Staying in Touch: Why Kids Need Teachers During Coronavirus School Closings

Elizabeth Raff recording a video for her students during COVID-19 related school closures.

On the second day of her school’s COVID-19 related closure, sixth-grade teacher Elizabeth Raff sent her students a video through Google Classroom. In it, she talked about what she had been up to, including celebrating her son’s second birthday at home, and she told her students that she missed them and wanted to hear how they were doing. She invited them to send her an email, and she promised to reply. Within a few hours, her inbox was flooded. 

While some schools around the country have initiated online instruction in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Penn Manor School District where Raff teaches in central Pennsylvania, is one of many districts that has not done so because of challenges in providing distance learning for all students. In a survey conducted by Education Week, 41 percent of school leaders said they could not make remote learning accessible to every student for even one day.

Though educators in such districts cannot teach classes or give assignments, they can still play a valuable role in their students’ lives by staying connected in this time of uncertainty and heightened anxiety. “We know that strong, secure bonds with our teachers are really important in social-emotional development. To suddenly lose out on that under such strange and unprecedented circumstances can be really hard on kids,” said Jamie Howard, a senior clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute and the director of the Center’s Trauma and Resilience Service. 

“We have physical distance, but we don't have to have emotional distance,” Howard said. As Raff saw with her students, hearing from their teachers provides young people comfort and consistency amid the disruptions caused by school closings and social distancing. 

Validating emotions and offering reassurance

By the end of the first week of her school’s closure, Raff had heard from at least 30 of the 70 sixth-graders she teaches. “It was very clear that the foundation of our classrooms is always relationships. That’s the one thing we need to focus on right now. We don’t need to focus on worksheets. We don’t need to focus on standards,” she said. “Those things will be waiting for us in the future.”

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Raff’s priority in communicating with students has been to ensure that they felt “safe, heard, loved and understood.” Many of her students who emailed her said they missed school.

“I really didn't want school to close. I knew that I would miss you too much and I do. I really want to see you again,” wrote one sixth-grader, who included a picture of her dog in her email. Another student talked about watching Frozen II, then shared, “As to how I feel, I feel nervous about this. All I know is I want to get back to school and see you guys (the teachers).”   

Howard said that many kids, like adults, find it hard to tolerate the uncertainty about when schools will reopen. In response, she said, teachers should validate the difficulty of the situation and reassure students that they will provide more information as soon as it’s known.

Some of Raff’s students expressed more specific COVID-19 infection anxieties, too. “I'm not worried about me getting it because so far it hasn't affected younger people as much. But, I am nervous because if I could get it, I could easily spread it to my Grandfather ... I would not want him to get sick, because it has really affects older people and many have died from it,” wrote one student.

When a child expresses specific fears, teachers should validate those feelings before trying to problem-solve, Howard said. Having the ear of a trusted adult can be reassuring. For example, the student above also told Raff: “I enjoy getting to write to you about what I've been doing and what's been on my mind. It makes me feel special.”

While Raff has connected with her students via videos and emails, other teachers might choose different modes of communication. According to Howard, a five-minute phone call can provide the kind of emotional support kids need. Howard also noted that it’s important to let a child’s caregiver know when a specific fear is expressed, so those adults can follow up.

Providing continuity and modeling resiliency

Although the current public health crisis has demanded flexibility from kids and grown-ups alike, small measures of routine can be comforting for students stuck at home. Raff, for example, tries to post a video check-in at the same time each day — after her son goes down for his afternoon nap.

“Kids thrive under conditions of routine and really love predictability,” said Howard. She also recommended that teachers consider ways to create continuity with what would usually be happening in the classroom right now. A teacher might, for example, might share what the classroom pet has been up to, or ask students to send pictures of artwork they’ve created at home.

Last week Raff posted videos of herself reading new chapters from The Mysterious Benedict Society, the novel her classes were reading together before school closed. In their emails, many students said they appreciated the read-alouds and encouraged her not to forget the next day’s chapter.

Around midweek Raff also began posting daily challenges to keep students engaged rather than getting bored at home. One such challenge encouraged students to test the most effective ways to keep ice cubes solid outside the freezer and the fastest methods for melting them. She invited students to share their results via Flipgrid, a video app that students already use in her classroom. Getting to see and hear each other created “a really warm feeling,” Raff said. She also said she tries to make the challenges a creative outlet, not something intense or overwhelming.

In addition to providing comfort and continuity, Raff’s communications during the first week of COVID-19 school closure modeled resilience and healthy responses to stress. “Kids learn so much from how adults respond to situations,” she said. “So seeing that we can be there for each other … I’m hoping they can see that I’m trying to respond in joy, not in fear, and that I’m trying to make the world a better place.”

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