Adjusting to the New Normal

Adjusting to the New Normal

Transitioning from classroom teaching to online instruction is a challenge even under the best possible circumstances, let alone as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In education, as in the rest of the world, it will take a while to adjust to the “new normal.”

Beyond the heartbreak associated with losing the classroom connection between educators and students, families who depend on their school community for resources and guidance may find themselves feeling adrift. After all, providing special services—such as translation for English Learners (ELs), support for students with disabilities, and meals for food-insecure families—has become significantly more complicated during the pandemic. In addition, the emotional component of living through this unprecedented period in modern history should not be overlooked; everyone needs to grieve for the school year they expected, even as they work to support each other in new and different ways.

While educators continue to adjust to the change, they should remember to treat themselves with the same compassion they show to students and families. By maintaining personal connections, establishing routines, and reimagining timelines, educators can create stability and support for themselves and their students—including those who belong to the most vulnerable populations.

Maintain personal connections

When school closures began in March 2020, educators had already spent months building in-person relationships with students and their families. For many, one of the most jarring parts of suddenly moving to an online learning environment was the inability to interact in person. Although classrooms are closed, educators should do what they can to maintain student relationships virtually.

  • Greet students personally: Just as you would in the classroom, use students’ names, ask about their lives, and follow up on previous conversations. As some students may be uncomfortable sharing their feelings about the pandemic online, consider broaching the topic in broader terms. Cultivating space to discuss the realities of life during school shutdowns can help teachers both rebuild and maintain their connections with students. For instance, Teaching Tolerance suggested having everyone in the class share one tough moment and one hopeful moment each day. Students and teachers could also point out one new thing they have found out about themselves during distance learning. 

  • Make time for social-emotional learning (SEL): During the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, it is critical to look at personal interactions through the lens of trauma. With fewer conventional opportunities to socialize and heightened emotions across the board, SEL is of the utmost importance—and for educators who may be unsure where to start, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence uses the RULER approach to teach social and emotional skills. While connecting with students online, educators are advised to discuss and encourage the following:

    • Recognizing emotions in ourselves and others
    • Understanding the causes and consequences of our emotions
    • Labeling emotions accurately
    • Expressing emotions appropriately
    • Regulating emotions effectively
Establish routines

The sudden loss of a “normal” schedule is bound to take a toll on students and teachers alike. After all, structure helps create a sense of safety and security. While a full return to familiar routines is unlikely in the near future, there are still ways to bring order into our abruptly rearranged lives.

Creating routines and a consistent schedule helps organize student learning and keep everyone grounded during all the upheaval. For educators looking to optimize their online learning schedules, here are a few ideas:

  • Practice self-care: Ordinarily, striking an effective work/life balance involves carving out time for hobbies, relaxation, and rest—and in a state of emergency, it’s even more important to prioritize one's own well-being. With this in mind, educators might consider beginning the day with physical activity, engaging in regularly scheduled creative pursuits, and taking short breaks to recharge on a frequent basis.

  • Incorporate the old: Rather than canceling the monthly poetry reading or end-of-Shakespeare-unit party, educators should instead contemplate how to carry over these traditions to the online classroom. Inviting students to help brainstorm virtual alternatives is a great way to promote student involvement and agency.

  • Create something new: Many online teaching platforms offer opportunities to video chat with individual students, create galleries of student work, and/or facilitate large-group discussions, and educators can use this technology to their advantage by creating new and exciting routines. How about forming an online book club? Co-writing a comic book about life under quarantine? Adapting literary classics to take place in 2020?

Reimagine timelines

Educators spend much of the traditional school day managing large groups of students. So, now that they aren't overseeing transitions from one classroom to another or monitoring small-group work, should they be devoting even more time to teaching?

Definitely not. During this unusual period in American history, educators must balance the desire to keep students engaged with the reality of managing the stressors associated with the COVID-19 era (some families may not be able to support students' virtual school days, some students may be dealing with health issues or other emergencies that take precedence over schoolwork, etc.). In the words of Long Island, New York, school district superintendent Jennifer Gallagher, “parents have the ability and permission to shut off the valve, take a break, [and] judge whether their kids need less or more.”

Ultimately, learning from home will need to be structured differently than learning in a traditional classroom, which will require the following:

  • Manage expectations for virtual learning time: On March 27, the Illinois State Board of Education released a set of Remote Learning Recommendations During the COVID-19 Emergency that encouraged fewer than five hours of schoolwork per day. According to the board, high-schoolers should be spending only 20 to 45 minutes on work for each class and a maximum of 270 minutes (or four-and-a-half hours) on schoolwork each day, while middle-schoolers should have 15 to 30 minutes of work per class with a daily cap of 180 minutes (three hours). As for elementary students, the board recommended 45 to 90 minutes of daily schoolwork for first- and second-graders and 60 to 120 minutes for third- through fifth-graders. 

  • Create flexible deadlines: In the past weeks, school districts have tried different approaches to assigning and collecting student work remotely, which has yielded mixed results. Although taking attendance and enforcing strict deadlines could add to the burden of students already in crisis, educators need access to sudents and their work in order to guide their progress. Superintendent Jack R. Smith of Maryland's Montgomery County shared the county's balanced approach with district families as follows: “Our remote plan provides a good mix of teacher instruction and support; independent, age-appropriate self-paced work; and submission of graded assignments. We need to provide both structure and flexibility for students, teachers, and families.”

Support vulnerable populations

Unfortunately, some students are especially at risk during a crisis. Those who need special education services, English language learning support, or school counseling cannot take advantage of such assistance in the same way from a remote location—if they are even able to access the services at all—and students whose parents or caregivers are working reduced hours or have lost their jobs may be facing financial hardships and food insecurity. Meanwhile, those whose loved ones are working emergency or essential jobs will be experiencing anxiety of a different kind.

As everyone adjusts to the “new normal” of virtual schooling, educators should be mindful of students who are especially at risk. It may behoove them to keep the following information in mind as they offer these students support and resources:

  • Special education: 14% of all public school students (about 7 million children) receive special education services in the classroom, some of whom need support from an entire education team composed of a one-on-one instructional assistant, physical and speech therapists, and a school nurse. Although no virtual system could replicate the in-person services provided by a team of professionals, educators should do what they can to offer remote support via email, phone, and video chat while special educators work to modify online lessons in a manner that meets students’ individual needs. 

  • Food insecurity and financial hardship: School liaisons have reason to be especially concerned for their “most invisible population,” the homeless students who might not be able to reach out for help when school campuses are closed. For educators, sending messages through school-provided computers or tablets may be the best way to contact students. With regard to the efforts of school communities as a whole, meals are being provided along bus routes and made available at pre-identified sites in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an area in which increased numbers of students have faced homelessness in recent years. In New York City, where about 10% of public school students were homeless during the 2018–2019 academic year, the education department opened “regional enrichment centers” for students who need “the most intensive support.” 

  • ELs: Educators may find it particularly difficult to connect with ELs and their families during shutdowns. Although schools can use the internet to distribute essential information translated into multiple languages, families without online connectivity will be unable to access these resources. With this in mind, some EL educators have phoned students' homes to provide chances to practice conversational skills, sent students paper copies of lessons in the mail, and shared tech-free activity ideas with families. 

As this is an unprecedented moment in public education, it will take time and effort to adjust to the “new normal.” However, by maintaining personal connections, establishing new routines, reimagining timelines, and providing additional support to vulnerable students, educators can lead the way. They may not be able to replicate classroom teaching during a pandemic, but they can certainly apply flexibility and fortitude to keep students learning in the days ahead.

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