The State of the Classroom

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Educators and counselors weigh in on distance learning, mental health and the impact of the pandemic on students and schools alike

Pictured: Photos by Cecy Ayala and Amy Traweek

When COVID-19 brought the traditional school day to a screeching halt last March, educators and their students faced the uncertain path of how to teach and learn — from a distance. Teachers, counselors, administrators and social workers were suddenly separated from the students they were used to guiding, nurturing and even protecting on a daily basis. Their concerns ranged from students getting behind in course material and missing out on classroom structure to missed meals and the inability to escape an unstable home life for a significant part of the day. While this was heart-wrenching and at times may have seemed impossible to really reach students through a computer screen — many local educators didn’t miss a beat. Some found even more purpose and satisfaction in their jobs, stretching themselves beyond what they thought possible — and found silver linings amid a global pandemic. The Wacoan spoke with seven local professionals about the impact on students when school doors are physically closed, how they have embraced new strategies for keeping their kids on a path to success and what their hopes are for the future of education.

Leading Into the Unknown

Adrielle Selke
Head of School, Eagle Christian Academy

WACOAN: As a principal, what do you see as your most important role in serving students, especially during this very challenging time?

Selke: I think it’s so very important to create connection. Students need to get back some semblance of normalcy, and the best way to do that is to help them feel like they belong, like they are heard, and that they have a place in the school community. This connection starts with a school culture that promotes togetherness. It means that as administration and teachers, we value each other and work together as a team. It means teachers find ways to build community in the classroom, whether it is in person or from a distance with online schooling. My role is to help support teachers in that aim, to be present and available for families, and to provide environments where ‘We are all in this together’ is not just a phrase but a practice.

WACOAN: How long have you been in education?

Selke: I’ve been in education for 21 years as a classroom teacher, educational interventionist and principal. I’ve been a principal for four years.

WACOAN: How many students do you serve at ECA?

Selke: We serve a community of a little under 175 students.

WACOAN: As schools went virtual last spring, what were the biggest challenges you faced with your students and their families?

Selke: The biggest challenge was pivoting from in-school learning to distance learning. There were many unknowns, but we were more prepared than we expected due to a recent overhaul in technology. We had recently received grants for computers that were available to any family that needed a device. Our students were already using online tools such as ClassDojo and Google Classroom, and we were able to provide a blended learning of take-home packets and online instruction for our lower grades.

There was definitely a learning curve transitioning from on-campus to online instruction, but with the help of surveys that provided parent feedback, our teachers were able to refine teaching practices to deliver solid education to our students for the rest of the year.

Another challenge that existed throughout the shutdown was communication. We all had to condition ourselves to a new way of learning and a new way of getting our messages across. We leaned on video conferencing technology, email and social media, but we also just picked up the phone. Staying connected any way you can is so important.

WACOAN: How did you communicate with students and families, in order to keep a sense of normalcy and community?

Selke: We provided weekly newsletters, and teachers regularly communicated with students via Zoom meetings for class sessions. We held town hall meetings to answer questions and update families on the academic plans moving forward and addressed concerns voiced in our surveys.

We continued to hold weekly chapel services via Zoom and even did Friday Pick-Me-Ups by delivering cookies to our upper-school students. At the end of school the lower-school teachers had a parade for the students, and many teachers scheduled times to connect via Zoom outside of academics to allow time for the students to be together.

Teaching our children how to appropriately connect online for class has led to connections outside of class too. Our community is now more connected than ever. We’ve heard stories of kids playing board games over Zoom or connecting for study sessions this way, and this has continued over the summer with online play dates and FaceTime calls.

WACOAN: What concerns do you have for students, as far as the impact of not returning to school in person this fall? And how do you weigh that impact versus the physical risk of being back in person?

Selke: I’m greatly concerned about the mental health of our students. Kids need connection with one another and with their teachers. They need hands-on experiences to learn and grow, and they need some sense of routine and normalcy. This season of physical isolation has affected our students in many ways, and the extra time on social media has not helped with confidence or connection but rather has been a playground for comparison and greater isolation in many cases. Additionally, there is no replacement for in-person instruction. Students do better in a classroom.

On the other hand, meeting in person does pose greater risks, primarily to children and families that have higher risk factors. It is important for schools to weigh those risks carefully and evaluate the impact of opening school doors again on their individual campuses. Safety has to be a top priority.

