In March 2020, students and educators walked out the doors on a sunny Friday afternoon, waving to one another because spring break had officially begun. Little did any of us know that spring break 2020 would turn into COVID break 2020. Projects were completed, more books were read, but then reality came knocking, and we as educators found ourselves back at work and communicating with students—and each other—in new ways.

Superintendents around the country began making announcements that school buildings would be closed for extended time frames in an effort to “flatten the curve.” Cory Uselton, superintendent of Desoto County Schools (DCS), immediately created a video message addressing the well-being of our students, staff, and community during this uncharted time. This video message was delivered to our district of 35,000 students within minutes via email. It took me back to the 1980s when “the President is on every channel.” Parents, educators, and students were glued to their screens to hear the important message.

No longer were the students sitting in classrooms, but they were at home. What did our educators do in response to this new challenge?

‘Our School Is Here for You’

Educators’ first response is always “Are my students okay?” Our teachers and school counselors, along with our district mental health therapist and district social workers, began touching base with our families. Through emails, social media, and phone calls, we all relayed the message to our families that our school is here for you no matter what, because we are #TeamDCS. Many of our teachers even hand-delivered note cards to their students to show their kindness.

The social and emotional well-being of our staff has also been a priority. Our principal mailed home postcards to our staff with the reminder of the fabulous jobs they are doing. One of my favorite things throughout the school year are our monthly staff morale boosters. April usually consists of an unannounced “Eggstra Boost Egg Hunt” during a staff meeting. Now that we are no longer physically meeting, I had to create alternate activities.

For March, our parent/teacher association purchased gift cards to support locally owned small businesses, and I used these as door prizes as teachers submitted their grade verification sheets. For the month of April, I have created a “Surprising Facts” crossword puzzle for the staff. Each staff member submitted an unknown fact about themselves to me, and I created the puzzle. These opportunities have kept our staff in contact with one another along with a few laughs. Who knew that in seventh grade a fellow classmate lit Mrs. Jones’ hair on fire or that Coach P has traveled to 32 different countries in the world?

Community Outreach and Communication

For me, the School Status system became my “BFF.” School Status is a K–12 communication and analytics application that allows for mass communication with every student in the building within minutes. For instance, as the sixth-grade administrator, I was able to mass text my entire grade at once. In turn, this created a 1:1 text conversation with each parent. Parents and I are now able to communicate with ease at any time.

My first text was “How is everyone doing? I sure do miss my sixth graders and their smiling faces!” Instantly, I began to receive return texts with pictures of my school kids smiling.

Teachers are also able to use this feature to contact their classes. They use School Status to send work samples back and forth with one another. Parents have used it to just say “thank you” or “could you put JoHanna’s trumpet on the school patio to pick up so she can continue to practice?”

Zoom Meetings, Microsoft Team Meetings, Facebook Live Book Readings, and Twitter Bingo Challenges are just a handful of the other ingenious engagement sources our teachers across the district have used to keep in close contact with our students and their families. One of our district’s elementary schools created a Twitter Bingo Challenge. This Bingo Challenge has not only kept our students in contact with their teachers, but also helped with idle family time at home. Activities included making paper airplanes and measuring distance, reading books in a homemade fort, and even family movie nights with parents choosing classic favorites. These moments were frozen and recorded in time by posting to Twitter to share with the school and community.

Our counselors also provided a daily motivational challenge to our teachers and students to keep them connected on a personal level. This concept was a great way to substitute the daily conversations we have with our students that are nonacademic. Miss Lovejoy even created an Instagram account for her dog so she could continue to share “Bob stories” with her students.

Transforming Teaching Overnight

Our educators took an immediate challenge and transformed traditional teaching overnight! Online textbooks, Google classrooms, Edmodo, Khan Academy, FlipGrid, Algebra Nation and iReady are just a handful of the interactive online tools our teachers are using to keep our students engaged in learning. For those that do not have internet access, our teachers created packets for parent pick up. Our child nutrition department implemented Grab-N-Go meals in each of our area school zones. Aprons were traded for superhero capes, masks, and gloves. Meals were prepped and passed out daily for children in our community under the age of 18. On average, our district is distributing 2,000 breakfasts and 2,000 lunches daily.

The integrity of learning opportunities has been maintained—but more importantly, the communication and social emotional bonding has continued. Students may not be completing a traditional ELA or math assignment every day, but the life lessons being taught during this time will be what is remembered.

For now, our physical halls and classrooms may be empty, but our hearts are full of passion for the social, emotional, and academic well-being of our students. How will you continue to embrace the opportunity to show grace, compassion, and kindness to your school family and community during this challenging time?

Sara Jane Russell is completing her 20th year in education and currently serving as the assistant principal at Hernando Middle School, Desoto County Schools, Mississippi. She was named the 2018–19 NASSP Mississippi Assistant Principal of the Year.

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