A year ago, local schools shifted almost overnight to distance learning. Currently, both FSD and FJUHSD offer a hybrid, in-person learning option, yet over 50% of the student populations of both districts are attending the entire school year as distance learners. Many educators and parents worry about the emotional repercussions on children of the long-term educational changes caused by the pandemic’s interruption of daily, in-person learning. Both Fullerton School District (FSD) and Fullerton Joint Union High School District (FJUHSD) teachers received social and emotional learning guidance along with some trauma-informed training to help mitigate the stress caused by distance learning and other pandemic challenges.
It is clear that students learn in different ways and have many different needs. Some students are not experiencing a great deficit by participating in distance learning during this time. They seem to work better when they can get up and move around and there is less distraction from the other students. However, many other students are dealing with trauma and deep depression aggravated by distance learning along with other aspects of the pandemic, including grief and economic hardships that challenge many students’ coping skills. Presently, most available information concerning student emotional and academic stress is available only through individual narratives, not statistically-based research. I asked local educators to share their observations and how they are coping with distance learning issues for their students.
Distance learning and hybrid schedules force teachers to utilize completely new teaching methods, upend their routines, while simultaneously requiring them to monitor students’ education and emotional well-being. Beniy Waisanen, a fourth grade GATE teacher in FSD, told me that building a respectful relationship with his students is elemental in order for learning to occur. In this challenging environment he works daily to build this relationship with all his students, including almost half of whom he has never met in person. He allocates time each morning to check in and talk with his students about topics that are not always related to current class subjects. He also creates breakout groups for his students to have time to communicate together as a class, even if all are not physically present.
Junior high and high school teachers have more limited time, so Dannica Perez, a science teacher at FUHS, monitors her student’s stress levels and emotional temperature during a daily attendance process including an option for students to personally email her to share their concerns.
Sharon Hollon, a Social Science teacher at FUHS, gives her students a little extra attention on their birthdays by singing to them upon request. While many teachers wish for more face-to-face interaction, they realize that students resist turning on their cameras for many reasons, including feeling uncomfortable showing themselves or their home environment on camera. Many teachers are finding multiple ways to get students to turn on their cameras for a few minutes by sharing pets, siblings, and even changing filters and backgrounds.
Education counselors realize that teaching and learning under these conditions is stressful for everyone, even people who only show up as a name on a computer monitor. FUHS Counselor Erin DeFries has coordinated with teachers, counselors, and the Associated Student Body (ASB) to bring a collection of “Brain Breaks” to the students (available to anyone who wants to take a 3-5 minute break) at www.fjuhsd.org/page/4470. There, students can take a break from the computer and choose from topics ranging from breathing, walking, laughing, and just doing nothing for 2 minutes. (It’s harder than it sounds).
Despite the focus on learning loss during a pandemic, a March 5 Ipsos/NPR poll asked over 1000 parents about their children’s pandemic education experiences. As in Fullerton’s local school districts, the poll found that over 50% of students are staying in distance learning even with an in-person option. Over 80% of the parents felt their children were on track or higher for reading, writing, and math core subjects, with their biggest worry focused on time management. A majority of parents also support various enrichment learning options. Over 82% felt that schools and teachers had communicated well with parents. The poll considered ethnicity/race, language, income, education, and urban/rural communities.
It is too early to gauge student overall pandemic learning loss or emotional trauma. Teachers have invested an enormous amount of time to create innovative lessons and opportunities to engage their students during this pandemic year. Many are putting in long workdays to teach, plan, and communicate with students and parents. Teachers, parents, and students will need to continue communicating with each other as assessments reveal educational and emotional areas of student need.
This is a time to allow teachers and students to reassess and embrace options that produced positive academic and care results during the pandemic, even when students return to daily, in-person learning. The pandemic has forced educators and students to embrace so many academic changes, and though we all yearn to return to many old ways, this is also an opportunity to continue offering students these newly-discovered ways to achieve academic success and emotional support.