These are unprecedented times in Washington state. School districts are finalizing plans for reopening schools, and many have chosen online and hybrid learning models. But how have the COVID-19 school closures impacted students, and how can we best support them in the fall?

In this webinar, Washington state Teachers of the Year Amy Campbell (2020), Robert Hand (2019), Mandy Manning (2018, and the 2018 National Teacher of the Year), Camille Jones (2017), and Nate Bowling (2016) share what they are hearing from students, parents, and colleagues in their community, share what students need to begin the 2020-21 school year, and answer your questions.

Moderated by League of Education Voters Communications Director Arik Korman.

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Washington state Teachers of the Year Amy Campbell (2020), Robert Hand (2019), Mandy Manning (2018, and the 2018 National Teacher of the Year), Camille Jones (2017), and Nate Bowling (2016) spoke with us on what they are hearing from their communities and what students need to return to schools this fall.

On what students, parents, and colleagues are saying in their communities

Mandy Manning spoke on how educators receive hope, and in turn offer hope, from kids. However, with this pandemic, she’s noticed students, parents, and colleagues are struggling with upkeeping this relationship with each other.

“This is a challenging time where it is not as comfortable, it is difficult, and are worried about the health of themselves and their students,” Manning said, as she stated anxiety was a big commonality in the community regarding what will come next.

Nate Bowling shared the same sentiment, stating his own colleagues feel that same anxiety with the growing uncertainty.

“I heard a lot of people who really care about the work that they do and take the work seriously, who don’t feel like they’re being set up to be successful in that work,” Bowling said.

Bowling emphasized the community’s need for access, especially for children. Specifically, stating we need to address the technology divide in our students and how this pandemic deepened it.

Amy Campbell, who works as a special education teacher, also brought up the topic of access after sharing her experiences this summer listening and working directly with families who have children with disabilities.

“Students who need this extra support were disproportionately impacted during the closure,” Campbell said. “It was even harder [than it already was] to figure out the accommodation modifications… we create[d] a new barrier through the way we’re doing this.”

Camille Jones’ work centers on giving students access first, citing the work of parents in her community coming together to try to find what students need based on what they didn’t receive in the spring. Robert Hand emphasized also that these efforts to make changes to our school systems are sparking hope in communities.

“This is an opportunity for us to actually look at these changes that we’ve been talking about to make in schools, and to really embrace them,” Hand said.

Communities are finding this time at the intersection of a social justice movement and global pandemic to actively assess our schools and actionably follow through on initiatives to better it.

On what students need to return back to school

When the panelists were asked what students needed to begin the year, Campbell discussed the importance of social-emotional learning and the roles relationship building between teachers and students can alleviate the struggles that come with returning in the fall.

“No matter who you are as a teacher, who you’re serving, I think we need to start with relationships: How do we center on each student?” Campbell posed to the group. “Without those relationships, without that connection, what’s going to bring kids back?”

Mandy Manning emphasized the need to support the mental health of students because without doing so, students would not be able to learn anyway.

A big theme in Manning’s points was the idea of flexibility, combatting the lack of understanding in many school reopening plans that do not address the fact that not all students have the same level of access on many fronts – from technology, to differing family dynamics, resources, etc.

For Manning, now is the time to be flexible with the ways we perceive and actionably use schools as well.

“We need to remove ourselves from these traditional standards of what we think school is, and really get down to what school actually is, which is building humans that are passionate and community-minded and able to learn on their own,” Manning said. “Its’ not about what schools are getting kids to do, it’s about what are we helping them to be able to do when they are older.”

Nate Bowling spoke on five elements of high function schools for a student. The list included engaging instruction, physical safety, extra-curricular activities that are meaningful, nutritious and healthy food, and facilities worth caring about. Bowling spoke on how this pandemic has affected much of this list, meaning that these are core areas of work that must be addressed for students to have a well-balanced and functioning school experience.

Bowling and Robert Hand both addressed the need to incorporate more students and parents into these conversations as well.

“The reality is whatever it is that we offer or do, we have to make sure we are giving equal access to everybody to be able to do the same things – otherwise it’s a totally inequitable system,” Hand said.

This is a crucial part in what is necessary for students to return and retain successfully, as many students are disproportionately affected by the system and are often not present to give insight to the impact the system’s flaws have.

On this pandemic and addressing racial equity

Camille Jones emphasized the need for culturally responsive learning models and the responsibility for all stakeholders in education to stay committed to these initiatives.

“Districts in this direct work on racial equity, if you are working or not working on them in the past, do not put those initiatives on hold,” Jones said.

Nate Bowling added onto this point and reminded attendees that these acts of addressing the issues of racial justice are needed now more than ever.

“Schools are closing because of the viral outbreak, and that viral outbreak is disproportionately impacting Black and brown and low-income families,” Bowling said. “Equity work must be at the forefront of our work.”


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