Pandemic. Lockdown. Virtual Learning. Social Distancing. Social Isolation. Five concepts that few of us thought would consume our world just six short months ago. Yet, here we are.
On March 23rd, American International School Chennai began virtual learning. Two days later, on March 25th, India announced a countrywide lockdown. Life, as we understood it previously, changed. We mourned and then embraced the lockdown for what it was: a necessary health and safety measure.
It is easy to assume that people at international schools function well in isolation. After all, we left our home countries, neighborhood friends, and extended family to live abroad. We already know how to stay grounded when far away from those who are our lifelong touchstones. While this is largely true, it ignores an important aspect of the international school experience—our local “school family.” Members of that family are our daily touchstones and support network as we navigate life in the long stretches between annual home visits.
International school students have their parents and siblings at home with them, but their “school family” acts as an important support network. Cultural and language barriers can make it difficult to cultivate deep relationships outside of the school community, and with a lockdown in place and school operating virtually, the rhythm of life has changed. Parents and students are confined to their houses, and time is spent juggling work and school schedules, attending to chores, and navigating the limited availability of shopping and commerce. It is in times like these that connecting to your “school family” takes on even greater importance.
To bring our “school family” closer together, we offer optional programming to provide connection. None of this is mind blowing or original, but it signals to our community that we value being together for more than just academics—that our “school family” can continue to extend beyond the school day, just as it would if we were all back on campus together.
A Social Meet-Up Schedule
Sponsored by students, faculty, and staff, community members can avail themselves of a variety of optional touchpoints throughout the week. A simple spreadsheet, refined weekly, shares links to Google Hangouts or Zoom Meetings.
Students have asked for “study in silent solidarity” in the morning to help them get out of bed early, and they want us to repeat events they found fun. Hosting trivia was a highlight for me as a principal, because I got to just hang out and laugh with the students who attended!
Fun Family Challenges
The Athletics and Activities Office, led by Ryan McFarland and Jack Bissonnette, kicked off a GYFT (Get Your Family Together) Challenge. The initiative encourages families to plan quality time together while gamifying tasks that the family may not normally enjoy doing together (like chores).
Each activity includes helpful links to resources. Families can also download an editable scoresheet to chart their progress.
You can make a copy of the open version of the GYFT challenge for your community. Items to amend are highlighted.
Our Well-Being Steering Committee, led by middle level school counselor Jennifer Gold and school psychologist Nigel Holdsworth, kicked off a “Well Week” with this video outlining how community members could use our well-being framework to ensure they are attending to their own personal wellness. We encouraged everyone to share their experiences on social media, tagging their posts with #AISCWellbeing. Some even practiced well-being while in transit to their home countries.
Leveraging Social Media
Social media is providing us with a space to celebrate and honor the connections we cultivate. Our communications office is featuring our seniors with a “51 Days, 51 Seniors” Twitter series. We are welcoming new students to our community in creative and new virtual ways worth recognizing. We are liking, retweeting, and forwarding images, quotes, and videos of our community learning and living to help our “school family” see each other and know that we are in this together. Check out more on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the hashtags #AISCAtHome and #AISCVirtual.
The pandemic will continue to affect communities around the world in the weeks and months to come. Lockdowns will likely continue as well. While everyone wants our children to keep learning—and while attending to academics is important—social/emotional health and community connection must not be forgotten if we want our communities to weather this storm successfully.
Each school has unique needs when it comes to combating social isolation and maintaining a sense of community. What steps might you take as a leader to help people stay connected?
Joelle Basnight is the high school principal at the American International School Chennai in India. A school principal for over 13 years, she was one of the 2019 U.S. State Department Principals of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@BasnightJoelle).