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Preparing students for in-person school after pandemic pause

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Preparing students for in-person school after pandemic pause

  • Annie Holub's classroom, ready for students to return.
    Annie HolubAnnie Holub's classroom, ready for students to return.

About a month ago, after both my ex-husband and I were fully vaccinated, we decided to send our four-year-old daughter back to her preschool, which has been open since August.

She was so excited to go back that she could barely sleep the night before. I'm sure visions of swinging and climbing and painting and laughing with her friends filled her dreams as she finally slept.

But when I picked her up that first afternoon, she was quiet. Reserved. Dejected.

"How was your first day?" I asked her.

"Not what I expected," she sighed.

I flashed back to a session at work only a week or so earlier, where one of my colleagues, Tadeo Pfister, a teacher at Paulo Freire Freedom School University, brought up that when we go back to in-person learning, whenever it may be, that we'll need to consider the mental health of students. They'll probably need quiet places to be alone for a bit, he said. They'll probably need a lot of breaks. We probably can't have big groups congregate together at once; that'll be too much for some kids to handle. School will look very different. We have to prepare them for that.

Oh. Of course it wasn't what she expected.

And I failed to prepare her for that.

Her school totally provided me with detailed information, but I didn't even think about talking with her about what her expectations were and how those would or would not line up with reality. In-person school, even at a small preschool, is markedly different from how it was nearly a year ago when everyone left for spring break and never came back.

At my daughter's school, the playground is partitioned off so that cohorts of kids don't mix. They all wear masks when they're inside. The class is much smaller than it was. There are different teachers now. She missed the beginning-of-the-school year welcome-back transitions. The protocols are different--- she has to carry all of her own stuff in and out, as parents are not allowed past the front gate anymore. Since the church building that the school is housed in is mostly closed, too, my daughter lamented one morning that she misses hearing the bells ring throughout the day.

Even before Gov. Doug Ducey's executive order on March 3, I was planning to send my 2nd grader back to his TUSD elementary school.

My son's school principal held a series of office hours for parents where we could ask questions about the reopening, which has been immensely helpful for me so that I can help manage my son's expectations.

But Ducey's order caught the administration at the school I work at completely off guard. Everyone had to scramble to put together a plan. And as part of that plan, all of us have to make sure that we're preparing students for what to expect, and preparing ourselves for the very real possibility that students will struggle with the transition.

Even as I explained the governor's order to one of my senior English classes at City High School, the morning after it was issued, students started expressing anxiety and fear.

"Scary!" one student wrote in the chat. Another had to step away from class because they were feeling so overwhelmed by the very discussion of returning to in-person. Questions started pouring out.

So much has been said about students needing to return to school for the sake of their mental health.

But we're not returning to things as they were. While my classroom might have looked exactly like I just pressed "pause" on March 12, 2020, the day before spring break last year, it's not like we're all pressing "play" and things will just resume as they were.

Everyone will be wearing masks.

Class sizes will be different.

The use of space will be different.

We've spent a year avoiding other people outside of our families. Now we're supposed to jump back into the same room as several other people who are not our family, and be totally OK with it?

We need to make sure students know what to expect.

The Catalina Foothills School District knows about the importance of this. They've been holding classes in person since October. Kelsey Garcia Faber, a counselor at Manzanita Elementary School, said via email that at her school, "For our students, it was all about trying to give them predictability and stability. We pushed out a few short instructional videos about the new health procedures, all with a new emphasis on safety. For the elementary learners who were transitioning this trimester to in-person for the first time since being remote (we've already had a large group of in-person learners on campus since October) our focus was on having open conversations ahead of time with their remote teachers about the safety measures in place, and validating anything and everything that they were feeling."

My advisory at City High, composed of 11th graders, spent as much time as we could after Ducey's order having open conversations about how they are feeling about the return. I know many other advisories did the same. Kalyla Neiderhofer said "I feel like I lost all of my social skills." John Sax said it felt "sudden," and "jarring" and that he wished we had more time to prepare. Myles Holst-Reilly said, "I want it to be normal, normal-feeling."

In my regular classes, more of my students expressed that same sentiment: they didn't want to return until things were more normal; that they didn't want to go back to a socially distanced, mask-mandated environment. A couple only feel comfortable returning because they themselves have been vaccinated. Most of my Advisees elected to stay remote.

This week, over spring break, I went into my classroom and pulled out most of the desks. I pushed the couches against the wall and flipped one on top of the other so that it's obvious they're not to be used. What's left is a fraction of the energy my classroom had before. I took a picture, and I'll be sharing it with the students who are returning, so they can have a visual of what to expect.

In Tucson Unified School District, Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo has been holding town halls, and the Counseling Department has prepared a reopening plan to accommodate all students as they return.

"Students' mental health as well as their physical health is the number-one priority in TUSD," said Rebecca Carrier, the district's school counseling coordinator. "Counselors have been prepping students for their return to campus using social emotional classroom lessons, small group, and individual sessions. Many of these individual sessions involve the students' family and supplying local resources for any special needs the family may have."

Garcia Faber, the counselor at Manzanita, offered this advice to schools welcoming students for the first time since last March: "Any type of change, regardless of the feelings heading into it, is hard, both for students and adults. Being as open and transparent (age-appropriately) as possible is always helpful. It's vital to give them predictability, allowing them to envision changes before they happen, as much as possible. Giving students a space to reflect on how they are feeling about the changes happening around them can be powerful, and following that opportunity with validation is key."

"It's also important for us to follow their lead,' she said. "They are quite skilled at genuinely telling (more often, showing) us what they are thinking and how they feel. It's vital that we tune in and see their behavior as communication messages rather than maladjustment or choice. Our students are at the center of why we do what we do. In a time where good/'right' answers are often difficult to come by, you truly can't go wrong when you hold them in the forefront of all the adjustments."

And Jessie Petrillo, a counselor at Catalina Foothills High School, offered an observation that gives me hope for my own children and students: "Of the students who were struggling during remote learning, many of those who have been able to return to in-person learning have expressed an improvement in their mental health."

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