School Community Engagement in the Time of COVID-19
How we connect with each other in the time of COVID-19 has changed the ways we engage as a community. Prior to the pandemic, engagement was a clear picture of relationship-building with students, staff, and families, and manifested in face-to-face instruction, in-person meetings, extracurricular clubs, sports, PTA conferences, student productions, concerts, and more. Engagement was clearly defined because the physical semblance of it was central. Now that we are in the throes of this pandemic, we have to consider engagement a bit differently. Although we are no longer meeting face-to-face, the need to feel supported and develop a sense of belonging in the school community still exists. Ultimately, engagement corresponds with our idea of community, because the health of a school community depends on the quality of engagement between its members. This installment of Creating Communities of Courage: School Climate in the Time of COVID-19 , details the main concepts of engagement to strengthen community and shares best practices and resources for implementing these big ideas. 
Three BIG Ideas
1. The ways to support students’ learning have changed, but the basic need to support them is greater than ever

2. Social and civic learning is a way to develop skills and dispositions necessary for effectively coping today and preparing for the future

3. Community-wide engagement is more important now than it was previous to the shutdown  
Best Practices
1. The ways to support students’ learning have changed, but the basic need to support them is greater than ever

Now that classroom instruction has shifted toward distance learning, how we demonstrate support for students’ learning isn’t as spontaneous as before. In the classroom, teachers were able to detect students’ body language and behaviors to understand the tone of the class. Through a computer screen, the subtle nuances of in-person interaction are diminished, making it more difficult to gauge a classroom. This makes it harder to provide guided support for students and identify those that need extra attention. Another challenge lays in the inequities that this pandemic has aptly revealed. We observe students in vulnerable families that are unable to access technology needed for online instruction. Furthermore, the physical school environment is now replaced by students’ unique home environment. For students with a challenging home situation, it can be difficult to find the physical or emotional space to engage in distance learning. Meeting these needs is a hard task for educators, and we need to be compassionately realistic about how we can meet them. Below are things schools can do to meet students where they are and provide appropriate support for their learning.

Best Practice Reminders:

  • Be patient and kind to ourselves, as the stress and secondhand trauma we experience can be a detriment to our mental health. It feels like the collective stress of the community compounds on us to provide answers we don’t have. We should recognize that it is OK that we can’t be everything to everyone! To alleviate pressure on teachers and students, schools should relax strict learning goals and/or extend timelines for testing.

  • Be mindful that participation looks different for every student and highly depends on their living situation. Assume best intentions. Where we see students unable to meet participation or even attendance goals, it is important to seek to understand their situation and talk to them about or seek guidance from school counselors on possible solutions.

  • Build connections with students so they feel supported in their learning. Emphasize connection and compassion for each other by posing questions to students like How are you feeling today? What emotions are you experiencing right now? What can you do to make the day better? 

  • Incorporate supportive teaching practices deliberately into online instruction. The National School Climate Center encourages the use of the following teaching practices for building positive school climate as part of a live virtual class, facilitating group work, or in grading assignments:
  • encouragement and constructive feedback
  • varied opportunities to demonstrate knowledge and skills
  • support for risk-taking and independent thinking
  • atmosphere conducive to dialog and questioning, academic challenge and individual attention

  • Open the lines of communication between you and your students. Create dedicated office hours or regularly check and answer your email for students’ and their families’ questions. This is especially helpful for students who struggle to reach out during scheduled instruction.  
2. Social and civic learning is a way to develop skills and dispositions necessary for effectively coping today and preparing for the future

Social distancing can lead students to feel isolated and out of control over their lives. Thus, it is important to reinforce students’ agency and power to do good in the world. Now is an opportunity to reflect on the pandemic, help students assess their current situations, and pose questions that help them think about right and wrong. The National School Climate Center recognizes social and civic learning as integral to promoting a positive school climate. Social and civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions include effective listening, conflict resolution, self-reflection, emotional regulation, empathy, personal responsibility, and ethical decision making all of which are important to effectively navigating their present and future.
Best Practices Reminders:

  • Make students aware that while they have limited control over their environment, they can always control how they react. Incorporating mindfulness techniques into students’ routines can help calm anxiety and build healthy coping skills. Keeping a “COVID Diary” can help students reflect on and work through their emotions. 