At Eagle Christian, we’ve assembled a team of faculty and parents, we’ve consulted experts, and prayerfully asked ‘What is the safest and best way to provide an education to our students?’ This led us to a comprehensive safety plan for on-campus instruction, as well as a plan for online instruction.

WACOAN: In what ways can students help take charge of their academics and their future in these difficult times? How can they use this as an opportunity to grow?
Selke: This season has given older students a great opportunity to experience online education, which is fast becoming a preferred method of instruction in many colleges. It provides students with a chance to hone organization skills, independent learning strategies, and get used to a different way of learning.

Students can take charge of their academics by utilizing online resources they may have never explored before that help them with difficult class subjects. Students can begin to utilize a more open schedule to organize and prioritize their learning. In many cases, our upper-school students have had the opportunity to take more coursework and get further along on their academic path by taking advanced classes or extra electives.

This is a great season to take responsibility for their learning, to ask questions of the adults in their lives, and to pursue dual-credit options at local colleges. Time and location restrictions are removed, and now is the time for motivated students to get an edge on academic gain.

WACOAN: What hopes do you envision for a return to normalcy and the future of academics?

Selke: I don’t believe we will ever see normalcy like we once did, but I don’t believe this is necessarily a bad thing. I think our students and teachers will come back to school with renewed thankfulness for the opportunities we are given each day. My hope would be that this time of separation will make us that much more appreciative of the gift of education.

My hope is that we learn from this season and sharpen our skills as educators and administrators. I was incredibly proud of the efforts of my staff. Our teachers did not miss a beat. When some schools were forced to close and pause instruction, our students consistently learned new content throughout the quarantine.

I’m hopeful we can continue learning as we explore new, exciting ways of relaying content. It’s OK to get outside of our comfort zones, and this season really showed the skill and talent of teachers everywhere. They are the heroes in the story of 2020 and deserve all the love and respect we can give them. I hope, as a society, we begin to recognize the precious significance our teachers have in the lives of our children and honor their efforts.

Serving the Most Vulnerable

Shirley Langston
Family Support Specialist, Transformation Waco

WACOAN: Transformation Waco focuses on enhancing student outcomes at five priority schools in Waco Independent School District. As a family support specialist,
what do you see as your most important role in serving students, before and now during this very challenging time?

Langston: Our main focus is to really connect our schools with our community and to make our schools a comfortable place for our parents to come and communicate. We want to help them with whatever issues they might be having with their child’s education or any other underlying circumstances that might be preventing them from taking full advantage of their child’s academic success — whether it’s paying the rent, getting food or toiletries.

As a family support specialist, we are there to support the student academically but also socially, financially and even mentally. We connect them to the resources in our community that can help them through those challenges.

WACOAN: As schools went virtual last spring, what were the biggest challenges faced by your students and their families?

Langston: I’m certainly not thankful for this pandemic. A lot of peoples’ lives have been hindered and people have lost their lives. But it has exposed a lot of systemic poverty and situations that people were not aware of. And for that, I’m grateful.

I was telling some people in a meeting that we have families with no toilet paper and hygiene products — but the pandemic didn’t cause that. We already had those issues, and we have been providing those items to our families. But, some people have no idea that’s the case. Food stamps — or SNAP — doesn’t allow them to buy things like soap and laundry detergent;
it’s just for food. We have a washer and dryer at school where we can wash and dry their uniforms.

That’s important because how a child presents himself or how he feels about himself determines a lot about what’s going to happen in that day.

One of the biggest challenges we faced when everyone had to stay at home was how these kids were going to have access to these things, as well as the breakfast and lunch that they were used to getting at school. We immediately got with Child Nutrition Services and asked what we could do to provide food for these families. We hit the streets, knocking on doors, letting our families know that food was being provided at several locations. We started out with breakfast and lunch, then we added dinner and a weekend packet.

We had a food pantry that came about during this time, and it’s housed at First Baptist Church Waco. It’s called the Community Food Pantry, and people can make donations. What makes this food pantry different is that volunteers actually deliver to families that have no transportation. So, that is huge, and it’s still going on throughout the summer.

