How School Communities Are Helping Students During a Pandemic

Thursday, October 1, 2020

A person working with students

COVID-19 has changed the way we live, as well as how we interact with extended family members and friends. While it may be a few years before we know how COVID-19 has truly impacted the social and emotional well-being of children, PVSchools is laying the groundwork to provide students with the social and emotional support that they need in real-time. 

Since March, students and teachers across Arizona have shifted from in-person learning to online learning. As the previous school year transitioned into summer break and then to the start of the new school year, students are still physically isolated from their core school community – teachers, friends, and activities.

With the start of the 2020-21 school year, PVSchools school psychologists, counselors, and social workers, as well as school and district administrators had deep conversations on the topic of how to help students and staff who may be experiencing anxiety, depression, loss of a loved one, or loss of income during the pandemic. 

Professional Development for Teachers

Before the new school year started, the Professional Development Department analyzed survey data, which revealed that the professional development topic teachers were most interested in learning about revolved around Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). 

The Professional Development team went to work to provide relevant training and strategies to support SEL for students and teachers. 

Jon Bowen, the district’s social and emotional learning specialist, explains, “Our Professional Development Department has been raising awareness around the topics of trauma-informed practices and SEL development for some time. Those efforts have increased this year. Currently, a multidisciplinary group within the school district has developed some written guidance on signs of distress and that guidance has been included within our internal Social and Emotional Well-Being reopening website.”

SEL Programming

PVSchools is in the awareness phase of providing SEL programming. For the 2020-21 school year, Bowen was hired as the district SEL specialist, and the district added 27 new SEL professionals to support the work being done by our social workers and counselors. While many schools started to focus on SEL prior to this school year, as a district, this is a newer effort that has begun during a global pandemic. 

“We have a great deal of professional development ahead of us while we try to attend to our own well-being and to the well-being of our students, staff, and families. It is a great challenge, but essential. We are also in unprecedented times. Typically when there is a crisis we seek expertise from elsewhere to support the entity in crisis. For example, after a school tragedy, we seek helping professionals from another school, or after a natural disaster, we enlist mental health expertise from another state. A current challenge for us is that this global pandemic is a new phenomenon; there is no established playbook for grappling with our current crisis. Additionally, we are all impacted by the pandemic and I will argue that we are experiencing a collective trauma. We do not have experts to bring in from elsewhere because we are all experiencing this for the first time and together” said Bowen. 

Reaching Out to Families

Connecting with families on a personal level is a district expectation this school year. PVSchools principals, support staff, and teachers are reaching out to parents to gauge how students and families are doing. As the school year began, school personnel reached out to each family either by a phone call or a survey. 

Many of our teachers are using regular student check-ins, some every week, and some daily. At some schools, when students have shown they need additional support, those students receive a daily check-in. A referral process to signal that students or families need additional support has been developed for every school.

Teachers and school personnel are genuinely concerned about the well-being of their students. When a student hasn’t logged into Google Meets for daily instruction for several days, a red flag is raised. In an effort to connect with these families, schools are exhausting distance communications such as phone calls, email, and mail. Some school staff members are going a step further to follow up with home visits. 

Supporting Students Social and Emotional Development

During the school day, teachers have SEL time built into their schedule, where they can lead mini-lessons or focus on class and community building activities.

One way that all schools and teachers are currently supporting students’ social and emotional development is through using multiple methods to connect or reconnect with all students and families. At the elementary school level, teachers are typically setting aside time in their schedules to focus on student SEL activities. Some schools have adopted SEL programs with classroom curriculum. At some sites, there has been a focus on SEL activities where students are encouraged to practice SEL skills by working collaboratively. Teachers are focusing on SEL competencies, such as self-awareness or self-management, by embedding that content into the academic curriculum.

Protocols have been established if a teacher notices a distraught student during a Google Meets instruction. Each school site has a referral process, to an interim Social-Emotional Support Team, for when students are showing patterns of distress. Immediate responses or supports would be school site-specific. “Each case is handled in whatever unique way is needed, but there will be staff on-site to address any situations,” added Kari Naegele, the lead social worker.

Attending to Teachers Emotional Well-being

Teachers often put the needs of students and colleagues before focusing on their personal well-being. Now more than ever, employees need to practice self-care by being mindful of their own mental health, emotional well-being, and physical health and seek professional assistance when needed.     

“We know that adult SEL is a prerequisite for student SEL development and that high-quality SEL professional development is essential if we want to have high-quality SEL programming. Some of the district’s initial professional development for this school-year addressed adult SEL. At the current time, a number of efforts are in development to offer professional development for district staff to promote their own well-being. Some of our school sites have been offering this type of professional development if they have chosen an SEL program and if that program has those components,” added Bowen.

Resources for Families

The pandemic has left its mark on the economy, and many families are facing unprecedented hardship that they may have never experienced before. This may include loss of income, which adds to the stress of paying bills, as well as putting food on the table and keeping a family in their home. 

PVSchools is providing resources for families who may need assistance on a case by case basis, which includes neighborhood-specific resources. Resources are wide-ranging and include services for food banks, crisis centers, housing and homeless shelters, financial, and domestic violence hotlines. 

Supporting Staff and Students When In-person Learning Begins

Whether parents decide to send their child back to school when in-person learning begins or continue to keep them home with the PVConnect model, the SEL team at each school will continue to support students and staff members who may be experiencing anxiety. 

Before in-person learning begins, teachers will have the opportunity to prepare students about the safety protocols for reopening, including any new routines. 

“Simply put, when we know what to expect, our anxiety decreases. Teachers and support staff are considering ways to provide some age-appropriate education around anxiety; the biological basis and ways to cope with typical anxiety. For students who need additional targeted support for anxiousness, small group supports are a best practice,” said Bowen.

PVSchools employs 25 social workers and 27 SEL specialists that are spread across 40 school sites. Middle and high schools also have counselors who are able to assist students who may need extra support.