As I reflected on the last 4 weeks (we are now in our 5th week of closure), I don’t think we are doing anything other than what we would normally be doing, which is putting our kids at the forefront of our decisions. We have had to come at how to meet their needs in different ways. As an elementary school principal in a small urban district with about 2,000 students, I am thankful to be a part of a team of educators that is focused on doing what our students and community need from us to help make the best out of this time.
These are the areas I plan to focus on during our school’s closure:
Student and Family Needs
Like most districts that faced almost overnight closure, our district’s first response was to figure out how to take care of basic needs for our students and families. Our focus started with how our kids would eat as our district offers no-cost meals to all students through our Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)–and how to best roll meals out to families. My building is currently being used as one of two sites in the district to distribute meals. Between our two sites we service about 1,300 students during each day of meal distribution. Having volunteers help to staff this effort and support our nutritional service is high priority, but our team is ready for anything and they show up with a smile. Our district’s social worker and counselors, along with our leadership team, talk with teachers about needs that arise through conversations with families. From there we work with school and community resources to do what we can to help. Our community has supported our students and their families in so many ways and we will continue to do so through monetary donations, food donations, and volunteering.
Taking Care of Our Faculty and Staff
Phone calls, virtual team meetings, and emails—these have been the ways that we keep in touch with our teachers and support staff. Our first full virtual team meeting ended in a whole group laughing session and it was so wonderful to hear and see people smiling in the midst of the unknown. For those of you using Zoom or Google Meet, you can relate to the screen jumping that happens as various attendees’ voices are picked up. This time together lifted our spirits!
Checking in with our team about their own emotional and physical health has been important during this time. Giving teachers space to mourn what our old reality was, allowing them to have a vision of what they might want this next step to be, and then helping them to get there has been key. Teacher leaders, instructional coaches, and mentors have all been right there as well to support colleagues in every way possible. We are working to create a web of small networks that will hold everyone together, stretch when we need it to stretch, and always embrace when we need the support.
Many of our team members have kids of their own that they are helping to teach as well, so this is something that I am mindful of as we approach instruction. Reality checking is a big part of this process and it is even more challenging from a distance. I want to create a space for my team to say that we need to step back or slow down in order to make something better or help bring clarity to an idea.
Learning From a Distance
We focus on building memories for our kids when they are in school, so doing this from a distance is truly a challenge! Building partnerships with parents and students at home was the first piece to our strategy. For some students, social stories helped to explain the change, “mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, your adults are helping to teach you now.” For others it might have been a pep talk from a counselor (or me) to help with this transition.
We are planning two weeks at a time, mainly because that is what our state has given us in terms of guidance. For our elementary students (grades 2- 4) their instruction took the form of paper packets as a staple item. The packets include a schedule practice in math reasoning and problem solving as well as reading and writing materials.
At week three, we were fortunate enough to assign Chromebooks to students in grades 2-4, so we transitioned to using an online platform, whilst providing packets. We’ve also started multi-week projects for each grade level, which has helped in planning and leveraging the technology students now have available. We have plans to increase engagement as well through online reading instruction and electives (like music, art, STEAM Lab, and library) using interdisciplinary projects.
Having devices in the hands of younger students is a benefit for both our students and teachers. We are able to connect more teachers to students and it has given all of us the opportunity to further our digital instructional practices and use feedback to make the learning experience better for our students. The analogy of building a plane as we’re flying it has been used often during this time. When we try something new, we adjust based on the feedback we received and try it again, with a couple of tweaks. This transition has really given us all pause to move into a reflection mode around how we offer feedback and exploring the ways to draw out the best from our kids without having the pressure of a test or assessment.
Our teacher teams are leveraging their collective efficacy through meetings, problem solving, and finding instructional technology solutions to common classroom experiences. Parents are also becoming integral parts of this process as teachers reach out to see how various technology solutions work for students at home.
Finding the Wins
As the closure extends and we face more uncertainty about when we will be back to see our students face-to-face, we are finding wins to celebrate. Being able to talk to a family that we had not been able to reach, an online birthday celebration, virtual talent shows and art exhibitions. Digitizing our yearly traditions is something our teachers have taken on like champions. We are using social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to highlight student stories, artwork, musicianship, and learning experiences. We’re also sharing videos and pictures of our teachers and students on these platforms to celebrate our school family.
We will continue celebrating the efforts of our teachers for their resilience, our students for their hearts, and our families for partnering with us to make the best of this. And always remembering the connections we have through the humanity of our work and love that we have for our students whether we are together under one roof or separated by a closure.
Educators, how are you adjusting to this new reality?
Feel free to share how you are adjusting and helping to support students and teachers from afar in our comments section.