Another thing that I think was really exposed is that, though Waco ISD worked really, really hard to get our students into virtual learning, compared to other school districts, we were not there. We just were not there technology-wise. And I think that brought an awareness to our city, to our local government, that Waco ISD was not where Midway or Robinson or La Vega or the other school districts were. They were already doing some virtual learning, but that wasn’t happening for our schools. We were scrambling.

Transformation Waco and our zone schools, we worked really hard as family support specialists. We were out there in the community, trying to get technology to students, delivering laptops to homes, setting up hotspots, showing people how to get discounted Wi-Fi. It was a hard task to get all of these students technology so they could participate in virtual learning. It really showed our city that we’ve got to do better.

Another thing that was hard — and not to discount our parents — is thinking about a low-income neighborhood with parents who have not finished high school themselves, now trying to take on the role of a teacher. That was a lot of the problem.

But we were able to be the liaison, making sure the family had what they needed and there was a line of communication between the students and the teachers.

WACOAN: If your students cannot return to school face-to-face this fall — or that interaction is limited — how do you think that impacts their future success? And how do you weigh that against the physical risks of coming back face-to-face?

Langston: I think the thing that our kids are missing the most is social engagement. I’m just being honest. Education is very important for success, but our kids are resilient. Our kids come from low-income neighborhoods, and I think people have a tendency to believe that kids in poverty don’t learn well. That’s a myth. Our kids are bright and resilient.

The social determinants of their lives are what keep them from engaging in learning. If a child comes to school and they haven’t had a good night — there’s violence in their home or somebody’s selling drugs — they tend to come to school with those traumatic experiences. That’s what hinders their learning.

But at the same time, I want everyone to be safe — our kids, our teachers, our employees. If that means that our children would not come to school for a period of time, I’m OK with that because I feel like our kids will catch up. Kids can catch up, but we can’t get their lives back.

WACOAN: When thinking about your kids as we head into the fall, what keeps you up at night?

Langston: I’m a strong woman of faith, so I don’t really worry about much. My belief in God keeps me grounded, and I rarely stay up at night worrying about anything. I know that this, too, will pass.

WACOAN: What has given you hope through this time?

Langston: One thing I have been so happy to see is community organizations pooling their resources and efforts together to try and help as many struggling families as possible. It has been so good to see. With our families, I don’t think we have come up against a situation that we were not able to handle. And that’s thanks to our community partners who have been so willing to help.

Advancing in Academics

Jen Ferretter
AP Teacher, Vanguard College Preparatory School

WACOAN: As an AP and advanced level English and history teacher, what do you see as your most important role in serving students, before and now during this very challenging time?

Ferretter: Because Vanguard is a college preparatory school, my primary goal is always to make sure that my students are college ready. I very much want to make sure that they are able to not just get by in college but really excel.

No matter what students go on to study, they will never be poorly served by knowing how to write well. Good writers go far. And I think that it is crucial that students learn to be critical thinkers. Not everything that one reads is true.

Last but not least, I want to make sure that we graduate kind students, young adults who will help improve this world.

WACOAN: What upper level courses do you teach? And how many students do you teach at Vanguard?

Ferretter: I have been teaching AP art history, AP English literature, AP English language and AP European history at Vanguard. I am really blessed; I usually only have between 10 and 15 students in each section of a class, sometimes fewer.

I have been teaching for 22 years, 13 at Vanguard.

WACOAN: As schools went virtual last spring, what were the biggest challenges you faced, being able to continue instruction at the highest standard?

Ferretter: It was just really difficult not seeing the kids every day. I speak for all Vanguard teachers and probably all teachers: We love our students, and we missed them terribly.

Timing was another tough challenge. All of my in-person lessons were planned to fill 50 minutes, five days a week. But when we went virtual, we had to send our students a week’s work at a time because we had one longer Zoom class weekly. In other words, I had to set about five or six hours
of work per class.

It is very different teaching weekly as opposed to daily; I felt a little like my husband, [Dr. Luke Ferretter], a Baylor English professor. Interestingly, one of my colleagues rightly pointed out that this — weekly classes and independent student work in between — was as college prep as you could get. With regards to independent pacing, our virtual students were like college students.

WACOAN: How did you communicate with students, in order to keep them on track and help them prepare for AP tests?

Ferretter: I was so fortunate in that my students were already extremely well prepared for their AP exams even before we went virtual because we had spent the first three quarters of school reading closely and writing timed analyses and DBQs (Document-Based Questions). In English we had been analyzing texts almost every single day starting in August, and both my juniors and my seniors had already completed more than a dozen in-class essays.

