One Step at a Time: Helping Our Kids Transition Back to School
Ilana Garon is a writer, editor, and educator who has taught English (and sometimes math, in emergencies) in New York City, Nashville, and Kansas City. She is the author of “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?”: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (Skyhorse, 2013). Ilana is a military spouse currently stationed in Washington, DC with her family.
A month ago, I was talking with the middle school-aged daughter of a friend about the fact that in just a few weeks’ time—after a year of remote learning—she would be resuming in-person school. When I asked if she was looking forward to being with friends again in the classroom, she said she was, then added, “but I’m so nervous!”
She pointed out that, with the exception of a few close friends, “no one has seen me in a year.”
I asked about remote learning, pointing out that she surely has seen and been seen by some of her classmates on the computer screen.
She burst into giggles. “Yes, but now they’re going to see me for real!” she exclaimed, putting her hands to her face in a gesture of mock horror.
Exuberant as this tween was in the face of her nervousness, the feelings she articulated are very real, according to Dr. Rosemarie Foote, district school psychologist in Upper Merrion, Pennsylvania schools. “I think the biggest hurdle will be anxiety about going back in person. Kids got used to the new normal of being home, and now we’re switching it back on them,” she explains.
I also talked with Terra Greene, a grades 6-8 EL teacher in Washington, D.C., and Meaghan Foley, a dual-certified early childhood and students with disabilities educator in Poughkeepsie, New York about the challenges students are facing during this eagerly awaited, but somewhat fraught, back-to-school period. Our conversation focused not just on what kids are struggling with, but also how grown-ups can help them navigate yet another “new normal.”
A New Normal Where Nothing is Normal
“Normalcy will not be ushered in by trying to repeat what was, but rather by trying to leverage what has worked during the pandemic while incorporating the use of new tools,” Greene soberly observed, when I asked how teachers are feeling about this coming fall. While she acknowledges that many teachers and students long to “return to the way things were,” this may be impossible when, in many cases, students have been away from the traditional classroom for a year and a half.
Consequently, Greene shares Dr. Foote’s view that the biggest challenges students face will be social and emotional. Students “already know how school ‘works,’” Greene explains, “but we will all have to learn how to communicate and coexist in a learning environment where social distancing is the ‘new norm.’ Since the use of masks and other face coverings make reading facial cues nearly impossible, students will have to learn creative ways to communicate and interact with their teachers and peers.”
Foote observes that the social challenges of returning to traditional learning extend beyond the classroom. “Not being able to get together outside of school has made things even worse. Kids have been doing remote learning, and couldn’t see their regular friend group in person—and things may have shifted. Relationships may have changed,” she says.
Above all the potential social pitfalls, Foote urges teachers, parents, and caregivers to remember that many kids—particularly those who are not yet old enough to have received the COVID-19 vaccine—may be fearful of the possibility that they or a family member may become ill. “There’s a lot of anxiety, not just about returning to school, but about catching COVID-19—especially with the Delta variant. That’s a very real fear that they have.”
Making Up Lost Ground, One Step at a Time
As a teacher who specializes in learning differences, teacher Meaghan Foley is clear-eyed about the reality that many students have fallen behind during the months of remote learning. “Since COVID-19 began, there has been tremendous learning loss and regression across all grade levels. This upcoming school year, teachers and students will need to work together to play ‘catch-up,’” she explains. Foley advises that educators “will need to activate prior knowledge and do a lot of re-teaching. Core subjects, such as math and reading, will require intensive intervention for struggling students.”
While particularly true for ELLs and children with learning disabilities, Foley asserts that students across the board will be trying to bridge learning gaps from the previous year, and the challenge will extend to classroom comportment overall: “I believe that some students may now struggle with focusing on instruction delivered in the classroom setting. They will need continuous reminders of appropriate classroom behaviors, rules, and expectations,” Foley says.
Dr. Foote agrees that students may struggle in the classroom, not only academically, but in recalibrating appropriate behavior in a setting that no longer feels familiar. “There may be a little immaturity,” she explains, urging parents and teachers to be aware of this possibility, and not to be alarmed by what seems like a regression: “So if you’re a 4th grade teacher, some students may have behaviors that remind you of a 3rd grader, not just because they are behind academically due to having missed school, but also because of the anxiety.”
Finding Comfort in Routines
Grown-ups can work together to smooth the transition for kids of all ages. “Students should be assured that their voices matter, and that teachers are trying to ensure that learning is accessible to all,” Greene asserts. Teachers will be working at “finding the resources they need” to meet these challenges at school, and families can help a great deal at home. “They can continue to monitor their children’s progress throughout the school year. Inquire about their studies and ask them to share what they have learned that day or that week,” advises Greene.
Greene also encourages parents to enroll their children in groups or activities (in and out of school) that suit their interests: “These types of affiliations can positively contribute to improved emotional health and increased academic engagement and performance,” and serve as a positive outlet for some of the anxiety and difficulty they may face in the classroom.
Foley echoes Greene’s recommendations, saying that it’s helpful when parents and caregivers “assume active roles in their children’s education and help them develop a love for learning.” At home, she encourages extra involvement this year—“helping with homework and studying for tests, and assisting with projects will ultimately help kids put their best foot forward.”
Greene and Foley both recognize that parents may be essential workers, or they might be struggling with illness, but the importance of being present and involved in students’ education has never been greater. To support kids’ academic progress, Dr. Foote recommends parents take concrete steps: “They need to establish a routine before going back to school. Go to bed at the same time, eat meals at the same time. Try to establish as much structure as possible.” She also emphasizes the continued importance of a designated study space, even if “Zoom school” is no longer in session. Structure and routines, Foote contends, will help children feel safer as they ease into this transition.
“It’s Not Just You”: Keeping the Lines of Communication Open
Beyond academic preparation, Dr. Foote says it’s impossible to overstate the importance of simply talking to kids about everything that’s going on.
Grown-ups need to “remind their children that they can talk to them,” Foote says. “Kids get so caught up in returning to school, and so excited, that they forget to be vocal about their fears.” Gently encouraging them to speak about the challenges they are encountering, particularly those that are giving them anxiety, is important.
Another thing to remind kids: “You’re not alone,” Foote says. “You’re not the only one going through this. A lot of kids—because they are ego-centered in these primary grades—need to be reassured that everyone is in this together.”
Greene reflects that, in spite of everything that is different, some things remain the same. She stresses the importance of reminding children that, no matter how difficult the past year may have been, they “are all capable of success, without any exceptions.” Educators at all levels, administrators, and families need to work together “to encourage our scholars to persevere and embrace new learning experiences as we embark upon yet another year—even in the face of adversity and uncertainty.”