Last fall we visited our local high school during their open house evening. As we walked through the warren of hallways, in and out of buildings, and up and down stairwells, I tried to imagine my oldest daughter starting there a year later. I worried she would be lost in a crowd four times the size of her current school, where the older students stand a full head taller than she does.
We spoke to teachers, students and staff, all of whom reassured us there would be welcome days, meet and greets, and fun activities planned for the incoming class to help them. I walked away feeling confident the high school would help my daughter land on her feet.
Fast-forward six months and we’re living in a reality I could never have imagined. Most of the world is under the equivalent of house arrest, assignments arriving fast and furious via email. My husband and I juggle work and homeschooling, running out of hours in the day well before our to do list ends.
We had to tell the kids that the next time they set foot in a school building will be September. My younger daughter didn’t bat an eye, content to return to her familiar school building, where every teacher knows her name and she can walk the hallways blindfolded. But my future high schooler, well, let’s just say she was not quite so blasé.
For new middle and high schoolers, the transition will not be business as usual. Here is what I’d like teachers and administration to do to help them find their feet after social distancing ends.
What Returning to School Should Look Like
Rethink your welcome process
Without the distraction of end of year award ceremonies, goodbye parties, and beach holidays, our kids have too much time to sit and worry about how big and scary their new, strange school will be. They need someone to step in as soon as possible and tell them all will be okay. They will be welcomed, and embraced as they become part of a new family. The standard process of mailing a packet a few weeks before the new school year starts is not going to cut it.
I’d love for middle and high school staff to think of creative ways to ease our children into their new homes. Maybe it is a virtual tour with a scavenger hunt. Maybe it is a series of Zoom calls with new homeroom teachers. I’d be happy to have my daughter paired with an older student, acting as pen pals for a few months. Whatever it is, let’s not hold off until August to launch it.
Next year, take as much time as you need to get to know these children
Many schools fill the first weeks with a battery of assessment tests, benchmarking students’ capabilities and understanding. In September, we need you to toss those out the window. We’ve been thrown into the deep end of home learning and home working. Some children will have spent six months watching Netflix. Others will have had hours of 1:1 tutoring. The end result will be a hodgepodge of learning gaps and missed objectives. We’re talking the regular summer learning drop on steroids, and no standardized test is set to account for a lockdown. We parents need teachers to have the space and time to sit down with our children. To talk with them, hear their stories, and grasp their abilities. We need administration and governing bodies to allow it.
Focus on pastoral care instead of test achievement
Teachers have long lamented how end-of-year tests dictate too much of the curriculum. Here is our chance to overthrow the tyranny of these rigid standards. It will no doubt take months to bring students back up to a consistent level of baseline knowledge. The sooner we accept this, the better off we all are.
These children will require new lesson plans, giving teachers the freedom to group where possible and support with more 1:1 tutoring around the edges. Educators keep reassuring us parents that our children’s minds are elastic. They will bounce back from this trauma with little long term impact. We need next year’s learning objectives to be the same: flexible and forgiving, with a view to long term success rather than short term achievement.
High school is supposed to be the time when children take on more responsibility for their learning and their lives. We shift the mantle of obligation for completing homework assignments, returning library books, and talking with teachers from parent to child.
For the incoming class of new students, let’s work together to rethink that process. For children whose whole lives have been upended again and again, a strong and steady support framework may be the best help we can offer.