Nevertheless, I made and uploaded a lot of YouTube videos both for my English and Euro classes. My seniors were reading Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart,’ and my juniors were reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day.’ Besides Zoom discussions on both, I made YouTube videos that explained different aspects of the texts, or I wrote out lectures and posted them online.

I also made YouTube review videos for all of Euro 1400-1914. The AP Euro exam usually covers 1350 to present day, Brexit and all, but this year it only went through 1914 to be fair to students who were not able to have class this spring.

And of course kids were emailing me with questions all the time. Some students took advantage of individual Zoom meetings or tutoring sessions that were easy to arrange.

WACOAN: Talk about your experience as an AP reader — a person who grades the tests as part of the College Board process. In reading tests this year, was there a different process? Was the impact of learning in virtual school obvious from the tests you read?

Ferretter: I actually found reading exams online quite easy, although I missed the camaraderie of in-person grading and I had been looking forward to visiting Salt Lake City. I graded about six hours a day for a week. I had a table leader who reviewed my scoring and made sure that I was on point.

Truthfully, I felt like the art history responses were just like those I had graded as a Euro reader [in the past], in that some kids scored really well and some kids didn’t score at all. This surprised me because all the exams were open book this year, so I thought that the score averages might be slightly higher than usual.

WACOAN: In general, what ‘losses’ will students and colleges see from the impact of AP courses, if/when they are not taught in person? How will it impact the relevance of AP tests?

Ferretter: I don’t think that students need to see losses. For example, 94.4% of my AP English language students passed this year’s AP exam although the fourth quarter was online, and 30% of those who passed earned perfect 5s. So, although I would argue that in the classroom is always best due to the ease of class discussions, AP classes can be taught online. Motivated students obviously do the best. But AP exams remain relevant.

In fact, now that colleges are not requiring the SAT or ACT due to COVID, I think that high AP scores will be even more important to students applying to competitive schools. Sixty percent of American students have all A’s on their high-school transcripts whereas less than 10% of AP English literature students earn a 5 on their AP exam. So being one of the latter can certainly help with admissions.

WACOAN: What concerns do you have for students, especially AP students, as far as the impact of not returning to school in person this fall? And how do you weigh that versus the physical risk of being back in person?

Ferretter: I am not at all worried about returning to school. Vanguard has a transition team that has been meeting all summer. The school has not only deep-cleaned every hall and room, they have ordered all teachers plastic full-face masks, and they are making sure that all classes are being taught in rooms where students can sit 6 feet apart. The arrival of students has been staggered over several days to avoid crowds. Lunch service has been totally reimagined to avoid lines. Contingency plans are in place should we have to go virtual again, and this time we will be able to meet with students more than once a week.

I am 100% confident that the students and I will be safe. That said, even if there were a physical risk, I would still return to school unless ordered not to. I think that all kids deserve a good education.

WACOAN: How can AP students help take charge of their academics and their future in these challenging times?

Ferretter: Thankfully, almost all the students that I taught last year were determined to take ownership of their work, but I do think that the most important thing that AP students can do to help themselves is not procrastinate. Follow directions thoroughly, read every lecture, watch every video, review those notes. Everything on the syllabus is there for a reason.

WACOAN: What hopes do you envision for a return to normalcy and the future of advanced academics?

Ferretter: I am not sure that normalcy will be an option this year, but I do hope to see my students in the classroom as much as possible.

I worry a lot about the future of advanced academics because it seems like they are being pushed on American students everywhere right now despite the fact that all studies show that the majority of high school students are not college ready.

Why is everyone — lawmakers, community colleges, administrators — trying to accelerate students’ paths to college graduation? I know, to save money, but surely a better response to ridiculous college costs would be to lower them, not have students do ‘college’ in high school?

As an educator, I worry that many advanced classes no longer prepare students for college. This is why AP is my preferred advanced class. In an AP class, students’ learning is judged on a standard exam that’s externally reviewed by unbiased readers using a rigorous scoring rubric. Maybe a student will pass out of a college class, but maybe he won’t. If he doesn’t, it’s okay — he is in high school. He will be well-prepared to succeed when taking a similar course again.

