The new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic are starting to set in this week. For educators, that means disrupted routines and a shift to online learning at many schools. In the United States so far, 46 states have decided to close schools, affecting more than 54 million students nationwide. That’s 54 million students out of a total of about 56 million in the country.
And no one knows how long this will last. Some have noted that this feels like the first few steps of a marathon.
This week on the podcast, EdSurge spoke with Christine Elgersma, a senior editor of social media and learning resources at the nonprofit Common Sense Media. As both a parent and a former teacher, Elgersma understands just how much is being asked of educators and families right now.
Elgersma offers some actionable advice for teachers and parents looking to better support their children—and themselves. Among other points, she says that human connection is more critical than instructional time right now, and that educators and parents should let themselves off the hook a little bit, since these are unprecedented times and no one can be expected to handle it perfectly.
Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Given how surreal and, frankly, scary these circumstances are, I first just want to check in and ask: How are you doing?
Christine Elgersma: I am OK. I actually have a cold right now, so I apologize for the stuffiness, but yeah, I'm doing OK.
Where are you calling in from and how is that different from your normal work arrangement?
I am currently calling in from my home, which is just outside San Francisco, and our main office is in the city of San Francisco. So yeah. So I'm here at home, as most of us are.
This week’s podcast is brought to you by “The State of Online STEM Education'' an upcoming national survey of the online STEM landscape created by Every Learner Everywhere and Online Learning Consortium.
Share your experience in these areas; Effectiveness, Opportunities, Challenges, Equity & Access.
At what point do you feel like you had a wake-up call about COVID-19, where you said to yourself, ‘OK, this is going to possibly change everything about our daily life’?
I think when the news stories started to [break], it felt like dominoes started to fall, so school's closing here, rumors of schools maybe closing, and then I could feel the momentum building. I think that was the moment for me where I knew everything was about to really change.
A lot has happened since then. It seems like a lot is happening every day. And of course our nation's educators are bearing the brunt of that with abrupt school closures and indefinite return dates. So let's start there. I know Common Sense has come up with some resources to help educators navigate this new reality. Can you tell us a little bit about those?
Yes, and I'll just start by saying that I am a parent and I was a teacher. So just thinking about what teachers are going through right now, it's really intense, and to have to make that switch so quickly and on the fly and figure this all out is really quite something. And so, I know that there are a lot of resources coming at them right now. So hopefully what we have available will be streamlined enough that it can be really helpful and kind of take them through what they need.
But what we've tried to do is break it down into ways to organize yourself as a teacher, to plan to figure out what method you want to use to connect with kids, whether you're going to do it asynchronously or live stream, and then ways to actually deliver the material. There are so many options, so I think making those decisions first is a good place to start.
A lot of schools are going to be turning to virtual learning in the coming weeks and possibly months. What advice do you have for those that are ramping that up?
I think for schools that are trying to do remote learning, some advice I've heard from teachers who are doing it already is that they should really focus on the basics. So you won't be able to do everything you were going to do or what you planned to do, so you've got to really focus and streamline—figure out how you're going to connect with your students.
And I think, if it's possible, some kind of [video-based] connection at least a little bit a day is really helpful for both you and the kids because, as we know, that connection with the teacher is really important. It keeps the structure and also it's just that human element that might help kids feel a little bit less anxious.
And then we have to talk about digital citizenship also because if all learning is on the computer, we have to set some boundaries around that. So it's important to talk about how to be kind, how to use the chat if they can use the chat, and what it means to be communicating via maybe just text. So [things like] tone, audience and who you're talking to.
[And it’s] boundaries around how to behave on screen, how to behave with teachers online, how to behave with other students online—those are some things that teachers can address very directly. So what are the limits, what are the rules going to be and be very explicit about what kids can and cannot do.
One of the things featured on the Common Sense website is resources for promoting well-being. Can you share some of those strategies?
Well, I think building in breaks is really important. So generally during the school day, kids and teachers are going to have at least some chunks of time that are natural breaks. And if you're doing remote learning, you may have to build those in very deliberately and make sure that kids are getting outside if they can, moving around.
Those movement breaks are really important for both teachers and students—getting outside, getting some fresh air, especially when we're all feeling a little bit trapped.
