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COVID-19: Listening to Those in the Trenches Part II

Irvin Scott, a senior lecturer at Harvard, was the force behind the launch of the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Leadership Institute for Faith and Education, which convenes education and faith-based leaders. Irvin's background includes more than 30 years in education including years in schools and districts as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and chief academic officer, as well as five years as a foundation executive. This week on the blog, Irvin will be sharing conversations he has had about the realities of educating from home and reopening with those "in the trenches": parents, teachers, leaders, and, of course, students.

—Rick Hess

This blog is the second part of a three-blog series in which I'm sharing a series of conversations that I have been having with individuals impacted by this pandemic. In the first blog, we heard from parents and educators from New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Today, we hear from teachers and a principal from Massachusetts who talk candidly about the impact of working online.

Voices From the Trenches

Like millions of educators spanning the range from pre-K to graduate schools, those that I spoke to from Massachusetts are middle-line workers. They have been forced to learn new technological tools, scrap unit plans, design new assessments, or move instruction online, all while becoming social and emotional detectives—looking for signs of abuse, depression, and feelings of isolation in their students and colleagues. I also hear from a couple of school leaders, the first a high school principal from an urban community in Massachusetts, then a school leader who leads a Mandarin-immersion school in California.

Balancing the Personal and the Professional

I began all my conversations with educators with the same question: How is this COVID-19 impacting you personally and professionally.  I asked this question because I keep hearing about the difficulties of compartmentalizing our lives during this pandemic.

One of the teachers that I spoke with talked about those impacts as she and her wife are the parents of one child, while expecting another. "We struggle with work and parenting responsibilities. Our 1-year-old son's day care is closed, and I am pregnant (with intense nausea and other symptoms). I'm fearful of going to the doctor for pregnancy symptoms," she explained. As a technology-focused teacher leader in a school with all English-language-learner students, her personal angst was mixed with jubilance as she talked about her whole-school responsibilities increasing—making her feel helpful as she "activated over 60 hot spots for students, distributed over 300 computers prior to the closure, and made a whole-school plan for remote learning tools." These mixed emotions of personal concern and professional trials and triumphs are just one example of what it means to be an educator these days. This seems to be true for teachers and school leaders.

For the school leader of the Mandarin-immersion school in California, leading during the pandemic has been the ultimate challenge. "The past few months have truly felt like a blur. COVID-19 has made time pass with lightning speed while simultaneously making everything in life seem at a standstill. Initially, news of the virus created feelings of fear and anxiety around losing people who were important to me. As a leader of a Mandarin-immersion school that partners with international sister campuses to host study-abroad students each year (in addition to already having a large number of Chinese families in our school community), I was faced with an early wave of COVID-19 parent concerns beginning in January." She went on to say that she cried for the first time in front of her staff—albeit on a Zoom call— because she had to share that there would need to be furloughs, reduced pay, loss of benefits, and more.  

The Changing Nature of Teaching and Learning

The principal from Massachusetts was very clear about one central way things have changed for schools and schooling during COVID-19. "Education is a profession where your success is built on the foundation of relationships that you build with colleagues and with students and families. And you know when your students have good relationships with their teachers, with their school, with the community, they are willing to struggle through the hard assignments, to go that extra mile to get a higher grade. And you just lose all of that [in virtual learning]. Digital is just a poor substitute." In his voice, I did not hear a complaint but rather an acknowledgement that while teaching and learning was continuing, we would be fooling ourselves if we felt that Zoom instruction and check-in could replace that connection.

At the same time, the Zoom instruction and check-ins are critical. One teacher I spoke to talked about how determined she was to connect with each of her 125 students. She saw it as her personal crusade to see each student on the screen or at the very least hear their voices. "I used all kinds of strategies," she said. "One of the best tactics was to reach out to their friends and ask for their support connecting with students I have not heard from. It worked! I heard from every student," she said with pride. "We need to check up on their social and emotional well-being as well as their academic progress." She went on to say that she encourages students to let light into their rooms, listen to music, exercise—all to fight depression and isolation. If necessary, referrals are made for targeted support. Another teacher talked about losing a former student to COVID-19 and the impact it had on the school community as everyone had to "quarantine and mourn in their separate spaces." It just seemed so unnatural.

One first-year teacher spoke regretfully about how COVID-19 had short-circuited the relationships that he was building with his students. He talked about wanting to be there for more students, but COVID-19 occurred right when he was beginning a rhythm with relationship building. "It's not the same online, and I think they are reaching out more to teachers that they've known for a longer period of time."

Reopening Schools

If there is one theme that ran through all my conversations, it was the impact COVID-19 is having on students' and adults' social and emotional well-being. We now need to include the trauma of  George Floyd's deathr and the subsequent protests and riots. The principal from Boston put it best when he said, "Social and emotional well-being has to be a priority at schools [when students and adults return]. It must be built into the schedules and into school funding because we are going to see the effects of isolation and loss that students [and adults] are experiencing." 

As he pointed out, those losses aren't just the obvious ones like the tragic death of family members or friends. For students, the loss of a baseball season when scouts may have come to see you play, the loss of college tours, and the loss of a half year of learning will all have lasting impacts. Structural and financial supports will be needed to navigate the aftermath of this trauma we are all living through.   

In a few days, we will hear from state, district, and nonprofit leaders and will close with the voices of a couple students.

—Irvin Scott

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