Teaching the Teachers

Terrill F. Saxon, Ph.D.
Professor of Educational Psychology and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Baylor University

WACOAN: As a school of education, what do you see as Baylor professors’ most important role in serving students and preparing them to become teachers, both before and now during this very challenging time?

Saxon: The most important role of the school of education’s professors who teach pre-service teachers is to properly equip them with the tools they will need to be highly effective with their future students. This role has not changed with the pandemic, but the tools may have. For example, there has been growing pressure to keep up with technology and how to best use it in the classroom. This pressure has increased exponentially since online learning is most likely here to stay in some way.

WACOAN: How many students are currently enrolled in the Baylor School of Education?

Saxon: There are around 380 undergrad students in our school.

WACOAN: And how long have you been teaching?

Saxon: I have been teaching for 25 years.

WACOAN: As the schools went virtual last spring, what were the biggest challenges you and other professors faced, being able to continue instruction at the highest standards?

Saxon: Most of the courses in our undergraduate teacher education program have a field-based component, meaning that some of the course occurs within a public school classroom. Many of our graduate courses have a field-based portion as well. These experiences occur in schools, clinics and other agencies. The biggest challenge with schools shutting down was finding a way for our students to not only complete their coursework but also for our seniors (teacher interns) to meet the Texas Education Agency’s minimum required number of supervised student-teaching clock-hours and days in public schools. Under Governor Abbott’s emergency declaration, TEA was able to issue waivers for educator preparation programs across the state for these requirements, and this allowed our students to move on in the certification process.

A challenge for all higher education institutions, as well as public and private schools, was quickly moving from face-to-face instruction to a web-based mode such as livestream, distance or remote learning, synchronous or asynchronous. Institutions, faculty and students at all levels had to quickly adapt to technology-based learning. While Baylor is well-positioned and equipped with this technology, college students are on the spectrum with their own computers, devices, internet speed and bandwidth, and this could limit their ability to learn through internet-based methods.

WACOAN: How were you able to communicate with students, in order to keep them on track and help them prepare to become teachers when they couldn’t even be in school themselves?

Saxon: Our program is relatively small, as are our number of students enrolled in each course. That allows faculty to stay connected to each student and provide a high-level of individual attention if needed. Virtual office hours were maintained, as well as communicating via email, phone, etc.

One reason our teacher education program is nationally recognized is because of an abundance of field experiences throughout and our culminating year-long student-teaching experience during the senior year. However, long before their senior year our students already have had many experiences in school settings where they learn from our wonderful district partners. When schools shut down in spring 2020, our students had already logged many hours — well beyond what TEA requires — learning from public school mentor teachers, their Baylor professors and lots of experience teaching children.

WACOAN: In general, what ‘losses’ will students see from the impact of education courses, if/when they are not taught in person?

Saxon: In my opinion, there is no substitute for physical presence during social interaction. Education, at least the way we have organized it, is largely a social event. Research supports the idea that we are wired to form social relationships with others and communicate through a variety of ways beyond spoken language, like body language, facial expression. Any mode of communication that limits our perceptions of these elements has the potential to limit our experience.

Having said that, technology has advanced so far that it accommodates a range of human communication nuances. The current generation of young adults, youth and children are probably better equipped for this technological interaction than those of us who got on board the technology train later as it was developing. So, it may be more difficult for those of us teaching than those who are learning.

Nevertheless, how our current situation will affect the future of our current students, what we consider a ‘loss,’ remains an empirical question. I am unaware of educational research published thus far on the effects on learning that have occurred since spring 2020. I suspect there will be lots of research on this as the year unfolds.

Another issue is our trying to define what the future is for these students. What methods will be changed, abandoned or created as a result of this experience? Humans adapt to their environments, and that is the best predictor for what the future holds.

WACOAN: How do you weigh the impact of virtual classes versus the physical risk of being back in person?

Saxon: This is an issue of following good science, using common sense and having consideration of others. Everyone knows at this point that science is being carried out to produce reliable and valid data on which to base our decisions. Science will most likely produce a vaccine and answer many questions related to how the virus spreads and who is most vulnerable.

Opening schools and returning to face-to-face education is a complex issue with real consequences. How you weigh the impact is determined by what good science has revealed so far, taking into consideration how others can be affected by the decision — like teachers getting sick and parents who must work — and by using our common sense.

WACOAN: What hopes do you envision for a return to normalcy and the future of education?

