When Pren Woods left the school building to go home for the weekend a few Fridays ago, he didn’t know that it would be the last time he would see his students in person for weeks.
Woods, a 7th grade teacher at Alston Middle School in Summerville, S.C., learned that Sunday that school wouldn’t be in session the following Monday, closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. His first thought: He had to get in touch with his students as soon as possible.
“I needed to call, or email and do a Zoom, and let them know that my heart was really breaking over the fact that I didn’t get to say bye to them,” Woods said.
For Woods, his students’ wellbeing was his first concern, before he even started thinking about crafting online lessons. As school districts across the country rush to get remote learning up and running, Woods and many other teachers are still trying to figure out how to maintain the relationships with students that they’ve worked all year to build. How can they maintain the classroom community without the physical classroom?
“This is a serious loss for both students and teachers,” said Kathleen Minke, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.
Teachers and students miss seeing each other every day. The rituals of school—from mundane daily routines to milestone celebrations like prom and graduation—have suddenly been struck from the calendar. Teachers worry about the challenges and inequities that their students will face when the supports that schools provide are that much harder to access.
“When you experience those kinds of loss, it is perfectly reasonable, acceptable, and human to feel grief around that,” Minke said.
In this new environment, schools and districts have tried to create some unique shared experiences, teachers driving their cars parade-style through students’ neighborhoods, creating “we miss you” montage videos, and organizing virtual spirit weeks. They’re also turning to smaller, ongoing ways to rebuild that community.
“I just felt like they needed to hear that we were going to be OK,” Woods said, talking about why he emailed and called students in the days after closures were announced. “How you’re doing is my first consideration. We can figure out everything else later.”
‘They Miss Each Other’
For Emily Richley, a 5th grade teacher at Dennis Elementary School in Springboro, Ohio, closures also happened suddenly.
Teachers in her district found out on a Thursday afternoon a few weeks ago that school would be closed the following Monday. But the district had a teacher workday that Friday, so Richley knew that afternoon was the last time she’d see her students for a while.
“We said goodbye to them with them thinking it was going to be a normal goodbye, and us knowing we weren’t going to see them again,” she said. Richley wanted her first message to her students and their families to reassure them.
“I recorded a video of myself just saying goodbye to the kids—and hello to the parents—and explained that it all had happened suddenly, and we were going to figure it out together,” she said.
Video-chatting with students, being able to see their faces, has been important for building community, she said. She hosts chats on Google Meet throughout the week. It helps her connect with the kids, but also gives them a chance to see each other.
“They miss each other,” she said. Her 5th graders show each other their dogs or introduce the class to their siblings. “In a way, it has made the community a little more personal, because we’re almost meeting in each other’s homes,” she said.
Other teachers are using video chat to keep school traditions going virtually.
Kendra Klausing, another teacher in the same district as Richley, still had her “last Friday of the month” lunch with some of her math students in March, after schools closed.
The tradition started earlier this year, when a few of her students in the period before lunch wanted to stay and chat. After the district switched to online learning, Klausing reached out to them. “If you want to still do this, for normalcy in our lives, let’s do it,” she remembers telling them.
On the last Friday of every month, Mrs. Klausing, Math teacher, eats lunch with students. She continued this tradition today! pic.twitter.com/AiaYvAU2Nd
— Jon Franks (@Springboro_SJHS) March 27, 2020
In some ways, the conversation was the same as it had been in the classroom. The students still talked about the work they were doing, and how their online classes were going. “But it was also nice to see how they’ve been spending their time,” Klausing said, now that they’re not in school.
Richley’s lucky, she says, that in the district, most students have devices and access to the internet.
‘We Don’t Want Them to Feel Alone’
For many teachers, finding low-tech ways to stay in touch is essential, in areas where students don’t have the same levels of internet connectivity.
“We talk about using technology, Zoom meetings, which are important and can be really helpful,” said Minke. “But we have to keep in mind that not every child can experience that.”
Some schools are turning to a reliable standby—the U.S. mail. Tanya Dawson, a STEM teacher in the Paulding County school district in Dallas, Ga., wrote 60 postcards to her students in three classes at Panter Elementary, along with other teachers at the school. She tried to write something different for each student, letting them know that she was thinking about them, and that they’re missed.
“We’re looking at ways we can connect with those kids,” Dawson said. “A lot of them, their parents are still going to work, and they’re home alone. We don’t want them to feel alone.”
Another low-tech option: the telephone. When school is in session, Woods, the South Carolina teacher, sings to students in class for their birthdays. Over the past couple of weeks, he’s called a few to sing over the line.
“We need levity,” he said. “We need humor.”
Keeping these kinds of routines in place can also help students cope with the parts of their lives that are changing, Minke said.
‘The Students I Worry About the Most’
In the current environment, teachers said many students are feeling higher levels of worry and fear. Richley’s elementary schoolers have told her that they’re scared they’re going to get sick, or that their family members will.
She’s asked students to keep a journal of their time out of school, so they can write about what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. She reads the entries and sometimes writes back.
When kids are in this new situation, it’s important for them to reflect on what’s going on and “attach emotions to it,” said Vicki Nishioka, a senior research adviser with the nonprofit group Education Northwest who studies teacher-student relationships.
Woods, in South Carolina, has also asked his students to write daily. The journals have helped him know when he has needed to contact parents, or the school psychologist, Woods said.
“When a kid says, ‘My mom doesn’t have a job and there are four of us, and she’s alone and I’m worried.’ That’s somebody I want to pick up the phone and call, and somebody’s mom I want to email,” he said.
A school psychologist can be helpful when students start sharing difficult or painful feelings, Minke said. Some teachers may be trained in what’s known as psychological first aid—a way to assess if students are experiencing immediate and serious problems, she said. But if they’re not, they can reach out to school psychologists if they’re concerned for a student’s wellbeing.
The abrupt end of in-person classes might affect students in unexpected ways, said Nishioka. “Students who have thrived in a brick-and-mortar school might struggle in an online environment, or vice versa,” she said.
“The students I worry about the most are those who don’t have a great deal of support at home, or don’t have a lot of options to think through when they’re problem solving,” she said. “How will they access that help? How will they ask for it and get it?”
‘There’s No One Right Way to Do This’
Woods has kept reaching out to students, telling them that he’s available if they need him, even if they’ve said that they’re doing fine for now. But he also acknowledged that showing that availability and care will look different for different teachers.
“Teachers can be so hard on themselves, like, ‘Oh, ... I’m not doing enough,” he said. At his school, Woods says he’s known for his “theatrics.” But he knows that it’s not everyone’s style to call up students to sing happy birthday. Teachers should support students in the ways that feel natural for them, he said.
“There’s no one right way to do this,” said Minke, about building a school community virtually. “Teachers are figuring it out one step at a time, kids are figuring it out one step at a time, parents are figuring it out one step at a time.”
The best thing that teachers can do is keep lines of communication open, she said. One option is a solutions-oriented approach: Teachers can ask students and parents what makes remote learning more manageable for them, and then keep doing what’s working while finding alternatives for what isn’t, Minke said.
At this point, she said, no one has all the right answers. So instead, teachers can focus on asking the questions, she said: “What’s working, even a little bit? What made you feel a little bit better today?”