I’ve been a school social worker in urban Minnesota school settings for over 20 years. Here are some of the challenges I see with distance learning in light of the two crises we are living through — the Covid-19 pandemic coupled with the heightened social unrest after George Floyd’s death.
I work with students in grades 6-12 in a diverse urban school in the Twin Cities. Our school is somewhat atypical: it is sufficiently small so we can focus on maintaining positive relationships with students and families.
I and the other social workers in my school meet with students who receive special education services, have at least one mental health diagnosis, and/or have a trauma background.
Some of our students and families were greatly impacted and traumatized by the twin crises of pandemic and social unrest. It was evident that their situations did not allow for the proper attention to routine to support distance learning. What students needed the most was consistent mental health support — e.g. weekly calls, checkins, or Google Meet sessions.
Regularly our school personnel — myself and other support, administrative, and teaching staff — were very concerned about students’ mental / emotional health and families not getting basic needs met. While we tried to help as much as possible in those areas, the expectations of meeting with teachers and completing academic work were always front and center.
Here is a partial list of the challenges we heard from some parents: families had spotty or no internet connectivity; parents lost their job; parents worked outside the home; parents worked from home; parents did not speak English and did not have the tools to be supportive of academic or emotional challenges; students had multiple other responsibilities (child care, chores, etc.); families were homeless or mobile; parents struggled to help their children with school work or to maintain schedules and routines; and students and parents wrestled with mental health issues.
Unless students’ mental health is addressed and supported, learning often takes a back seat. From week to week we saw telltale signs indicating that some students were not doing well emotionally. These included: not logging in to the school website, not completing work, falling behind in work, failing classes, shutting down during online meetings, feeling unmotivated, not attending scheduled online meetings or office-hour sessions with teachers and/or support staff.
Some of our students displayed signs of avoidance, anxiety, depression, or exhaustion. Some slept in until 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, played video games all day on their school iPads, or checked out of learning.
In these circumstances it was difficult to maintain regular contact with students, and give them opportunities to process their feelings. The formats such contact had to take — Google Meet or a phone conversation, or completing social / emotional lessons online — were difficult and uncomfortable for many students.
I tried to practice humility and compassion. I had no true idea how the ongoing crises perhaps triggered, traumatized, and affected students and their families. To add the challenges of these events on top of school work, and with just the tiniest modicum of emotional support — no wonder some students struggled and disconnected from learning and contact.
Google Meet and its discontents
Connecting with students via Google Meet or a phone call wasn’t always productive, in my opinion. I regularly attempted to meet with students through these means. At the start of distance learning this was challenging, since this situation was new to everyone. Once distance learning moved forward, most of my students were able to connect with me. However, as the school year’s end approached, many stopped meeting and were unavailable by phone.
Sometimes my sessions with students were scheduled back-to-back, and because of the academic schedule, the time for our sessions had been cut in half.
Surprisingly, I was usually able to contact parents through Google Meet, emails, or phone calls; we were successful in teaming together to try to help their child(ren). However, in some cases parents needed help understanding what work their student(s) needed to complete, and sometimes they had a difficult time getting their child(ren) to complete the work or attend Google Meet sessions.
I felt that students were being assigned too much academic work, especially given the crises that they (and we!) were experiencing. I believe that when there is a crisis, day-to-day activities are on hold and we do what we can to support those who are suffering, grieving, and having difficultly moving forward in their lives.
Instead the main focus in our school district was on academic work.
At our school, students got multiple “one size fits all” assignments from eight different classes each week. Some parents had time to help their child(ren) navigate the work and some did not have time.
While there were some cushions to lighten stress load, such as activity-based lessons and turning in work the-week-of, it was still extremely challenging for some students to continue to find the motivation to complete work, ask for help, and take the lead in their own learning.
It would have been most helpful if we could have utilized more school staff to support students and families emotionally during these crises. For example, some of our school psychologists have training and experience in mental health counseling, but that is not their role in our district.
I wish teachers and others could have joined support staff in consistently contacting families and students to check in and gauge what help they needed (i.e. financial, food, emotional, and safety needs). This would have greatly strengthened those staff – student – family relationships. Families and students may have felt more supported and would have had a better chance of regaining some balance in their lives. Then, we could have slowly reintegrated academic learning while continuing to allow space for conversations about mental health, feelings, and emotions.