school

Staying Connected with Students During the Pandemic

The school serves 169 students, pre-school through grade 8. With fewer than 20 staff members, Nikki says it’s a tight-knit community. “It brings me to tears even now, just thinking about it,” she says of their last day together in March. “We tried to stay positive, hoping that we could come back to school after Easter. And yet, we had to also prepare for the worst-case scenario that we wouldn’t be back for the rest of the school year.”

“I’m a pretty strong person,” Nikki reflects. “But I was in tears saying goodbye to the kids. And they were wondering why I was crying. We’re a small school but a big family. We love to give hugs and high-fives. How do you explain to kids, without scaring them, that we can’t do that anymore?”
Nikki says utilizing e-learning technology had a steep learning curve, for the students, families and teachers. “Some of the teachers weren’t as tech savvy as others, but they were ready to dive right in for the good of the students,” Nikki remembers. “Everything was changing so fast. I’d send an email to the teachers with a plan, then five minutes later, that plan had changed. But we’ve been together as a staff for quite a few years, so we drew upon each other for strength.”

“One positive thing is that, last year, we implemented e-learning for our middle- schoolers for days when our school was closed due to snow or bad weather,” Nikki continues. “So, we had a little bit of experience with that, which helped out some. But it was still difficult.”

Since Arcadia is a rural community, some families don’t have internet access, while others may have a limited data plan, making e-learning more challenging. For those students, Nikki makes photocopies of educational materials being shared by the teachers through Google Classroom. Families either pick up the packet or she mails it to them each week. “We just keep communicating with parents and it’s working fine,” she says of the process.

Nikki says she stays in touch with parents through weekly emails. “I remind them to first take care of themselves and their families,” she says. “I also remind them to reach out to the teachers whenever they need help, especially for the younger kids who don’t have a lot of technology experience. They can always call their teacher on the phone.” Nikki says while using the provided educational material is an important part of at-home learning, parents have other options, too. “I encourage parents to read a book with their kids, or go outside on a scavenger hunt. Anything to keep their brains going.”

The teachers regularly reach out to students and their families via weekly video conferences or email. “It’s important for the kids to see their teacher’s face and keep that connection,” Nikki says. “The preschoolers may share what books they’ve been reading, while the older kids may talk about what they’ve been learning or what they’re struggling with. It’s a good time for the kids to open up to one another.”

Nikki says that taking time for human connection is always important, but especially during this pandemic. “Even for people like me who are introverts, being isolated from others can take a toll,” Nikki admits. She says in April, she emailed a survey to the older students, asking them what they missed most about school. “They said they missed just being able to give their classmates a high-five,” Nikki recalls. “They missed seeing everyone—not just certain people or their friends—everyone.”

Like other parents, Nikki has had to balance working at home while also overseeing her own daughter’s learning. “It’s hard to teach your own child,” she admits with a laugh. “I tell our parents to not stress over it, because it’s a whole different ballgame when Mom is teaching versus their teacher is teaching. Worst case scenario, they put learning aside for a while, go outside or read a book, and then try again later.”

Nikki believes it’s important for children to have some type of structure to their day. “We’re struggling as adults; I can only imagine what they’re feeling,” she says. “It’s so important for them to maintain some normalcy. Learning at home may be a different atmosphere, but their brains are still developing, and we’ve got to keep that moving forward.”

The pandemic has created many challenges for the school systems, and will continue to do so in the upcoming months. “There’s no handbook to help anyone through this situation. There isn’t anyone to go to and say, ‘When this happened before, what did you do?’” Nikki says. “You struggle with unanswered questions of: What’s coming next. What will the new normal be? No one can predict.” Even with this uncertainty, she’s looking forward to the time when the school doors will once again be open. “Just seeing the kids, that’s what I’m most looking forward to,” she says. “Having them all there, hearing the chatter in the hallways. That’s what a school should be.”

Yet even through the struggles and anxiety of the past few months, Nikki says she has also found many unexpected blessings. “The time at home has given me more of an opportunity to pray. I never had the opportunity to watch daily Mass, or pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet in the afternoon, but now I do,” she says.

The slower pace has also allowed for more family time with her husband and daughter. “Everyone has such busy lives, but now we have time for game nights and eating supper together. We were constantly on the go and barely spent weekends at home. But now, everything is shut down and it’s bringing families back together again.” Pausing, she adds thoughtfully, “We’ve gone back to a simpler life, putting aside material things and putting God first, praying, and finding out what’s really important. It’s been a special time to appreciate all those people who are really there for you in your time of need.”

Story by Mary Ellen Bliss
Published July/August 2020 Catholic Life Issue

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