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Educating Amidst COVID-19: Managing the Impact with Digital Empathy™

By September 2, 2020May 16th, 2024No Comments

Educating Amidst COVID-19: Students will be more physically distanced than ever this fall. Remote learning, in-classroom learning, and hybrid models that blend remote learning and in-classroom learning are creating unprecedented physical as well as emotional & mental health risks for both students and educators alike. While many organizations have established plans to address the physical risks1 of educating amidst COVID-19, we offer this Action Plan to help schools & educators to address the likely hidden risks to long-term emotional health & wellness stemming from isolation, anxiety, and depression.

Educating Amidst COVID-19: The Broad Spectrum of Challenges Facing Students and Teachers This Fall

  • COVID-19 and Safety. Young people are not immune. COVID-19 infections could threaten safety, create staffing problems and contribute to anxiety among students and staff.
  • Mental Health, School Connection, and the Impacts of Isolation. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced children and youth to reduce social contact at a critical point in their social development.
  • Distanced at Home or Distanced in the Classroom: Online vs. In-Person Instruction. Whether teachers are interacting with students through a mask and face shield or over video-conferencing, connections will be harder to foster than normal. This presents a significant challenge to schools; when students are connected with their school and their peers, they are more likely to succeed academically, refrain from illegal activities, and have stronger mental health.
  • Inequality. COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting low-income and racialized communities and many facilities are physically ill-equipped to manage a respiratory pandemic. Claire Barnett, the Founder and Executive Director of the Healthy Schools Network, noted that the communmunities hardest hit by COVID-19 will send their children to schools with the worst conditions, like poor ventilation and asthma triggers. Beyond exacerbated physical unsafety, the racial educational achievement gap widened when schools were shut down, according to McKinsey.

1. Value student well-being and academics. Children simply cannot learn effectively when they are fearful, unsafe, lack belonging, or are hungry. Meeting basic needs and social-emotional learning and coping skills must be prioritized over traditional assessments. A strategic direction schools can implement, the “Maslow before bloom” approach, where basic needs are addressed as a prerequisite to meaningful cognitive development. Emphasizing basic needs and well-being also requires recognizing and addressing the racial and class inequities that make COVID-19 more dangerous in some communities but not others.

2. Connect with students to assess their needs while respecting the busy schedules of teachers. A student whose parents lost their jobs due to COVID-19 has had a very different experience from a student whose parents worked from home. School staff will be managing an assortment of students’ experiences and will need to connect directly with each individual. Teachers will be busier than ever, so creative strategies like digital outreach become vital support structures for students.

a. Asking questions builds connections. Consider reaching out digitally and frequently.

Whether learning is in person or remote, frequent weekly or daily check-ins with students can help identify needs and build connection. Check-ins can be completed digitally with empathetic tools, taking the load of teachers. In King County, Washington, school districts found that simply by completing a mental health screening, students felt more connected to the school.

b. A “Whole Child Approach” creates effective, empathetic check-ins. When checking in with students, it’s important to consider issues that affect their whole person, even issues such as food and financial security. Use digital check-ins so that students can answer tough questions honestly without fear of judgement, particularly when questions are phrased with compassion. This “Whole Child Approach” can help teachers and school staff better identify and recognize class and race issues that have greatly impacted students’ experiences of COVID-19.

c. Trauma-informed frameworks are key when connecting with students. Dr Kenneth Ginsburg, Professor of Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, notes that “giving control back to people who have had control taken away” is the key to trauma-informed care. It’s important for students to have a strong degree of control by opening doors to conversations, not forcing any answers, and empowering them to meet their needs academically, socially, and physically.

What strategies will help school communities in this new normal?

COVID-19 brings more challenges than ever, and school staff are taking on roles well beyond what they were trained to do. In these times, how can educators realistically engage with the school community effectively and empathetically?

3. Community matters. Whether they are school or community-based, consider how students can be connected to vital resources. Asking questions often reveals unmet needs. Schools can address some, through counsellors, academic programming or other supports, but the community is vital to meeting others. Strong partnerships with community based organizations, like food banks, community centres, and housing and employment services, will help meet needs beyond the scope of what school staff can provide.

4. Empathy is vital, but can be time-consuming. Time-crunched teachers do not always have the time to have difficult conversations with students. Digital technology can be empathetic and build connection and compassion, saving school staff time.

5. Compassion over compliance. Beyond normal classroom compliance, like listening attentively and sitting still, children and youth may also have to comply with additional measures, like mask wearing or physical distancing. Compliance is vital to safety, but Dr. Bettina Love, Professor in Education, University of Georgia, warns that compassion is more effective than punitive measures, particularly when punishments disproportionately harm racialized students who are already at greater risk of facing harm in the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s more important to ask why a student is struggling with wearing a mask and co-create solutions, rather than enforcing punitive measures.

6. Checking in with Teachers. Returning to school in the middle of a pandemic requires teachers to go above and beyond their job description, whether that’s through physical risks presented by in-person learning or massive pedagogical challenges through online learning. Just as schools are asking how they can support students, schools can also consider how to effectively check-in with teachers, hear their concerns, and engage in collaborative problem solving.

7. Input builds buy-in. Any system change, whether it’s forced by circumstance or proactively planned, requires buy-in and community input. How can teachers, families, students, administrators, and school health staff share their experiences and concerns? By continuously seeking input, schools can strengthen relationships and address problems. As so many changes right now are beyond our control, keeping the community informed and seeking input will build trust and maintain strong relationships.

How schools adopting these new ideas have increased engagement and school connectedness

Two pilot projects have shown how technology can be used to assess families’ needs and promote student-teacher connection.

Back to School Readiness Assessment in Surrey, BC, Canada

In June 2020, schools in British Columbia returned to school on an optional basis. In a pilot project with the Surrey School district, select families were sent a brief readiness assessment to determine what they and their children need to be supported in the transition back to the classroom. It asked questions about mental health and counselling needs, food security, grief, and anxiety. Everyone that completed the tool found it easy to use, and all asked to be connected to resources.

Here to Help. Let’s Connect, Partnership Program between Reclaiming Futures and St. Charles Parish

In Louisiana, schools built a strong partnership with Reclaiming Futures, a community based organization in the US and school-based health centres. During lockdown, schools and Reclaiming Futures staff sent the Here to Help, Let’s Connect online assessment to children and families. It asked students to identify challenges they had faced in isolation, connected students to optional resource referrals or direct services through CBOs or the schools, and provided affirmations to the students. Families and students felt that, in simply receiving the tool, the school and community cared about their safety and emotional needs and felt more connected to the school. The uptake of the survey was strengthened further when community based organizations were involved in the messaging and rollout.

As we look forward to the 2020-21 school year, it’s clear that for students and teachers, innovative solutions, and strong planning will make the difference. Screeners and check-in tools, implemented in a system of empathy and with strong community connections, will strengthen relationships, identify needs, and reduce school staff workload. It’s up to leaders and administrators to guide the path forward, so let’s get to work.


CDC Reopening guidance:

ASSA School Reopening Guidelines: