can replace the in-class experience, so we’re doing the best we can in these circumstances.

Our school made the tough (but correct) call to cancel all school-sponsored travel for students and teachers. Because it’s such an unprecedented event, our school is creating guidelines regarding cancelled plans. Many of our students’ personal travel plans have been cancelled. Quite a few folks are missing out on adventures they had planned, and many students (and teachers!) are understandably bummed, even if we know it’s for the best.

Right now, we’re waiting with bated breath to see what will happen. Our administration has taken the steps to keep us informed but they—like the rest of the world—know that change happens hourly.

Christina Torres is an 8th grade English teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Brandon Griggs, student:

As my peers competed to snatch up whatever emergency goods and water our local Publix had left in preparation for the Coronavirus, I couldn’t help but think: What was my family going to do when this epidemic hit? Sure, we’d braved Florida’s hurricane season many times before, but this was something different. We couldn’t just wait this out for a day or two, and considering our financial situation, I worried we wouldn’t last being in quarantine for an extended period of time.

However, these attitudes of fear and panic sharply contrasted with our city’s overly reassuring response to the virus, with Mayor Lenny Curry planning for “no school closures,” amid the outbreak. Even more shocking was an email from FSCJ, the local college myself and many of my high school peers are co-enrolled in. It stated that despite the state university system’s “directive to universities to transition to online classes over the next three weeks, this [did] not include state colleges” like FSCJ. The fact that my local college prioritized splitting hairs over whether they had to follow state-mandated orders above my safety was quite unnerving.

However, there is a good side all of this, as Florida already has a very well-established online learning platform (FLVS) that will make for a smooth transition should schools decide to make students learn remotely. With two cases confirmed in Duval and Clay Counties at the time of this writing, one thing is clear: The coronavirus won’t wait for administrators to deliberate. Swift action must be taken.

Brandon Griggs, a high school junior, is a student-activist and advocate for at-risk youth in Jacksonville, Fla.

Rann Miller, after-school program director:

I work for a county technical school district in southern New Jersey. School leadership and governance are following the guidance of our county board of chosen freeholders, as well as the state department of education and Gov. Phil Murphy.

The guidance from the state has helped chart a path to prepare for the worse while maintaining our regular activities. As per the recommendations, our district has decided to suspend all field trips, work travel outside of the district, and all after-school activities including sports, clubs, and my after-school enrichment program for 60 days, beginning March 16th. In addition, this week, our district provided two early dismissal days for teachers to prepare assignments in case of a district closure.

With our program suspended, I am working with the district to inform parents, calling our partners, and remaining in communication with our district officers in the state department of education. Our students, while very concerned about this health crisis, are preparing themselves for whatever comes.

Unfortunately, there are students who depend on the meals, enrichment, and academic support we’re able to provide after school. Our students will have less than a month of after-school programming before our end date. Although this time has been challenging, the open lines of communication have helped everyone maintain calm and plan for the future.

Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey.

Sarah Pazur, director of school leadership at a charter school provider:

The choice to use online learning to educate students during the coronoavirus outbreak has significant and unique implications related to access, equity, and educational quality. Online learning should prove to be an effective tool to slow the spread of the virus, ensure that already taxed medical resources are there for groups who need them, and allow quality instruction to continue uninterrupted for the duration of the pandemic. But for leaders who find themselves in a state of educational triage, they cannot ignore the students most victimized by the decision to close school.

Cyberschools are complex ecosystems that require a specific infrastructure to support student learning. Students who require special education services and mental-health support must have a way to receive these accommodations online. School leaders should immediately consult with virtual educators who provide special education support services and learn from programs that offer virtual counseling.

Ongoing, job-embedded support with instruction must be available for all staff. Digital learning experts have already begun to offer webinars and open educational resources to coach teachers and administrators through this transition. School administrators should identify digital learning implementation teams and get them working to build a repository of resources and support.

We must remember distance learning is a pedagogy, not a product. In other words, district leaders cannot simply purchase online curricula and expect to meet the needs of their student population; doing so would ignore some of the fundamental differences between face-to-face and online learning and do harm to the community. If leaders proceed with addressing the needs of the most vulnerable students, distance learning has the potential to fulfill its civic and humanitarian potential.

Sarah Pazur is the director of school leadership at CS Partners, a traditional and blended charter school provider.

Ross Wehner, student travel company director:

As the founder of a student travel company, I have watched closely as schools grapple with whether to cancel travel programs. As learning becomes more world-connected, coronavirus is a great opportunity for school leaders, and their communities, to become better risk managers.

This pandemic is also an opportunity for school communities to grow and step into the future of learning, which is increasingly moving off campus with a growing variety of outdoor trips, domestic and global travel, internships, field trips, and more.

This month, I’ve had some of the best conversations I have ever had with long-time school travel partners. We have talked about how to weigh the tremendous learning value of these travel programs against their inherent risks. We have gone program by program, country by country, and discussed backup plans and strategies for moving forward.

Unfortunately, the fundamentals of risk management rarely appear amidst the media coverage. In the weeks ahead, I will encourage school leaders to wait and see how the coronavirus evolves and engage their communities in good conversations about managing risks across everything we do with students off campus, from sporting events to field trips.

Ross Wehner is the founder of World Leadership School, which partners with K12 schools to reimagine learning and create next-generation leaders.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2020 edition of Education Week as What the Coronavirus Feels Like in Communities Around the Country

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