Saxon: My prediction is that a new normal will emerge that includes face-to-face, online and various hybrid forms throughout all levels of education, as well as society. New technologies will emerge allowing better experiences, and at the same time, we as people will change our behaviors and adapt in order to be successful in the new normal. We already have.

Advising More Than Academics

De’Jhan Burns
College and Career Readiness Counselor, Harmony School of Innovation

Ebony Stewart
College and Career Counselor, Midway High School

WACOAN: As a high school counselor, what do you see as your most important role in serving students, especially during this very challenging time?

Stewart: It has been most important in my role as a counselor to find flexible ways to correspond with students and listen to their stories, despite our inability to meet in a face-to-face setting. Students are presently being impacted by the pandemic in ways they likely never imagined.

In addition to managing the typical stressors associated with high school, students are also faced with uncertainty regarding their academic futures, in spite of the time they may have invested in thoughtful planning. Each student’s route to achieve his or her goals after high school is different, and each student has been impacted differently during the pandemic. It is imperative that I listen attentively in order to determine how I can best assist students with moving forward and overcoming obstacles as they continue to pursue their goals during these challenging times.

Burns: On my door, it says ‘Counselor,’ but kids come to us for all the things. Yes, we are guiding them in their academic life, but probably any school counselor will tell you, we have multiple roles. We are like mom and dad No. 2; we are also making sure kids have a lunch and are doing well at home.

A huge part of what I do is the emotional side. If kids aren’t doing well at home or are having a lot of outside issues, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for them to focus in school. As an English teacher, I had my kids journal a lot, and that gave me a huge perspective of what these babies are going through when they are not with me.

While academics and careers are a huge part of what I do, I focus a lot on building relationships with my students. If the relationship is not there, the student is a lot less likely to hear what you are trying to say. I make it a goal to connect with them on a deeper emotional level so that I can really get through to them. When we left school and then didn’t come back, that connection was huge.

WACOAN: How many students do you serve?

Stewart: My primary focus is on college and career readiness at Midway. I coordinate the planning for course offerings, scheduling of classes and advising for approximately 500 juniors and seniors enrolled in the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy, Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy or in dual credit coursework through McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College.

Burns: I have about 200 students under my wing. Last year, I had 8th, 10th and 12th grades. As counselors, we follow the children through their time with us, so I have the same kids every year. That way, there’s consistency and we really get to know the families.

WACOAN: How long have you been in this role?

Stewart: I have served as a professional school counselor since 2009.

Burns: This will be my third year as a counselor, but I’ve been at Harmony for seven years. I was a high school English teacher before I transitioned into the school counselor role.

WACOAN: As schools went virtual last spring, what were the biggest challenges you faced with your students, regarding their academics?

Stewart: One of the biggest challenges for students was the sudden transition to online learning after spring break. Some students were learning how to learn at home and at the same time learning how to navigate an online learning platform. There were also technical difficulties for some.

From an academic standpoint, some students found it difficult to engage in the virtual instruction and interaction with the same level of fidelity they contributed during face-to-face instruction and interaction with their peers. As a counselor, I was faced with the task of finding creative ways to assist students through this transition remotely.

Burns: The lack of structure was hard on students. A lot of our kids have parents working long hours, for instance, in the medical field. With everybody home,
many of them had to help take care of younger siblings while the parent went to work. They were trying to get everyone fed and taken care of and felt like they hardly had time to log in. I advised them to try and build some structure into their day, so they would have a little bit more control.

Another big issue is inequity or lack of access. At school, there is plenty of technology for everyone to use. But when we transitioned to online, we were able to give out one computer per family. And we have many families with multiple siblings, all having to share the computer. Another challenge was lack of internet. Some companies were offering free Wi-Fi, but that required the purchase of a $75 router, which was another issue. You see where those really big gaps are when you implement something like this. And because of these issues, everything just took the students more time. We tried to work with them and accommodate them however we could.

Another problem was food scarcity. About 80-85% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged, which gives them free access to breakfast and lunch. Those first months, we bagged up sandwiches, chicken nuggets, milk, cereal and handed them out to the families.

I think that took away a lot of anxiety because they knew their kids would at least have breakfast and lunch.

WACOAN: How were you able to communicate with students, in order to keep them on track and help them create schedules for the upcoming year?

