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Schools plan for social-emotional supports for students and staff

Schools plan for social-emotional supports for students and staff

Parents, students, staff, administrators and school board members—and anyone who has children or grandchildren going to school this year—knows that the 2020-2021 school year is going to look very different than any other. As part of the Greene County Public Schools’ (GCPS) Return to Learn planning, members of the special services staff have designed social-emotional learning supports for teachers and staff, as well as the many students across grade levels and learning models this year.

“In order for our plan to work, it is going to require our people,” said GCPS Assistant School Superintendent Bryan Huber at the Aug. 12 Greene County School Board meeting. “We’re going to have to make sure that all of our staff is ready when our students return. Members of our central office team and our school building leaders have collaborated over the past several weeks to develop concrete plans for how to bring staff back to work, helping them to feel safe and connected to their colleagues and helping them to potentially move past some of their fears.”

Teachers returned to the school buildings last week to begin the formidable task of preparing to teach virtually, in a blended learning environment, or both, and nothing about school looks quite as it did when they left in March. From mask-wearing to signage indicating one-way traffic in hallways, temperature checks in hallways, planning for students to eat lunch in the classrooms and occupancy limits in every shared space, there are a lot of new procedures to learn.

“We knew that asking staff to develop these activities and plan them on their own in addition to learning how to become a blended/virtual teacher was a tall task, and so our wonderful group of behavior specialists and our special services staff have spent an immense amount of time working on these,” Huber said.

For staff members, specific plans were designed by the administrators at each school with a focus on self-care.

“We value our people. We want to help them ease any anxiety and cope with any stress they might have, as well as encourage them to engage in self-care practices,” said Director of Special Services Dr. Wendy Mitchem. “They will not be able to teach these skills to our students unless they are first taking care of themselves.”

The online resources, which are available to every staff member in the school system through their existing web portal, include links to helpful articles from counseling resources such as Shine (virusanxiety.com/take-care), a collection of easy-to-read articles with tips for managing anxiety, keeping things in perspective, practicing meditation and more.

Daily activities are scheduled for the weeks leading up to the first day of school. Participation is optional but the first week includes relaxation activities, such as yoga (high school gymnasium), painting/drawing (art room), walking on the school track and mini-lessons for reconnecting with colleagues. The idea is to incorporate small lessons into a short period of each day to help staff reconnect and feel more comfortable with the new environment before welcoming students back Sept. 8.

“Many of our schools have developed welcome-back menus with all kinds of resources for teachers,” Huber said. “Planned activities with administrators and colleagues such as design-your-own sensory item and putty session … there’s a session about learning the value of journaling.”

The best way for teachers to plan for the first week of a truly unique school year is to ensure they are comfortable with all the new policies and procedures before trying to introduce them to their students, and the best thing parents can do now is to help their children prepare for what to expect that first week back, including practicing mask wearing.

The detailed social-emotional learning plans for students were designed by Christi Dojack, coordinator of special services, in collaboration with Mitchem and include tips for how to welcome students back to the classrooms from day one, setting the tone for the day with students by discussing the way things have changed and teaching them to cope with any fears or uncertainties.

Week one resources to help students adjust include articles from the National Association of School Psychologists (“Helping children cope with changes resulting from COVID-19,” https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/health-crisis-resources/helping-children-cope-with-changes-resulting-from-covid-19), mindfulness practices and a read-aloud for kindergarten through second-grade students. The goal is to create a safe space for students while normalizing the new rules for cleaning and mask-wearing and make students feel supported.

The resources, which will be made available to interested parents as part of the Return to Learn website (sites.google.com/greenecountyschools.com/return-to-learn-plan-website) also has animated or cartoon stories about mask wearing along with printable activities and read-aloud stories for those who may be fearful or have sensory issues with wearing a mask. Tips for reinforcing behavior outside of school and how to make it easier or fun for the kids may be useful to practice if a child has not been out in public or practicing with their masks during the summer months.

For virtual students, the social-emotional learning plans for the first week are adapted to include lessons on virtual icebreakers via Zoom, an example video compilation of teachers greeting students virtually in fun ways (edutopia.org/video/educators-say-good-morning-students-video) and tools to navigate group discussions, how-to videos for using virtual “whiteboards” and net etiquette lessons.

In addition to the daily breakdown of support lessons for the first week, there is a chart of ongoing social-emotional support resources for the entire first nine weeks of school to keep fostering communication and self-care in the first weeks of the semester. Behavior Coaches Kara Judy, Karie Williams and Sarah McLucas created the framework for weeks two through nine for students.

“It’s important for parents to remember that their children are looking to them for guidance on how to react to stressful situations,” Mitchem said. “It’s OK for parents to acknowledge concern and fear but without panic. These acknowledgements can lead to conversations about preventive measures and explaining the importance of adhering to practices that can reduce the risk of illness. Discussing their (child’s) concerns and fears and giving them the sense that they have some control over their risk of infection can help reduce anxiety.”

Administrators and teachers want parents to know they are doing all they can to provide a warm, welcoming and safe space for their children when school starts on Sept. 8.

“They have been away from us for far too long and missing a lot of the supports that they do receive when they are with us, from a social and emotional perspective,” Huber said.

“Our current circumstances provide parents the opportunity to model problem-solving, patience, flexibility and adaptability—and grace, as we all continue to adjust to changes in our daily lives,” Mitchem said.

For more information, visit the Return to Learn website at sites.google.com/greenecountyschools.com/return-to-learn-plan-website.

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