Understanding home lives seen as critical in altered school landscape

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BOSTON (SHNS) – Has a student’s family created a “pod” with any other families with school-aged children?

Is there a neighbor or a sibling helping a child navigate the world of virtual math and English classes?

Does a student have a friend who could be their study-buddy and work together to motivate each other?

With schools preparing to return in the fall and many public officials assuming that remote learning will remain a part of that classroom experience, some educators and researchers are suggesting it will become more important to understand what’s going on in students’ lives to reengage them in their education.

“There are a lot of life hacks that families and communities are having to come up with now, and can the education system actually understand those life hacks and partner with them?” asked Julia Freeland Fisher, education research director at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

The Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy hosted a webinar on Wednesday focused on how educators, schools and community partners can put in place the supports that will be needed to reengage students in learning come September.

Virtual learning created challenges for many students distanced from the classroom since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the technological hurdles it presented for some families, others struggled with access to food or other essential needs. Other students simply lost their motivation and disengaged.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has asked districts to present preliminary plans by the end of the month for how they would fully return to the classroom, remain remote, or try to blend virtual and in-person instruction in the fall.

While most schools have not yet made the decision on how they will return, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on Tuesday echoed many school officials who have said in recent weeks that virtual learning will likely remain at least a part of the solution at the start of the new school year.

“We’re not sure what the fall will look like as we plan for all three scenarios,” said Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant school superintendent in Springfield.

Martinez-Alvarez said that when schools closed in the spring Springfield scrambled to gather laptops from the classrooms and get them assigned to students, in some cases delivering them to students’ homes. But she said that in its “haste” to make sure students continued learning they may have “overwhelmed” some families with resources.

Having learned from that experience, Springfield Public Schools put in place a “Summer Exploration” program for students to go online and participate in projects focused on their own autobiography so they can learn about themselves and their families and where they come from, their future to help identify things they can be doing not to meet their goals, and asking them to think about what they want and need from school when they return.

“Since our students have been out since March, they missed a lot of the transitional processes that we normally go through,” Martinez-Alvarez said.

Fisher said many schools are moving into “checklist mode” now as they prepare to reopen in some capacity, which might mean a lot of outgoing phone calls, text messages and emails to families. But she said it’s just as important for school administrators to listen.

“We need to dedicate the time to rebuilding relationships that may have been fractured by virtual learning,” she said.

Fisher said schools that continue with “high dosages of virtual and online learning” will need more than just an emergency contact on file, but a person “on the ground” and involved in the student’s life who can help motivate them. It could be a parent, a sibling, or even an older student or peer, she said.

Manny Allen, director of the Re-engagement Center for the Boston Public Schools, focuses on reaching students who may have dropped out of school and understanding why and what it would take to get them back in a classroom.

Allen also said that in this new reality with COVID-19, reengaging students will require more than just adapting the curriculum to remote learning, but understanding what motivates students to go to school.
That could be something as unrelated to the classroom as getting to pick out an outfit every morning to wear to school, he said.

“Things are lost that engage students beyond what we want to teach them,” he said.

Allen said a lot of the students he has contact with have become frustrated by the online learning environment.

Jennifer Clammer, the executive director of the Roca Impact Institute, said the pandemic has also impacted the work that her organization does, which involves “relentless outreach” and relationship building with young people, who may have become involved with drugs or violence, to break the cycle of poverty and incarceration.

Clammer said that it has become harder to make those connections and follow social distancing guidelines, but she said her staff has taken their outreach and programming to street corners and stoops to reach the kids where they are.

“We are simplifying our programming and delivering it through every virtual platform we have, and not waiting for young people to show up, but bringing it to them,” Clammer said.

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