Stewart: The majority of my correspondence with students regarding scheduling for the upcoming year has been through email. Many students are able to access their email through their phones, and we have been able to tackle small tasks and questions by those means. I communicated with students through Google Meet and phone calls for more in-depth questions.

WACOAN: What concerns do you have for students, academically, as far as the impact of not returning to school in person this fall? And how do you weigh those concerns against the physical risk of being back in person?

Stewart: There are benefits associated with students having options regarding the method of delivery and rigor of academic instruction based on their individual needs and learning styles.

My main concern is that due to the pandemic, students may be limited in their ability to make the academic choices they believe are best for them. The perceived physical risks of returning to face-to-face classroom instruction vary for each student. In an ideal world, each student would have the ability to weigh those risks and make a personal choice about which option best meets his or her needs. In our current state with the pandemic, it is uncertain how much choice students will have regarding their academic preferences.

Burns: My daughter is going to be in first grade, and it’s a really hard decision. As a mother and an educator who loves all my students, there’s not a question in my mind. With our facility and with most schools, the classrooms are already crowded. And now, the desks need to be 6 feet apart with partitions between the desks and we need everyone to wear a mask and be able to do fever checks and have hand-sanitizing stations in every class.

In truth, the classroom of today is not going to look like the classroom of the past. If this virus is something that’s going to persist, the classroom won’t look the same. If we do have a percentage of kids come back to the classroom, the desks are going to be spaced. The kids can’t change classes every hour, and they can’t go to their lockers and interact with their friends. I don’t think going back to the classroom in person is the best thing until we get the number [of positive COVID-19 cases] under control, and right now they are astronomical. It’s going to be very difficult to enforce all these rules, both with your typical high school students, as well as with those who have special needs — and that’s going to lead to spread.

We have staff members who are recovering from cancer and who are pregnant or have newborns. Some of us have elderly parents and our own children to think about now. It’s a tall order to say that the level of education is going to be exactly the same when we are virtual. But I know how hard the teachers are working. None of us have taken a break. Teachers are working night and day to get lesson plans and resources online. We are putting every imaginable resource online so these kids can connect digitally. And a good thing is that these kids know how to use technology.

Is learning going to be exactly the same? No. It’s all going to come down to whether or not students have access. If a student doesn’t have access, we have no right to expect the same level of effort to a student who has multiple computers and tablets in their home.

WACOAN: What hopes do you envision for a return to normalcy and for the future of academics?

Burns: One thing I love about working with students is that they are very adaptable and very resilient. Right now, this is a very hard transition. But if we set the standard for them, they can meet it. But we have to do the best we can, as educators, to provide the resources that they need. That is what we are working on night and day. I hope that through this we can all build more empathy, more care and awareness for each other.

Navigating the Emotional Impact

Kathleen Geiger, M.Ed., LPC

WACOAN: Describe what you see as the most significant impact, mentally and emotionally, of young children, older kids and even college students not being able to attend school during this time.

Geiger: The first few weeks of the shutdown seemed to offer families a chance to pause. I consistently heard clients say they secretly enjoyed having the time away — away from constant after-school commitments and nonstop homework, rushed schedules and lack of downtime. However, after about four weeks, children and parents began to settle into
a longer-term ‘normal.’

Parents were reporting their young children were having difficulty following a schedule, they were more clingy, and sibling conflict was happening more than before. Parents reported having difficulty getting their children on a routine and found it difficult to get their children engaged in consistent online school learning.

After the novelty wore off, parents reported middle school children as lacking energy, moodier and defensive about parents’ insistence on making the home a mini-classroom. Children were insisting on more online time, just not in-school online time. Parents reported being confused about how much to intervene and much to allow their child to self-pace.

Although parents didn’t need to instruct, per se, their teenagers, they did struggle with how to keep their kids engaged in finishing lectures and homework. Without the classroom community, learning was not as fun. They reported their teenagers as restless, lonely and hungry for peer interaction. Parents were finding their children more anxious, and as the pandemic continued, anger and apathy became more apparent. To be sure, the longer schools stay closed the less motivated everyone was to continue the in-school pace.

Children with special needs, such as autism, emotional difficulties and learning disabilities, suffered the greatest. The needed services for these children are built in to the daily [school] schedule, and I cannot overstate the vulnerability these children experience when they are unable to continue getting the services they need.

