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COVID-19 and Virtual Learning: How We're Supporting Each Other in My School District

Standing in the gap is a biblical term that refers to someone standing in the gap of a wall that has been breached and needs to be filled to protect from enemies. For our learners, their usual wall of protection certainly has a gap now, and many of them will need us to stand in it for and with them. This time of COVID-19, schools closing their physical walls and social distancing is scary for everyone. It creates uncertainty about our world that is unsettling and filled with anxiety for many people, but especially for those with previous mental health concerns.

I have seen many posts on social media and have heard from close friends and family that this last week was hard for them. The reality of our current situation, which once seemed novel, is starting to feel very real. People are beginning to know someone personally who is ill, which makes it all even more real and frightening. The level of fear and isolation can be really dangerous for people, especially for our learners who rely heavily on their support system at school. We did our first two suicide risk assessments last week based on comments learners made on an online platform or in a video conference. Finding ways to support our learners’ emotional well-being is always important, but it has taken on a whole new meaning now.

We had the opportunity to have Hakeem Rahim for our opening day speaker a few years ago. He shared his story of realizing he has bipolar disorder at the age of 17 while he was attending Harvard University after being named the first African-American male valedictorian at his high school. His message for us that day was about how important it is to remove the stigma of having a mental health issue and be open to talking about it. He shared a message of hope to move beyond our lowest lows and find a way forward. In a speech he gave for the National Alliance for Mental Illness, he said, “If we can intentionally say I accept what I am going through. If we can say that because I’ve accepted what I am going through, there’s absolutely no shame, and there’s absolutely no more hiding. If we can understand that acceptance builds a space for possibility and if we understand that if we are diagnosed with a mental illness, there is hope, we have won, and we have been transformed… You must believe that somebody out there believes in you even when you do not believe in yourself. ”

I have been thinking about his message a lot this week as things started to feel more grim. It is so important to find connections to others and believe there is somebody out there who believes in you. I have seen the amazing ways our educators are continuing and deepening their relationships with learners over our last two weeks of distance learning. They are finding new and exciting ways to check-in with learners and make sure they are OK. Teachers are hosting class meetings, online recess, dance parties and spirit weeks as well as driving through neighborhoods to show signs and wave to learners. Our elementary teachers are sharing stories of video lunches where suddenly the whole family was there having lunch with the teacher. They are sharing stories of the connections being made between learners and their own families as they are all at home and sometimes end up on the video chats as well. They are writing notes of support and encouragement and sharing messages of hope. Our goal when we went to distance learning was to continue to provide some of the consistency of school while trying new ways of learning and making sure our learners continued building strong relationships with staff. In many cases, this time has strengthened those connections and bonded our learners and teachers in new ways, which is encouraging.

Our counselors, social workers, school psychologists, educational assistants and secretaries are also connecting with either learners or staff every day. Our teachers need us to support them as much as our learners do. This transition has been a challenge for everyone, and we have teachers working harder than ever to be sure learners have what they need. This week, our lead school psychologist is running a mindfulness class for our teachers who have expressed they are struggling. Our building substitutes are still working to be sure teachers have support if they need to take time due to physical illness or just need time to regroup. It has become a shared experience for staff, learners and families wherein we are all learning to appreciate one another a little more. In an opening circle for a class, one learner wrote, “I give a shout-out to all our teachers for teaching us the best they could and staying calm during an unexpected problem.” That learner just stood in the gap for a teacher who may have needed it.

We also have our Hope Squads starting to learn how to do their outreach online to create space for learners to support other learners. Most people share their stories of how and why they are struggling if you happen to catch them in a moment in time when it seems right for them. We have to be sure we are intentionally creating many, many chances for connections between us all to be sure when someone is ready to share their story, someone is there to listen and support them with the right help.

This is true of our families as well, who are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Many of them are worried about the financial impact of all of this or have been laid off because of it and are learning to be a distance learning teacher at the same time. It has been a challenge to make the transition in my own house with my husband and I both working from home and trying to keep our children engaged with school. I am thankful to the number of teachers who have offered us support but have been OK when we needed to just take a break from things for a short while. They have stood in our gap over the last two weeks in a powerful way that I truly appreciate.

This time is challenging for all of us, and the longer it goes on, the harder it may be to hold on to hope and positivity. It is time for all of us to stand in the gap for others when we can and ask for others to stand in our gap when we can’t. I am thankful someone was listening when two learners reached out with suicidal thoughts so we could get them the help they needed, but it was also a reminder of how much our outreach to check on one another matters right now. There are many, many beautiful ways in which our communities have come together during this crisis. We have people volunteering to deliver meals, doing blood drives, donating medical supplies, sewing masks, creating engaging lessons both on and off-line to keep learners engaged, finding ways to support local businesses, and honoring the recommendations to stay home whenever possible. The physical distance between us can unify us in a new way, but we need to be open to talking about our challenges and relying on others to stand in our gap until we are ready to stand in our own again.

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Getty image via © MILHRANDT YULIIA, 2018