“How do you meet the needs of families you cannot physically connect with?” This is a question that school leaders have pondered daily as they navigate the world of education in a health pandemic. As a seasoned principal leading a community school, I found myself asking the same question. COVID-19 has presented us with many challenges, but one of its most significant impacts is on the way educators build a sense of community. School leaders have had to use their creativity when creating a plan to access resources and make meaningful connections with school communities to aid in recovery.
The New Norm
As a community school, we partner with a lead agency that assists our school in improving educational and developmental outcomes by providing systems of support to families in health, social services, and education. This community school model enables school initiatives and partnerships, which require physical interaction through events, conferences, training, and home visits. In a typical week, our school provides wraparound services to ensure our families have resources to support with regard to racism, classism, and generational poverty. To do so, we rely heavily on partnerships to help meet student and family needs. These partners support daily instruction, athletics, extracurricular activities, medical care, mental health care, and food needs in our school.
The pandemic shifted this work for us and many school leaders. Our partners (and many organizations) are now struggling to adjust to post-COVID times. Funding has become scarce, technology use and access have been a challenge, and organizations that we once depended on for donations, resources, and services are now trying to meet their own needs.
Because COVID-19 has changed our way of interacting with families, school leaders must determine ways to connect with families, collaborate with partners, monitor family touch points, and take time to reflect.
Determining ways to connect
As a school leader, building relationships with families is essential. With your team, plan ways to safely connect with your students and parents and creatively recommend new ways to meet similar standards—while keeping in mind district, state, and federal guidelines. Our school identified the following priorities: educational supports for students and parents, social-emotional learning, mental and medical health supports, and food insecurity. With these focused concerns, we created a plan to address them with little physical contact and following the CDC guidelines for COVID-19.
Collaborating with partners
School leaders cannot work in isolation during this time. The elements of change from this pandemic are difficult to manage, so school leaders must be mindful of who is on their team. It’s important to choose individuals who specialize in interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, mental health, logistics, health and safety, and home instruction for your team. Our school has a leadership team that includes special educators, general educators, social workers, climate specialists, instructional coaches, mental health specialists, psychologists, mentors, and arts specialists. This crisis has taught us that varying expertise should be honored and valued.
Monitoring family touch points
Once school leaders determine the needs of families, they should make a plan, including frequency and level of contact. Because nothing is a substitute for human connection, it is crucial that all families feel the support of the school. I know it is easier to focus on the students who are experiencing the most challenges, but your team must collectively make a plan to reach every child often. As a team, we have identified grade-level support people whose priority is to connect weekly with every student in that grade level. We have also created a structured system that allows us to track virtual events, physical home visits, food and supply giveaways, and even technology assistance. It is important to recognize the need to connect even while we are in a virtual space.
Taking time to reflect
School leaders, do you ever take the time to reflect? I know it is difficult to pull away from the work, but this pandemic calls you to be mindful of your own mental health. Stop at times to breathe, reflect, and note your accomplishments. We do not have much time, but I allot time for our staff every week to virtually tend to their social-emotional state. Meditating, setting goals, and reflecting on our practices have become a norm. Each week you should participate with your staff in adjusting your practices and celebrating what has been done. No one has navigated this before. No one.
Creating a plan that includes these elements will help your school to adjust to the needs of all stakeholders and create a welcoming environment for your community. School leaders should also consider the following when creating plans:
- Home visits for technology support
- Instructional supply pickup and deliveries
- Online extracurricular school
- Social-emotional learning support, using small group strategies
- Medical referrals
- Food giveaways and food referrals
These categories of support provide more opportunities to conduct business as usual while making connections to the families you serve. For school leaders, education during COVID is greater than academic progress; it is about meeting the needs of the student population through services. Your teams must keep that in mind as you plan to serve your school’s community.
Misha Stredrick is a principal at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Baltimore. She is also a certified School Turnaround Principal.