The African Maasai are famed for their strength and mental acuity. Yet, their greeting to one another carries a message about what truly makes them heroic: “Kasserian Ingera.” Translation: “And, how are the children?”
It’s a greeting we should all be asking today as our students face a new normal of “shelter in place.” Vast numbers of teachers, administrators, students, and their families and caregivers had to quickly pivot from their typical routines to having students take their work home due to the widespread impact of COVID-19. As of today, 46 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have closed all public schools, with few teachers prepared to move to a virtual learning environment and even fewer parents ready to homeschool their children.
At this unprecedented moment, it is crucial for parents/caregivers and teachers to work together on a plan for students to continue their learning experiences at home. School districts, policymakers, and communities also must create a united front to ensure the most vulnerable of our students—including those who are students of color, who are homeless, who live in economic poverty, who are anxious or living with trauma, or who are challenged by one-size-fits-all programs for varied reasons—have their needs met, too.
What do parents need to help them carry this new responsibility, with many juggling childcare with their own work from home or the stress of losing a job? And, what do teachers need to help them develop remote learning plans, while still attending to the social and emotional needs of each student?
While this new reality won’t be easy, the good news is there are many resources to help educators and parents navigate the road ahead. For instance, Learning Heroes, a nonprofit organization that equips parents to support learning at home, worked with partner organizations to update The Learning Hero Roadmap, a free K-8 interactive guide with videos and tools to help parents support grade-level math and reading as well as social-emotional development. The bilingual (English/Spanish) mobile-first digital tool was informed by what parents say they need and developed by leading content experts. As teachers look for supplemental material to send home, they can share this Roadmap with parents via school portals, email, social media platforms, and texting. Organizations and coalitions including Learning Keeps Going, Tech for Learners, Google, and Digital Promise have also compiled lists of resources from various education organizations as well as available edtech products.
In addition to sharing quality, parent-friendly, digital resources to support home learning, it’s critical to address and consider the Digital Learning Gap that is being further exposed. For example, Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union as well as founder/mom-in-chief of Massachusetts Parents United, noted that kids still showed up at the bus stops on the first morning schools were closed. Why?” she asked. “Parents aren’t getting the message.” She added that “the challenge is supporting parents who can’t engage with the infrastructure/technology.” Rodrigues’ idea is to create “a public broadcasting/ethnic media push with a simple web form and hotline number to reach all parents with information.” She points to Boston Public Schools as a positive example of a school district trying to reach every student; they worked to provide online curriculum, Chromebooks and wifi for their 20,000 students this week.
Across the country, several school districts are diligently working to try and bridge the digital divide as best they can. For example, Lindsay Unified School District in central California and Morris School District in New Jersey, working in partnership with the private sector, designed and implemented community wifi programs that give students and parents free at-home internet access.
Matt Miller, superintendent of Lakota School District in Ohio, says his district is addressing issues of equity, including an expansion of an existing program that gives every student in grades 7-12 a personal device to ensure even the youngest students have digital access by sharing with older siblings. District leaders are also looking into ways to bring wifi to every student in the community, and they have set up a program that delivers food to students throughout their neighborhoods.
In addition to ensuring students’ ongoing academic learning, many school leaders are continuing to consider students’ social and emotional needs. One pillar of El Segundo Unified School District’s Profile of A Graduate calls for students to become “Responsible, Self-Directed, and Resilient,” and the district is continuing to utilize the RULER, an evidence-based tool, to develop this pillar. Superintendent Melissa Moore believes that because RULER starts with adults first, helping them better understand and be mindful of their emotions, “my administration team and teachers are better equipped to deal with a crisis because we are more in touch with our feelings and, in turn, can be more sensitive to the disequilibrium students are feeling.”
Miller agrees that the social and emotional well-being of teachers, students, and families is a priority. In particular, the Lakota team is working hard to stay connected and continue to build relationships with all stakeholders in their public education system. Besides emailing teachers and families, the district is active on social media and Miller uses video messaging to the entire district and to staff three times a week to keep them up to date on information and in good spirits. Soon, the district will launch a Zoom program designed to provide one-on-one and class instruction, with an eye toward helping students stay connected with friends and their teachers. A district team of wellness specialists have also developed tips and resources to help everyone through the COVID-19 crisis—from ideas to manage anxiety and stress, to activities that encourage students to continue practicing healthy habits.
Parents can be key players in integrating social, emotional, and academic learning at home. Learning Heroes partnered with WNET to create Parenting Minutes videos, featuring real parents sharing their ideas and strategies on how to help children with “life skills” such as communication, expressing emotions, and labeling feelings. With children at home full time, it’s a chance for parents to look at the big picture of their children’s academic and developmental progress so they can help identify their strengths and areas for growth and better partner with their child’s teacher.
Digital Promise’s Learner Variability Navigator has also created public workspaces typically used for teachers, but now extended to parents. One workspace weaves academic strategies parents can use at home with social and emotional activities to create powerful home-based learning experiences. For example, when parents are ready, they can help their children develop a growth mindset or engage in mindfulness activities, skills even more critical during the COVID-19 crisis. Each strategy includes video from a classroom that can help both parent and child see how it works.
With constant COVID-19 updates and increasing stress about our children and parents’ health and safety, we need to band together to ensure all students have the basics to learn. These basics include food, a safe and healthy living environment, and an understanding of the variability of who they are and what they need to absorb this new normal and continue their learning journey. It also includes digital access and quality online learning opportunities. We need research-based professional development and strong collaborations between teachers and parents.
As we pull together resources and collaborative efforts for the COVID-19 crisis, let’s not stash them away on a shelf once this health scare is over. Let’s use this time to build on an education system that smoothly merges classroom and at-home learning and provides our most vulnerable students with what is essential to meet their diverse needs.
And, how are the children? Just fine, we want to say.
Visit Digital Promise’s Online Learning Resources Library, where we are compiling some of the best resources and exemplars for schools and families preparing for online learning in response to COVID-19. You can also visit bealearninghero.org for free, bilingual digital tools to help parents support grade-level math and reading skills as well as social and emotional development.