How These Districts Prioritized Relationships and Social-Emotional Support During the Pandemic

When schools shuttered suddenly more than a year ago, teachers and staff scrambled to recreate their school communities as best they could in a virtual environment. And while teaching and learning is a central component, not to be overlooked are the other, auxiliary experiences: the relationships forged, the support services provided, the social-emotional needs met.

As schools sought to provide high-quality instruction to their students during the pandemic, they also wrestled with how best to support the social, emotional, physical and mental well-being of their entire community—encompassing students, families and staff.

Those challenges were elevated to the national level on Wednesday, when the U.S. Department of Education highlighted two school districts’ solutions during its virtual National Safe School Reopening Summit, featuring remarks by an all-star cast that included First Lady Jill Biden, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden.

Staff and students from both school districts, Cajon Valley Union School District in California and Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma, emphasized the importance of building and maintaining relationships during the pandemic, including those between teachers and administrators, teachers and students, staff and parents, and schools with the surrounding community.

Their two unique approaches are described below.

A Focus on Connection in Cajon Valley

During remote learning last year, Cajon Valley administrators saw a need for greater engagement with students, families, staff and the community, said Karen Minshew, the district’s assistant superintendent. Since last March, Cajon Valley has held nearly 100 listening sessions in schools and district-wide.

“You hear things you don’t want to hear sometimes … hard things, “ Minshew said, “but you learn.”

For Shelly Smith, a first-grade teacher in the district, the town-hall-style meetings that brought together the teacher’s union and the school district were most constructive. The two groups—often at odds—were able to talk, set expectations and share experiences, “bridging a divide that has been in place for so long, building trust, laying that foundation,” she said.

“We have been able to share what we’re feeling, we’ve been able to ask questions, we’ve been able to share our concerns,” Smith added. “It hasn’t been perfect—there are a lot of growing pains—but I think what’s important is we are all hearing each other’s voices now. We’re moving in a positive direction.”

Nerel Winter, principal of Bostonia Language Academy, said his school—a Title I dual-language academy—“focused everything on the relationships” after the building was forced to close, recognizing that the uncertainty, the hardship, and the abrupt and dramatic change would take a toll on students and their families.

Bostonia rolled out an advisory system, Winter said, that sought to build “deep, connected relationships” with students, their parents and the community. Focused on counseling, dialogue and engagement, the goal of the advisory system was to make students and families feel like they could trust the staff at their school, and know that staff cared about each of them, Winter said.

Part of this work meant changing methods of communication to draw in more parents and caregivers. Winter began hosting the school’s town halls on Facebook Live. He also got on TikTok and learned some new dances, to better connect with his students.

The changes are noticeable, said Anisha Ward, an eighth grade student at Bostonia. The teachers at her school, she said, have made her “feel safe and cared about and comfortable.”

“They’re not only our teachers now,” the student said. “They’re our counselors. They’re our friends. We can go to them. We can talk to them. We have really strong relationships with them, and the communication is really strong there, especially with the parents. This time has been difficult, and they’ve been helping a lot with that.”

Two Strategies at Tulsa Public Schools

From the moment schools closed last spring, the staff at Tulsa Public Schools were focused on safety, said superintendent Deborah Gist. That meant COVID-19 safety, but also emotional and mental safety, physical and psychological safety.

One of the ways the district followed through on that commitment was through the launch of “wellness teams.” These teams, set up at each school in the district, might include an attendance clerk, a social worker, a parent facilitator, a school administrator and more.

“The wellness teams were designed to meet the technological, social, emotional, attendance and health needs of our students and to ensure we took care of the whole child,” said Ebony Johnson, chief learning officer for the district.

Whatever needs a student or adult in the district had, wellness teams were on hand to support those individuals however they could. They also made direct phone calls and took surveys to check how families were doing. The results of those efforts are recorded and kept up to date in the district’s “wellness data tracker,” which also helps allot and mobilize resources, Johnson said.

The district also introduced “Care and Connect” centers, which provide students with physical, in-person spaces where they can come and talk to or work with a trusted adult. Some students may need technology support. Others might seek one-on-one tutoring. Still others may take advantage of counseling services.

Through the centers, the district also ensures students are fed and that they’re connected to the social services they typically received before the pandemic.

The Care and Connect program was an instant success, Johnson said. “We had teachers contacting us, telling us, ‘Thank you so much. Even in small groups, we wanted to lay eyes on them.’ And students were saying, ‘I’m so glad I could get support.’”

The centers were launched during remote learning last year, when many students were struggling, at home, with their schoolwork as well as with feelings of loss and isolation. But even as Tulsa began in-person learning four days a week, the district opted to keep Care and Connect centers open and available on the fifth day of the week.

Giana Alexis, an 11th grader in Tulsa Public Schools, said she still goes to Care and Connect on Wednesdays, her distance-learning day, and that the “emotional support” she gets there has been invaluable.

“Sometimes, just being able to come up to the school and talk to the teacher about things going on in your life is really helpful,” she said.

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