Together, Apart: Social-Emotional Connection in the Age of COVID-19 and Distance Learning

When the 2019-2020 school year began, no one could have prepared for how it would end, as administrators, educators, parents, and students all had to plan, adapt, and adapt again in the transition to distance learning in the wake of COVID-19. Greg Bamford, educational leader and consultant, describes the three phases of this transition as Triage, Adaptation, and Resilience. The first phase, Triage, is all about answering logistical questions: How do we train our faculty and families on new technology platforms? How do we communicate our plans? How can we be more consistent? Once these initial procedures are in place, schools almost immediately enter into phase two, Adaptation.

The Adaptation phase becomes the crux of distance learning: pedagogical issues. What lessons are best-suited to synchronous learning, and what are best-suited to asynchronous learning? How do we approach assessments during distance learning? How do we support our students, not just academically, but also their social-emotional wellbeing when we’re socially distanced? In “An Educational Shift: Encouraging Mission-Driven Online Learning,” Dr. Gwen Bass and Michael Lawrence-Riddell emphasize the continued need for whole student development during distance learning, including the mission “to teach ‘21-century skills’–such as collaboration, communication, and creativity.” At The Summit, administration and faculty asked the question: How do we offer a progressive education that not only supports academic progress but also the social-emotional wellbeing of our students in our distance learning model?

To find the answer to this question, The Summit reached out to those who understood our students’ social-emotional wellbeing best, their parents. The school conducted two parent surveys to gather feedback on their experience with the school’s distance learning plan and how their children were adapting to this new normal. Their constructive feedback was an essential insight into how information was being received across all grade levels and the impact of distance learning on our students and their families. It also reinforced the critical need for social-emotional connection. A common narrative began to emerge: “They miss their friends.”

Defining The Summit’s response to this need, Head of School, Dr. Kathryn Heet, explains, “Supporting the whole child, The Summit places a high value on social-emotional education. Class meetings and advisory are important aspects of a typical day for each of our students as it provides an opportunity to practice social-emotional skills, to foster group cohesion, to share with one another, and to provide a focus for the day’s learning. Maintaining class meetings and advisory via Zoom throughout Distance Learning allowed students to connect with their peers daily.”

Summit Kindergarten teacher, Marissa Bradley, agrees, “The need for social-emotional support became increasingly evident as the days apart from each other quickly turned into weeks. At The Summit, relationships are at the heart of learning and teaching. Without the ability to be physically together, it became crucially important to build in opportunities to check in on student wellbeing and allow students to maintain connections with each other (and their teachers)! Lower School teachers held daily Zoom meetings to allow students to do just that.” One of the challenges faculty faced was how to engage with students in a meaningful way through a device screen. Marissa explains, “In Kindergarten, our class meetings were designed to encourage participation, connection, and laughter, and included activities ranging from scavenger hunts, to twenty questions, to show-and-tell, and more. Mindfulness activities were included in each day’s lesson materials, in hopes that it would further support students. A few deep breaths can make all the difference.”

Prior to the transition to distance learning, Upper School students had been working on their Passion Projects, a presentation on a subject of their own choosing to share with their classmates. When school buildings closed for the remainder of the academic year, Summit Language Arts teacher, Courtney Brown, knew she had to pivot from her original plan of classroom presentations. Instead, Courtney began working on a plan for students, as well as other faculty and administration, to sign up as virtual viewers for their classmates’ presentations and to provide positive encouragement and feedback to support their peers. After an incredibly high turnout of student participation, Courtney declares that “Passion Project viewing week was a wild success. Students spent the presentation week learning from each other and providing positive feedback for peers. In the end, our feedback form had a total of 202 responses for our 33 presenters! Each student received a personalized chart of peer feedback. I could go on and on, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll simply say that the quality of student work during our Passion Project unit was unmatched by anything else we’ve done this year. It is so good to finish the year with such an engaging, meaningful endeavor.”

As The Summit plans for what the 2020-2021 school may look like, we look to Greg Bamford’s third and final phase, Resilience. This is the phase of systemic change that allows us to forge ahead in a position of strength. Dr. Gwen Bass and Michael Lawrence-Riddell assert that educators must continue to find ways to support the whole child as we adapt to this new learning environment, “With the shift to online teaching, it is vital that institutions don’t just share academic content through electronic files. Students need the support of their learning communities now more than ever, and it is incumbent upon educators and administrators to find ways to continue to support the whole student.” According to Dr. Heet, The Summit plans to achieve this through “a commitment to the values of progressive education, which include attending to the whole child. Resilience can be built through strong emotional connections and a caring community that provides emotional support and demonstrates compassion for those around us. At The Summit, we are continually looking for opportunities for growth, and by investing in our students’ social-emotional wellbeing, we are fostering a positive mindset in the midst of crisis that will aid in the development of grit and perseverance.” The result is well-rounded students who are prepared to think critically and creatively about life’s challenges, and adapt quickly to what’s next.

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