Of course there are meditation apps, there are deep breaths and stretches. As an organization, we actually did a stretch together on screen and it was really great. It just felt very connected and I think it made us all feel a little better.
Things like that can really break up the day and address that human element that we need to move our bodies, we need to breathe, we need to have breaks built in.
And then for teachers, It's really important to let yourself off the hook a little bit. It's not going to be perfect. And I think there are lessons within the lessons that can come with this whole experience. … When there are problems, we [can be] modeling problem solving. If there are glitches, we're modeling perseverance. So I think there are a lot of ways that this experience can be instructive in ways we might not expect and might not be part of the set curriculum.
[Teachers can be] looking for opportunities to let student-led instruction or project-based learning happen. Maybe you haven't tried before … and this might be the time to try them. And if they don't work, it's OK.
What guidance do you have for teachers working with and supporting families during this time, because of course parents are in a unique situation as well?
It's really important to be in contact, to have a closed loop, because we are all in this together. So communicating with parents and getting feedback from parents ... is really important. For administrators, it would also be great to get some feedback and find out how things are going and to try to get in touch.
Equity is something we also need to talk about because some families do not have the same resources, and so if you're setting up online learning, there will be families who may not be able to do that easily.
So there are some resources like Everyone On or PCs for People that administrators can help facilitate for their community members to use, if online learning is the way that they're going to go. But yes, I think using tools like Remind; TalkingPoints, which is multilingual; Zoom; Google Meets, all of those tools just to close the loop and stay connected. Communication is key, especially during times like this.
You keep coming back to connection—that kids need assurance right now, perhaps more than they need the content of an academic lesson.
Yes, and I've read some articles and I've seen some posts about worries that students might fall behind, that they aren't going to get the same instruction, et cetera. And I think there are valid concerns, [but] at the same time, I think we can't put that kind of pressure on ourselves or on the kids, especially right now. It's very true that they may not get the same kind of instruction or make the same kind of progress. But I think that's OK. And I think we're all doing our best. And again, there may be other valuable pieces to this experience that may not translate into something they're tested on but still could be a great learning experience.
Common Sense also put together some resources for parents and families. What do those look like?
We have a ton of stuff for parents, and I think since kids are getting so much information about coronavirus and what's happening right now, we don't want to inundate kids with the 24-hour news cycle for sure. So we want to limit how much they have to hear and see about this and what information they do get, we want to make sure it's child-appropriate and accurate.
So if they're going on YouTube and searching for lots of videos, it's possible they'll run into misinformation or disinformation. So we want to make sure that they're getting their information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and reliable sources of information just to protect and give them that news literacy piece.
But again the calming of anxiety is really important for both. Kids pick up what we're putting down as parents, so if we're anxious—and a lot of us are—kids are probably absorbing some of that. So the more that we can calm ourselves and kind of communicate that to our kids—that day by day, we're together, we're OK, we'll just take it one step at a time. That can help ease kids' fears.
And of course we have tools, meditation tools, mental health tools and apps that parents can look into as well. But getting out and moving as we were talking about is also really important because that sense of being pent up can also translate into more anxiety, feeling more amped up. So using any kind of tool. My daughter loves Ring Fit, which is on Nintendo Switch. So if you're trapped inside that's a good way to go. Just Dance, doing yoga, YouTube videos, old-school Twister, there are all kinds of options to keep yourself moving and a little bit less anxious.
You mentioned your daughter. How old is she, and can you share maybe how you have been talking with her about the coronavirus?
She is 10 and so far she is loving online school. She likes it very much. And I don't get the sense that she's extremely anxious about it, which is good. But we definitely, we try to let her take the lead in terms of how much information she wants. So we've talked about it, but we have tried not to over-talk about it or give her information that she's not looking for. And I think the togetherness, the connection between us as a family is also really calming for kids.
So I think some kids are going to look back on this time … and they're like, “Wow, both of my caregivers were home,” or “My mom got to be home,” or whatever the case is. And so it could be actually a great memory, and that's what I'm trying to keep my eye on, the positivity that could come with it, the opportunities that are coming. Which isn't always easy. I'm not doing it perfectly. I have my moments, but yeah, that's my goal.