Schools unearth positive lessons from COVID-19 experience
School district leaders and a clinical psychologist share travails and triumphs during the COVID-19 pandemic
Though COVID-19 numbers have begun to wane, school districts across the nation continue to face pandemic-related stressors: communicating with parents, ensuring appropriate social distancing, masking, and air quality protocols, and striking a balance between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning.
Legat Architects reignited its EDengage series with a virtual discussion that assembled superintendents, facilities directors, and even a wellness coordinator. Participants represented districts ranging from 300 students (Rockdale School District 84 in Joliet, Illinois) to 47,000 students (Columbus [Ohio] City Schools). Some of these districts have been in school every day since August of last year, while others continue to operate solely via remote learning.
Among the topics discussed were achieving optimal air quality, remote learning snafus, and the psychological toll that COVID-19 has taken on students, teachers, and parents. Despite all these pressures, many session participants have not only observed positive outcomes during the pandemic, but also have assumed a bright outlook on the future.
Clinical psychologist Doug Bolton, PhD, who has spent his career working with school districts, said, “I think that lessons learned during the pandemic can spur innovation in school districts in a way that nothing in the last hundred years has.”
Dan Riordan, superintendent of Reavis High School District 220 (Burbank, Illinois), used a spinning plates analogy to shed light on what districts have experienced. “During COVID, clearly those plates that previously were not getting a lot of attention are now getting much more. The pandemic helped put a focus on what we’re good at, but it also shined a light on weaknesses or problems.” He urges districts to rely on the strengths they’ve discovered, but also to take steps to address the shortcomings.
Other participants commented on the critical role of communication . . . with teachers, students, and community members. “Part of that communication tool is empathy,” said Dr. Paul Schrik, superintendent of Rockdale School District 84 (Rockdale, Illinois). “I’ve never had to look through that lens as much as I have this past year. We don’t always agree, but empathy helps.”
“I think that lessons learned during the pandemic can spur innovation in school districts in a way that nothing in the last hundred years has.” – Dr. Doug Bolton
The topic of snow days also arose—what does the COVID-forced rapid advancement of remote learning mean for the future of snow days? Some think they will become a thing of the past, while others have a different perspective. For instance, after debating if a December day of inclement weather should be a remote learning day or a snow day, Bedford Public Schools (Massachusetts) Superintendent Philip Conrad and his staff determined to “give everyone an old-fashioned snow day to relax.” Brian Bruggeman of KLH Engineers shared that during the pandemic, his children’s district had four extra days off (one a month) to “factor in mental health to mitigate the stress and give the kids a day to breathe.”
Dandelions and Orchids: Resilience is the Norm
According to Bolton, mental health issues in children have increased over the last couple of generations. Suicide, withdrawal, anxiety, and depression have become major concerns among parents and schools. Add to this the stresses of the pandemic and it paints a grim picture. However, all is not lost. Bolton contends that “this pandemic can reverse the epidemic of mental health problems.” And to what does he attribute this belief? The answer lies in the way that we experience and understand stress, as well as in dandelions and orchids.
Bolton cited a stress perception study whose conductors followed for several years two groups of people: those who thought stress makes people stronger and those who thought stress has a negative health impact. The study revealed that those who had a positive attitude about stress enjoyed good health, while those in the latter group suffered negative health outcomes. What it boils down to, according to Bolton, is that “our thoughts about stress have a greater impact on our health and functioning than the actual stress does.”
Bolton also shared Dr. W. Thomas Boyce’s research-driven categorization of children into “dandelions” (i.e., those who are resilient despite the circumstances) and “orchids” (i.e., students who require extra care whether they are in a positive or negative setting). If we think about this in terms of COVID, perhaps the latter group includes the elementary student who skips online learning sessions or shows up but is not really present . . . or the highly extroverted high schooler who struggles with depression due to restricted social interactions. Bolton encourages educators to stop worrying so much about the dandelions and start pouring more resources into the orchids.
Since most kids can be classified as dandelions, said Bolton, “resilience is the norm, not the exception. The only way kids can develop resilience is by experiencing stress. Dandelion kids can really take just about anything that the world throws at them. They will have their struggles, but in the end, they will thrive.”
During Bolton’s talks with schools, many administrators have expressed surprise at how well their students fared during COVID. “This is not to say that this is all rosy,” he said, “but it is to say let’s be sure we’re focusing on the kids who need the most help and let’s remember that most of these kids are going to be okay.” Bolton did caution, however, that wholly embracing “tragic optimism” (i.e., maintaining a positive outlook during traumatic times) might ignore some of the real stresses that children are under.
Post-traumatic Growth: Connecting with Confidence
The pandemic has forced districts throughout the nation to pivot quickly. They have adopted new grading methods and established new teaching strategies, but they have also learned about managing stress and achieved a flexibility that they previously thought unattainable.
“We have used the dandelion/orchid experiment over and over this year,” said Nick Henkle, superintendent at Channahon School District 17 (Illinois). “Most of the kids are thriving in person and online, but there is that group that we have to be right there with to help them through it. We’ve been saying, ‘If we can do this, then what can’t we do as a community?’”
Although we frequently hear about post-traumatic stress, points out Bolton, a more common outcome of trying times is post-traumatic growth. After people undergo stressful situations, he said, “they feel more flexible and more connected to people.”
“We’ve been saying, ‘If we can do this, then what can’t we do as a community?’” – Nick Henkle, Superintendent, Channahon School District 17
Several EDengage participants echoed Bolton’s sentiment. Dan Riordan has asked students what they miss the most from the pre-COVID days. Typically, the answer involves spending face-to-face time with friends, whether in the academic setting or at a game. He said, “I refuse to believe that because of this, we’ll have a new generation of adults who want to stay at home behind their screens. Eventually, people need to be around people. We are sophisticated human beings that need connection.”
Scott Gaunky, director of facilities at Lincolnshire-Prairie View School District 103 (Lincolnshire, Illinois), explained how his district has encouraged community members to commit to doing their part (e.g., social distancing, masking) to ensure the kids can come back safely. “You need to look at yourself first,” he said, “what you’re able to do for yourself and your families to set an example.”
What all this points to is having confidence that when the pandemic finally dissipates, our districts and students will move forward with renewed enthusiasm and a more diverse toolbox. In the meantime, let’s all work together to identify those orchid students and give them the support they need (instead of more discipline) to thrive.
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