a father comforts his son during COVID quarantine

High school junior Sadie Bograd doesn’t mind having extra leisure time to catch up on her novel reading or binge-watch the latest season of The Good Place. But there are moments when the unstructured days seem to stretch ahead and she’s gripped by an overwhelming fit of panic.

“I worry that in the absence of a defined schedule and 6 a.m. wake-up, I will end up ignoring my assignments or failing my AP tests,” writes the junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Kentucky. “How can I stay productive, but not so productive that I run out of things to do come next week? I pivot between feeling like I’ve fallen too far behind and like there’s no way to stay busy.”

The global wave of coronavirus-driven school closures has sent educators scrambling to ensure that learning continues while the world waits out the pandemic. Many districts are still in triage mode, tackling basic logistical problems, such as how to get devices into every student’s hand and how to deliver online instruction on the fly. But for the 1.5 billion learners in more than 160 countries who are affected by school closures, feelings of anxiety and depression can get in the way of quality online learning even in the most tech-ready school districts.

“I worry that there’s a sense that the most important thing to do right now is to focus on academics and get kids learning, and we’re not dealing with this collective punch to the gut,” says former district superintendent Joshua Starr, CEO of PDK International. “We have multiple punches to the gut coming our way. Our most important job is to attend to kids’ emotional needs, their confusion and concern. We’ve got to give space for that, and schools have to balance that.”

Baltimore County Public Schools has assembled an entire team devoted to addressing students’ psychosocial and emotional needs during the school shutdown. They’re exploring how school counselors and social workers can leverage the same instructional tools as teachers to provide emotional support for students. For example, a counselor can use a Google Hangouts Meet to videoconference with students who need extra support.

“We are trying to look broadly at opportunities beyond just instructional,” says Ryan Imbriale, executive director of the district’s department of innovative learning.
Here are a few of the ways teachers and education leaders can tend to students’ social and emotional needs as they work toward making the shift to online learning:

1. Check in regularly with students

If teachers are able to do nothing else during this time, the act of simply checking in with students on a regular basis can provide a basic level of emotional support. In a recent survey of nearly 200,000 students and teachers, PDK International found that seven in 10 students want clear communication from their teachers during the COVID-19 crisis. Emails, text messages, online chats or virtual meetups can all help students feel more connected — and don’t be afraid to add some levity. Reaching out just to share a funny meme can go a long way toward bolstering spirits.

“People definitely want to stay connected to each other. They want to know their peers and teachers are OK, and they’re concerned about their ability to fulfill their academic requirements,” Starr says. “Kids want reassurance from teachers. Even if there’s not a specific assignment to do, they want to hear, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about you. Hang in there.’ ”

2. Strike a balance between structure and flexibility

In the same survey, 76 percent of students said they crave structure during their time in isolation. Providing a balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities can give students the structure they lack while still allowing enough flexibility to accommodate varying home situations.

Having regular check-in times, online office hours or class meetings in Google Hangouts helps create a sense of structure and connectedness while giving students a chance to seek help if they’re struggling. On the other hand, tools such as Flipgrid allow for asynchronous instruction, which can be helpful in households where students have to share devices, says Helen Crompton, associate professor of Instructional Technology at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

3. Facilitate group collaboration

Adults tend to think of school as a place where learning happens, but students often focus more on the social interaction. Although technology allows kids to remain connected with their friends even during social distancing, more than 40 percent of students surveyed said they want more guided group interaction with their peers.

Teachers can help fill this need by including collaborative groupwork in their online instruction. Creating breakout groups in Google Hangouts or working on shared docs allows students to interact with their peers in a more structured capacity.

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4. Make room for sadness

Amid the existential fears provoked by the coronavirus, it’s easy to forget that students are losing more than just academic progress. Many are also missing out on once-in-a-lifetime rites of passage, such as prom and graduation. Yet in the face of a deadly disease outbreak, they may feel guilty expressing their feelings about these less weighty concerns.

“Of course, I’m concerned for the health of my family and community,” Bograd says. “But as self-absorbed as it feels to say it, I’m also worried about not being able to go to prom.”

While teachers may not be able to bring these rites of passage back for them, what they can do is offer empathy and provide space for students to express their frustrations.

“In addition to experiencing anxiety about Covid-19, teenagers also have every right to be sad, angry and intensely frustrated about what has become of their year,” says New York Times contributor Lisa Damour. “Adults should not hesitate to say, ‘I hate that you have lost so much so fast and I am sorry it has happened. You’ll get through this, but that doesn’t make it any less miserable right now.’ ”

5. Go the extra mile for vulnerable students

While even the most fortunate students may be struggling with existential fear and the emotional impacts of social distancing, educators need to pay extra attention to kids who are especially vulnerable: those with turbulent family lives, abusive parents, food insecurity or a lack of housing. For these students, going to school may have been their only escape from troubles at home.

“I’m concerned about the kids who are really vulnerable, who are living in foster care, homeless, in chaotic living situations, or taking care of younger sibs or older relatives,” Starr says. “How are we organizing to meet their needs, and how are we mobilizing for them?”

One of the long-term takeaways from the current pandemic is that districts need to systematize their ability to keep tabs on their most vulnerable students, says former district superintendent Lu Young, executive director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Next Generation Leadership. In many schools, such efforts may include driving by the home, making phone calls, or tracking down a grandparent or neighbor to check on the student.

“What we need is an interagency, community-based outreach program, and the longer we are in isolation and responding intentionally to the pandemic, I think more of that will start to happen,” she says.

Rally the whole community

There are many small ways communities can work together to support students emotionally. In one community, residents and business owners were encouraged to place teddy bears in the windows of houses and storefronts as a show of solidarity, Young says. When kids go out for walks, they can count the teddy bears they spot; when they get home, they can journal about where they saw them. Another community did something similar using rainbows as a reminder that this, too, shall pass.

“There are ways primary kiddos can still be engaged at the community level even though they’re socially distanced from everyone,” she says.


Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.