2020: The Back to School Season, Rollercoaster in the Dark Edition
It’s hard to believe the summer is over and I’m preparing for back-to-school without the benefit of travel, time with family, and social activities my summers typically provide. Even the ability to disconnect from school was very difficult to achieve in the summer of 2020 as extra preparation for 20-21 was needed while we were awaiting delayed graduation ceremonies, proms, and other year-end traditions. The constantly changing climate of society and education thrust us into a summer of professional development on everything from anti-racist activism to technology platforms to social-emotional support for students and staff. Unfortunately, it also means many of us are preparing to return to school with feelings of anxiety over safety concerns of in-person instruction, concerns about our ability to deliver online instruction, and being overwhelmed by managing both in hybrid models. Not to mention the fact that whatever we are preparing for will undoubtedly change (possibly multiple times) in the weeks, days, and even hours leading up to the first day.
As we prepare, there will be more questions than answers—and while we are all wired differently, I find the best strategy for hitting a moving target is to mentally prepare for all possible scenarios.
Here are some things I am thinking about:
When it comes to scheduling, your school’s format is driving your processes right now. If you are all virtual your process is likely similar to normal. If you are all in-person, you are likely considering class sizes to maximize social distancing and balancing class sizes is more critical than simply desirable. But many schools are changing things entirely—moving to a hybrid and or block schedule. This involves looking at specific class composition to get as close to a 50% balance as possible from day 1 to day 2 or adjusting the daily schedule to accommodate a block schedule. Most schools have also offered families the option of fully remote in lieu of any in person attendance. In those cases, you should be considering which classes are not conducive to remote learning based on required materials, or as in the case of CTE programs, required hands-on components which cannot be replicated in an online setting. For your potential college athletes, you will need to consider how full remote learning may impact athletic eligibility and advise accordingly. It will also be imperative to continue to remain tuned in to state departments and board of education for any changes to instruction and/or graduation requirements and be prepared to pivot!
In our role as advocates for all students, it will be critical that we are vocal in addressing the myriad equity and access issues. How will students with limited connectivity/lack of device meet virtual learning expectations? How will we meet the needs of students who rely on school for meals? What about our students with learning challenges?
When it comes to our comprehensive counseling programs, as school counselors, we already “beg, borrow, and steal” instructional time from our teacher colleagues in order to address our program standards and meet student needs. If some or all of your students will be working virtually, you will need to determine how you will have reliable access to ALL students which may take administrative support. Also important to consider is how your program will continue if you are quarantined, as most schools don’t get a sub for the school counselor.
Testing will invariably look different this year, but in most cases, will still be required. What plans will be in place for testing your remote learners? If you will have different students attending different days, how will your testing schedule need to be adjusted to ensure all students have equal opportunities and still meet the security standards dictated by the testing provider?
Post-secondary advising will take on a life of its own, as most schools with any form of in-person instruction will be restricting visitors. As admission requirements are changing rapidly in the post-secondary world, our access to college admissions staff will be limited to virtual interaction and it will be more important than ever to encourage our students to ask a lot of questions. Campus visits will likely be unavailable as universities seek to limit their Covid exposure as well. In the current state of the economy, there may be less opportunities for new graduates who choose not to seek higher education or who choose a gap year to find living wage employment.
And weighing heavily on me beyond the chaos of the unknown is meeting the additional social-emotional needs of our students and staff. Mental health needs have grown throughout the pandemic and have been exacerbated by isolation, lack of access to services, and racial tensions. Additionally, students and staff members may have lost a friend or family member without the opportunity to say goodbye and/or fears of losing additional loved ones as the pandemic continues. I always recommend a school have a plan in place for addressing the loss of a student or staff member. For obvious reasons, this becomes more relevant than ever, but if the loss is Covid-related, the response and support will likely need to look different as a result of social distancing, contact tracing, and mandatory quarantines.
There is so much to consider, but in the end, remember: you can’t pour from an empty cup. Be deliberate about self-care in a way you have never done before. Use your resources—you don’t have to do it all yourself! And find your village. Who can you go to to rant, laugh, and fill your cup? Find those people for yourself and seek to be that person for others. Together we will get through the most challenging phase of our professional careers and we will support our students through a time they will always remember.