Shifting a school to distance learning has revealed an important truth: small school communities are essential too - to students, to their families and to all of the educators who comprise the community. I raise this now as our daily discussion is infused with conversation and knowledge about what are considered essential services as the country, individual states, and communities consider expanding services and access as stay-at-home orders are lifted.
There is no disputing that our health care workers, first responders, food service workers, delivery people and others are among the most essential services for each of us during this pandemic. These selfless workers help us survive, both in our homes, and in health care facilities. We agree they are essential because our survival, our physical health, depends on them. It is clear to me in that same vein, that our small school communities are also essential. Good schools are more than just a place of learning academic subjects - they are an important community of humans connected together. Students build and form relationships with their peers and trusting adults at school. They learn how to interact with each other, respect others, navigate through adolescence, form friendships, and endure the hardships that come with those relationships.
Schools are also the place where children learn to strengthen connections outside of their family with other trusting adults. Schools help children discover what they are good at, what they like and don’t like. Children learn to negotiate and advocate for themselves and others at school. In smaller schools in particular, students are seen and known throughout the school. Teachers know each student by name, even those that they don’t teach. They know their families, their extended families, sometimes even their pets.
A school can also be a place of refuge for some students. It may be where they find acceptance, care and support beyond their families. It may be where they learn what their own personal strengths are; what supports their emotional health and strengthens their core. Fundamentally, there is an energy in a school that can’t be duplicated in other settings, that comes from a shared purpose of being together. Students in small school communities often describe their school community as their family.
And so during this time when school buildings are closed, it is even more critical that we are able to find a way to duplicate the important community features that many of our schools offer. I’ve read recently about many great examples of how schools have done just that, such as:
Providing regular on-going video chat opportunities for even young students, allowing them to both see and interact with their teachers and just as importantly, with each other.
Continuation of important school traditions, with creative remote spins. Remote prayer services and virtual or drive-by celebrations provide important connections to some of the best traditions of a school.
Informal distance activities with students such as teacher led bedtime stories, lunch bunch with counselors, socially distant dances, and more provide a social outlet for students and continue those important relationship connections that exist within a school.
Community building continues at great schools during these times. They continue to create the hope that students need to know that things will eventually get better. Many small school communities have extended themselves beyond what seems feasible during a pandemic to reach their students - with limited staffing and resources available. And so, I’d like to acknowledge that schools, while physically closed right now, are still very much open to supporting the ongoing growth of our children.