The heartbeat of every school administrator during the pandemic has been to help students survive and thrive during a very challenging time. Not only have students seen major changes to their world, they have also been impacted by resulting economic uncertainties, dramatic changes in the political and social justice paradigms, and social-emotional ramifications from a sense of loss and severe social interaction limitations.

In addition to providing a continuation of instruction and learning, educators had to reformat their teaching structures and strategies to engage students in meaningful and motivational ways. Across the country, we have seen the staggering statistics revolving around chronic absenteeism, disengaged learners, and “missing in action” students—all of which are even more dramatic within minority groups.

While I have long been involved in advocacy efforts at local, state, and national levels, this year it became even more important to focus those efforts as we look at the long-term impacts on a generation of learners who will be the next group to enter the workforce. Being able to make personal connections with our students empowers us to help reconnect them to school and know how best to advocate on their behalf.

I have learned three lessons in these last 18 months that coincide with the Leading Learning and Building Culture domains of NASSP’s Building Ranks™ model:

  • Making personal connections with students
  • Making efforts on behalf of our students
  • Contacting missing students

Making Personal Connections With Students

We know that when students have a strong sense of belonging and believe that adults in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals, attendance and achievement increase, and negative behaviors decrease. An abundance of research shows the importance of building relationships with students to connect them with school. Furthermore, we know that students who are connected with their schools show a significant reduction in negative health outcomes and adverse behaviors later into adulthood, as seen in studies noted by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Making Efforts on Behalf of Our Students

When the pandemic resulted in the complete closure of our campus, my team saw rapid changes regarding student engagement and participation. Our campus has a highly vulnerable population that has struggled disproportionately during the pandemic, and our attendance dropped from 94% to 72%. Many of our students needed to be caregivers for ill family members, nearly one-third lacked stable housing, and a quarter started to work full time or care for younger siblings at home.

To help, my administrative team and I worked alongside our nutrition services staff to bag and hand out meals to maintain visibility and interact with our families. Over the summer, we distributed 1,900 meals each day, and our school secretary established a clothing distribution closet. Our art department chair had already set up a toiletries and personal items closet for some of our students experiencing homelessness. She worked with the physical education staff to ensure that the students could enter the school early, shower in the locker rooms, and have their clothes laundered in the fashion design room. Soon, she was collecting travel-size toiletry items from staff and her social media network to assist our students. We gathered laundromat cards and grocery cards and worked with our counseling staff to identify the families with the most urgent needs.

We also began a daily blog to keep families informed and respond to frequently asked questions. Additionally, since the students were now in a virtual environment, I began live and recorded broadcasts. In the spring, staff members created slides that showed how they were coping with the pandemic to show the students how we could all handle this unexpected situation.

For the fall, we revised those slides to be “getting acquainted” slides so that the students, especially our freshmen, could get acquainted with staff as more than just a face on Zoom. Each club, team, sport, and career and technical education pathway generated a slide for the Feature of the Day to help students see how they could be a part of campus and find a family within the family. We ran a joke of the day submitted by students, a daily inspirational quote, and images from students to help everyone cope and be inspired. We uploaded these on YouTube and sent them out via email, three social media platforms, and text message. We recorded daily phone messages and added a rapid link box on our school webpage. Students then suggested creating a schoolwide Google classroom to post this and other pertinent information. Within a week, we had just under 1,500 of our 2,043 students join.

Contacting Missing Students

When we resumed instruction in fall 2020, we looked at our first month’s data and realized we needed to do more. Our attendance rates were dismal, and we had seen tremendous effects from COVID-19 loss. We lost a beloved former soccer coach, and I had conducted several graveside services for families. We wanted to hold on to our kids and reach the ones who had disappeared.

One of my assistant principals, Rich Pimentel, oversees attendance. He attempted to reach students who had stopped attending class via home visits. We assigned our clerical staff and paraeducators a caseload of missing students and asked them to make weekly phone calls and serve as mentors. We gave them scripts and guidelines for making contact and encouragement calls to students who did reengage. Pimentel then conducted between 12 and 18 home visits every Wednesday. For students with disabilities, I followed up, as I oversee that division of our campus. I also took my head counselor, Saul Martinez, with me to seek out families who were identified as experiencing homelessness before the pandemic. He had connections and was able to provide instant community services contacts for our families.

We frequented apartment complexes, trailer parks, motels, and the migrant camp. We took gifts of school bracelets, stickers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and sometimes food and clothing. For some of our kids who relied on the local fast food or Starbucks location to access Wi-Fi, we took them gift cards so they could snack on fries or a frappuccino.

What did we learn? We learned that every person who says students are not connecting because they can get away with it is wrong. We found one student watching younger siblings because her dad was on life support with COVID-19. We found students who walked to the local Starbucks to access Wi-Fi to submit assignments from the parking lot. We found a student who took over the family housekeeping business after her mom’s death so her two siblings could stay in school. We found a student taping his hotspot to the top of a ladder in the family’s kitchen, then waiting 20 minutes for a webpage to load. I found a student who, after I conducted a graveside service for his grandparent, asked if I would turn in his stack of assignments because he had no way to scan and send and no car to get to campus. We encountered disconnected phones, broken laptops, faulty Wi-Fi, and disabled video cameras. But we also encountered students who sincerely want to be resilient but must focus on their own physiological needs, safety needs, and psychological needs first.

As we all return to brick-and-mortar instruction, we seek to enhance academic performance, increase school completion rates, and see a reconnection to the social construct of school. But we must remember that at the heart of it all, building that personal relationship is what will develop the increased student connection to school and will allow us to focus on the whole child and yield a healthy and successful future generation.

Derrick Lawson is the principal of Indio High School in Indio, CA. He is also NASSP’s 2021 Advocacy Champion of the Year.