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How are the kids doing? Teachers?

Educators and students are trying a giant experiment with the best of intentions using an untested roadmap at a threatening time. How are the kids doing? The teachers?

How should they be doing?

Most K-12 schools reopened in September after half a semester spent on heroic but patched-together distance learning. They are now largely using a hybrid model with two cohorts in school — the Monday-Tuesdays and the Thursday-Fridays. Forever after, these future adults will remember whether they were MTs or TFs in these weird times. Wednesday is stay-home-while-we-disinfect day.

The three days a student is not in the building are for online learning. There are built-in disruptions when someone tests positive for the COVID-19 virus and school closes down. Many students are not attending in person at all, but learning online from home.

It is too soon to evaluate how well students are learning and retaining their lessons under these arrangements; achievement tests will come later. What we do know is that the normal stresses of going to school and teaching in school have been magnified many times by the anxiety caused by the pandemic and by social unrest. That is not just my opinion, although anyone can see it. It is a measure of the situation taken by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Founder and Director Marc Brackett says anxiety levels are eight times higher than usual among students, educators and staff. Stress, he notes, is contagious. Anxiety inhibits learning by making it hard to focus. Poor behavior can mask what is really eating at a person.

Good teachers have always known that it is up to them to set the emotional tone for their classrooms so learning can take place. Long before the pandemic crisis, educators knew that teaching as a profession gets more complicated and more stressful in complex times. Now, however, Brackett says, "People are activated," meaning students and the adults who work with them, as well as their families, are highly stressed. Many are grieving the loss of their normal lives and outlets, such as the gym and getting together with friends.

The Yale center, with financial support from the Dalio Foundation and the endorsement of the state Department of Education, is offering a free, non-credit online course to anyone who works in a Connecticut school — administrators, teachers, counselors, cafeteria workers, anyone — from now through December. While it may seem that stressed-out school employees don't need another single thing on their plates, Brackett and some educators who have taken the center's classes say that, on the contrary, the course can help right away. It begins with showing the adults ways to cope with their own anxieties rather than passing on their stress as they work with students.

Any hint of the touchy-feely can put off some people — or some people at some times, I think. Brackett and other educators who participated recently on a videoconference with journalists say that big, strong people — someone said men, but I'm not — are reporting intense emotions they aren't used to, as they cope with everything the pandemic is doing to them, their families and their students. The mantra is that everyone is in the same storm but in their own boats: each one has, or can learn, the particular strategies that work for them. The ultimate goal is to help each student steer their own boat.

Why, if it's so stressful, are we putting students and educators back in schools at all? One answer is that 1 1/2 to two years out of the classroom would not deliver the same learning and would create long-term delays, maybe even permanent gaps, in students' education. Another is that kids need to be with kids and with caring adults outside their own families. Schools help families raise socially adjusted, civic-minded team players with a sense of community and a sense of purpose. Now that I've written that list of qualities, I realize it closely describes good teachers. We are asking a lot of them, and they deserve support.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board. 

 

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