Returning to school this year is presenting more challenges than most school leaders have experienced in their careers. Several superintendents have expressed to me that this has been by far their most difficult start. Planning for a safe return has required enormous effort and extreme flexibility under duress and amidst a slew of criticism. One of the most challenging aspects of planning for the new year has been ensuring the safety of students. Student themselves play an important role in keeping themselves and their communities healthy. However, teaching students to act responsibly and holding them accountable can be challenging.
To learn more about what schools can do, I contacted Dr. Scott Poland, an international expert on school safety and mental health. I first met Scott a few years ago when he and Richard Lieberman supported me and my team as we systematically improved our support of students’ mental health in the district. He is a professor at the College of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University, the Co-Director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office, and the former chairman and leading member of the National Emergency Assistance Team. Scott shared with me some resources I believe should be in every school district today. The first is a student pledge that is used to increase student accountability for adherence to COVID-19 safety practices. This tool communicates clearly the expectations for students, increases the likelihood of their adherence, and provides the proper foundation for follow-up interventions when necessary.
COVID-19 Student Safety Pledge - View this document
In addition to safeguarding the physical health of students and their families, schools are feeling the weight of addressing the concomitant mental health issues that have arisen or been exacerbated. Students are reacting to the pandemic in a manner commonly seen in other stressful life experiences. A report from the CDC finds that symptoms of anxiety and depression, especially in younger people, have increased significantly as both a direct and indirect effect of COVID-19. According to Dr. Poland, these symptoms may be expressed as aggression, irritability, somatic complaints, increased need for attention, concentration problems, withdrawal from others, and apathy. To help schools address their students’ needs, Dr. Poland and his wife, Dr. Donna Poland, created a lesson plan for supporting school reentry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
School Reentry "Teachable Moment" Lesson - View this document
They recommend giving students the opportunity to voice fears and concerns regarding COVID-19, then helping them learn the facts regarding the pandemic. The plan then supports students in developing an understanding of the effects of COVID-19 related to quarantine, lost employment, and health. Students then are guided in learning how to manage fear, anxiety, and frustration, how to be healthy and successful in returning to school, and the importance of empathy for those affected by COVID-19.
There is no shortage of opinions on what schools should be doing and/or not doing as the school year begins. In a year where monitoring students will be more difficult than ever, it becomes even more critical that students are monitored, supervised, and supported. These times call for principled, ethical leadership to navigate this storm with effective processes and procedures. These resources from Poland and Poland are a couple more tools in the school administrator toolbox, from the hands of trusted experts.