Perhaps the hardest reality is that many children had nowhere to go. Those parents who could work, did. Parents were cautioned to social distance with the elderly, including those of their own families. This left a gap in the family child care system. Parents felt fewer and fewer options, and many children spent much more time alone than was healthy. Without supervision, these children were vulnerable to dangers. Many times nutritional needs went unmet due to lack of resources and meal preparation. Families experiencing joblessness and illness were stressed to the brink. The reports on the increase of child abuse are just now coming to light.

WACOAN: What kinds of lasting effects can this have on kids?

Geiger: Humans are hard-wired for connection. Neuroscience has proven that our nervous systems want us to connect with other human beings. The distress of social isolation is biologically identical to the distress of physical pain. When we are in a state of isolation, our bodies respond as though we are in danger.

People, especially children, need other people in order to calm and regulate themselves. When we are regulated, we are able to think clearly, make decisions, solve problems and manage emotional upsets in a healthy way. Without others, clear thinking and healthy emotional development is not possible. Connection is necessary in order to manage our internal stress.

WACOAN: In general, how do you weigh the severity of these effects compared to the physical risks of going back to school this fall, while numbers are still high?

Geiger: While I have no expertise in public health, policy or epidemiology, I look to professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control for guidance. The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school. The importance of in-person learning is well documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.

WACOAN: Children in unstable or at-risk households can face particular challenges, simply due to the absence of parental support or getting basic needs met — things that are often provided at school. How big a concern is this for you?

Geiger: Schools provide a foundation of normalcy and stability for children and adolescents. Schools provide structure by providing a place to engage the thinking and learning brain. Schools provide children with social and emotional connection to both adults as well as other children. Predictable services such as reliable nutrition, attachment and direction and medical assistance help keep children healthy. Exercise, play and creativity are all necessary for the development of healthy children. Schools have long been a safe haven for children, especially those with special needs, who may be unable to access consistent needed services elsewhere. Children need a great deal of attention in order for healthy brain development. The negative consequences of the pandemic will affect children the most in the long term.

WACOAN: Even children in stable homes, there can still be a mental and emotional impact from the loss of time in school. Can you talk about that?

Geiger: On one hand, social distancing is necessary for our literal survival, and on the other hand a severe lack of social connection creates long-term problems which also threaten our emotional survival. While stress is an unavoidable and necessary part of life, long-term stress can become overwhelming and intolerable, and when this happens a child can experience something called ‘toxic stress.’ Toxic stress develops when a child experiences strong, frequent and/or prolonged adversity. Biologically, the body becomes activated and the stress response of ‘fight or flight’ is turned on, and over time, if not soothed and shut off, it will overwhelm the child to the extent that learning becomes difficult, behavior is either shut-down or erratic and emotions get out of control.

WACOAN: What are some things parents can do to help kids through anxious and uncertain times?

Geiger: To guide children through this ordeal with as little long-term negative effect as possible, we must focus not on what we can’t and aren’t doing, but on what we can do. And what we can do is to assist, teach and help children build their resilience. The more resilient our children are, the less likely they will be to have toxic stress and long-term problems.

Every kid can be resilient. Children are not born with resilience, they learn it and strengthen it throughout their lives. Resilience is the ability to positively adapt to adversity in a healthy and stable way, and it’s created in everyday normal ways. It means having a sense of hope and being optimistic about the future. It’s a feeling of efficacy or like you are able to have some control over your environment and circumstances. It’s also important that kids know they have someone to turn to so they are not alone with their fears.

For the most current information about each school’s response to COVID-19, visit the websites below:

Acton Academy Waco:
Axtell ISD:
Bishop Louis Reicher:
Bosqueville ISD:
Bruceville-Eddy ISD:
China Spring ISD:
Connally ISD:
Crawford ISD:
Eagle Christian Academy:
EOAC Waco Charter School:
Harmony School of Innovation:
Harmony Science Academy:
La Vega ISD:
Live Oak Classical School:
Lorena ISD:
Mart ISD:
McGregor ISD:
Midway ISD:
Moody ISD:
Parkview Christian Academy:
Rapoport Academy:
Riesel ISD:
Robinson ISD:
St. Paul’s Episcopal School:
Valor Preparatory Academy:
Vanguard College Preparatory School:
Waco ISD:
Waco Montessori School:
West ISD:
Woodway Christian School:

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