We have started the 2020-2021 school year! Normally this is a time of anticipation and excitement for students and teachers. But this year, the anticipation is mixed with uncertainty and nervousness. There are so many questions that no one knows the answers to. What should I expect? Will we be safe? How big will the gap caused by COVID-19 be?
Beyond “Summer Slide”
Every teacher is aware of the "summer slide." When students return to school in the fall, some of what they had learned before summer break is lost. The beginning of the year is usually a time of reviewing skills and giving assessments to find out where students' skills are. Teachers are very aware that the students in their class learn different things at different times and try their best to individualize instruction to meet their students' needs.
However, with the loss of in-school instruction for the fourth quarter last year and varying experiences with distance learning, there will likely be even more ground to make up. But as teachers, we are very skilled to deal with this potential issue. We will simply do what we do best. We will pick up where a student is and charge forward.
Preparation Needed: More than Academics
But it's not just academic ground that will need to be made up. The beginning of the year is also a time of introducing expectations and rules. This will likely take much longer than usual. Skills such as listening, taking turns, staying on task, and following directions will need to be reviewed. When back in the classroom, lessons cannot be paused, replayed, or started at a later time. Distracting participants cannot be muted.
Rules will need to be reestablished. Some rules, such as keeping our hands to ourselves, will need to be emphasized even more. And there will be new rules and procedures to ensure safety. Time will need to be spent going over handwashing, social distancing rules, mask wearing, and others that we haven’t even thought of yet. We will even be learning new ways to greet each other in the mornings - air hugs and air high-fives instead of real hugs. For those who are learning virtually, there will be procedures about turning in assignments and how to participate during virtual lessons.
Getting back in the school routine will take time. Too much, too fast will increase the stress all around. Stressful situations do not lead to high levels of productivity, motivation or learning. We will need to take the time to share and to listen to each other. Many students are likely to feel anxious and worried about leaving parents, getting sick or have suffered a personal loss.
Teachers and staff will need to give students and each other the additional support and the time they need.
Teachers Have New Tools
While all of these changes and extra components may seem daunting, there have been positive things that have resulted from this situation. I now have some new tools in my toolbox for the new school year that I didn't have before the pandemic crisis. In fact, if I had not been forced to approach teaching differently, I never would have known about these tools. By ending the school year teaching from home, I have learned to use programs to record my lessons and instructions. I have learned to zoom and loom and other crazy words. I now know how to embed links right into my lesson plans. Technology I was once wary of I now see as resources that can complement my instruction. Won't it be wonderful to merge the best parts of traditional teaching with more modern approaches?
Seven Tips to Prepare for Back-to-School
During distance learning, I formed a stronger connection with parents. The partnership between teachers and parents in the education of their children was at a deeper level than before. This year as we manage teaching some children in the classroom and some learning virtually from home, a strong partnership will be even more important. Strong communication between parents and teachers is always beneficial to students.
So, as the new school year approaches, what can parents do to get their child ready for reentering the school environment?
Start reestablishing a routine. Just being back to a full day schedule will be challenging for some. Set regular bedtimes, wake up at a consistent time, and get dressed even if your child will be learning virtually. Some schools will require students to be in the virtual classroom at regular school time. If your school does not, having a routine is still important.
Use this time to ingrain good hygiene habits. Teach kids to wash their hands multiple times a day for 20 seconds (sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"). When school resumes, you won't be there at the bathroom door to remind your child to wash his hands. Although teachers will be teaching correct handwashing and doing their best to make sure that students are washing frequently, good habits started at home will have the most impact.
Start getting your child accustomed to wearing a mask. Gradually build to wearing the mask for an extended time like they will be doing in the classroom. You may want to involve your child in picking out a decorative mask that they are more inclined to want to wear. Make sure it fits well and is comfortable. Consider buying a lanyard that the mask can be clipped to so that your child does not drop the mask on the floor or lose it during mask breaks and lunch.
For children who have been in school before, discuss how it will be different. Everyone will be wearing masks. Desks will be separated, and in some cases, surrounded with plastic dividers. Enrichment teachers will be coming to their classrooms, instead of students going to different classrooms. Even lunch will be in the classroom. Recess is sure to be different, as well.
Discuss the importance of social distancing with your child and what that means to them when they are around other children and their teachers. It will be especially important for children to not touch things that do not belong to them and to keep their hands to themselves.
Talk to your child about their feelings about going back to school. Are they excited, scared, sad to leave mom and dad, or all of those mixed together? Have strategies for coping with those feelings when they are away. Teach them to take deep breaths when feeling anxious. Give them a picture of you or your pet for when they are missing home.
Reteach and model active listening skills. Play Simon Says or the Telephone Game. Listening in a classroom with all of its distractions is harder than one-on-one. When kids are back with a teacher and classmates, they will need to make eye contact, listen to others, and not interrupt. Listening intently will be even more important since speakers will be wearing masks.
This is going to be a new experience for everyone. Stress levels will be high for parents struggling with the decision of what is best for their children. Teachers will be navigating teaching in multi-formats as some of their students will be in the classroom and some students will be learning virtually. But we’re not alone. Together, we can make going back to school a positive experience and help our kids be excited about learning.
Cheryl Phelan is a first grade teacher at The Anthony School in Little Rock, Arkansas. She has taught first grade for 29 years. Cheryl enjoys discovering new and exciting ways to help students excel in the classroom. In her spare time, she enjoys crafting projects (especially involving photos) and spending time with her two adult sons, two dogs, and cat.