  • Create community and offer space for students to talk through their ideas and feel connected. One such way can be through a remote book club. Allowing students to choose which book they read together can give them a sense of agency and control.

  • Use current events to engage in lively discussion where students practice effective listening, self-reflection, and ethical decision making. Speaking about these “real world” issues can be a starting point for students to express and heal their trauma. 

  • Make students aware of how their behaviors affect others to inspire action and hope. It is important to study figures that are relatable, whether they physically look like students or take up the same causes that are important to them.

  • Consider teaching and learning approaches that accommodate the flexibility students (and adults) need right now, such as project-based learning, student-driven action research, or student-led community-based journalism. All of these approaches have several other benefits: they foster social, emotional and civic competencies; allow for differentiation; are most likely to engage students since they get to design or select meaningful and relevant subjects; promote intergenerational and community exchanges; provide the opportunity for students to exercise agency and feel like they are helping to meet to real needs. 
3. Community-wide engagement is even more important now than it was previous to the shutdown

The ability to see their friends and mentors and participate in extracurricular activities is important for students’ self-esteem and self-concept. Without these avenues for engagement, students can feel like they are floundering, longing for a sense of community and meaningful connection. School staff can also attest that connecting with students and their colleagues is energizing and grounding to them, and parents are at least comforted and proud to support events that are meaningful to their children. While social distancing prevents us from participating in the activities we once enjoyed, we must think of creative ways to satiate our basic need for engagement. Below are some ideas that can help us feel engaged:  
Best Practices Reminders:

  • Encourage all student-led organizations to meet online and staff to continue to advise them. The continuity of seeing their peers regularly outside of class helps students decompress from their academic responsibilities and build connections with peers who have similar interests. This is also a good way for students to connect with adult mentors who advise them in clubs.

  • Encourage staff to get involved in ways that are meaningful to them. Staff might be interested in distributing learning packets to families, coordinating the pick up or drop off of school meals, or developing and teaching enrichment courses for students.

  • Showcase student talent in the arts and invite the community to attend/participate. Students can upload their artwork to a gallery page on the school’s website and parents can submit public comments on them. Musical performances can take place through Zoom where families can be invited as attendees. 

  • Use social media to regularly connect with students and families. Social media can be used to communicate serious issues or highlight acts of kindness in the school community. Student and staff spotlights or birthday shout-outs are a fun way to boost morale.

  • Organizing a “Day of Gratitude” is a meaningful way to connect with everyone in the community. Students, staff, and community members will feel good when they hear how just much they are appreciated. 

  • Maintain important traditions like school dances, proms, and other special events as a way to cultivate youth leadership. For example, with a little ingenuity, you can continue with Spirit Week remotely by designating costumes that are reflective of the times, like dressing like a “superhero” to honor all essential personnel. Or, you can empower students to organize their own socially distant virtual events. 
NSCC at Ramapo for Children Supports
Administer a school climate survey to understand the health of your school community and plan for next year now. We offer custom questions related to COVID-19 responses, remote learning, and more.

The updated version of NSCC at Ramapo’s School Climate Leadership Certification is ready for enrollment this summer. It features distance learning, customized coaching and access to a national learning community of like-minded leaders.

For more information, contact .
Virtual coaching and PD Offerings Through Ramapo Training

  • Strategies for using remote learning to deepen adult social-emotional skills and build healthy relationships
  • Designing supports for young people struggling with engagement, participation and attendance in virtual learning
  • Designing virtual systems to support connections within your community, including staff circles, small group reflections, advisory conversation prompts and intentional moments for joy and laughter.
  • Facilitating opportunities for adults to develop behavior plans and strategic interventions
  • Planning for next year: re-thinking and designing programs and protocols such as advisory, Restorative Justice Action Teams, behavioral supports, staff onboarding, student orientation and more.
  • Coaching conversations with parent coordinators and other community liaisons to support the creation of outreach and support plans
  • Small group community circles for parents and caregivers
  • A series of 1-hour videos to support parents and caregivers working with their children at home

For more information, visit Ramapo for Children .
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May we suggest a $10 donation?

We would appreciate your support for our give-part series, Creating Communities of Courage in the Time of COVID-19, by making a donation in any amount you can afford. It will help us offset immediate costs and ensure we can continue to support safe, inclusive and engaging school communities everywhere through this crisis and its aftermath.