How will you support students as they return to school this fall? A K-12 leader offers six considerations for supporting students in your back to school planning.

School buildings closed. Learning moved from the classroom to home. End of the year celebrations became virtual events. It all seems surreal, but now is the time to reflect and prepare for supporting students as they will head back to school this fall in whatever form that takes — in school or at home or perhaps, even both. 

Back to school planning is an essential process for schools and, in a time of uncertainty, is significantly more challenging. Identifying the concerns of students, families and staff serves as an important place to begin.  

What are some emerging concerns for back-to-school planning aside from the social distancing and mask regulations? 

Six considerations for back to school planning 

As principals and student support teams work to identify back-to-school planning priorities, I recommend a focus on the following six concerns for supporting students’ social, emotional and academic needs:

  • Grief will have impacted almost everyone at some point during the pandemic. Some students will have even experienced the passing of a loved one. It will be essential to support these students with additional supports that address the stages of grief and help them develop coping skills and closure. We shouldn’t assume this support and closure has happened. Indeed, some grief may be yet to come.
  • Loss and Trauma will be the focus of social-emotional support for many students. The loss of connections, loss of celebrations such as graduation, loss of jobs, loss of a routine, loss of a sense of belonging may create a palpable undercurrent of sadness, depression and lack of motivation. Trauma also will have an impact as students have struggled with family problems, lack of nutrition and basic physical necessities, and loss of focus and motivation for academic achievement. 
  • Absenteeism will become a topic of concern. Students who were uncomfortable entering the school building before the pandemic may find it difficult to return. Even students that traditionally did not experience chronic absenteeism might experience fear of the unknown as they navigate their approach to social re-engagement or continued distancing, whatever the case may be. Many students may feel a sense of detachment or displacement since they had begun to develop a routine—productive or not—that didn’t involve coming to school to engage with peers and educators each day.   
  • Privacy and personal space have been limited during this remote time, and students are finding themselves insecure about allowing peers to see their homes or bedrooms. In addition, parents and students want to understand or assess the risks of attending school. Since members of the community may still feel vulnerable—physically or emotionally—it is vital that professionals reinforce a commitment to discretion and respect for all. 
  • Labeling may result from evolving or expanding academic gaps, misperceptions around the disease, economic disparities and a host of other reasons. It is essential for school and classroom leaders to reinforce the need for empathy and support to rebuild a strong, hopeful and inviting community.
  • Trust will be on everyone’s minds as students, teachers and staff members return to school. Every member of the school community wants to trust that school is, once again, a safe environment. Perspectives on what constitutes safe actions and behaviors will vary widely, so it will be important for leadership to convey clear guidelines and protocols for students, teachers and staff members.  

Positive lessons to remember in back to school planning

Although your back to school planning may initially focus on the concerns, it is just as important to highlight for your community any positive lessons or warm reflections that emerged during this period of social distancing. 

  • Empathy. Encourage appreciation and some comfort from the outpouring of community support demonstrated as everyone shared this unprecedented experience.
  • Strength-Based. Highlight the student strengths emerging and heavily exercised during this time. Encourage educators and families to leverage them as a vital asset in the transition back to school or to a more structured virtual environment.
  • Resiliency. People were challenged by many obstacles, but they learned that with hope, persistence and the support of others when needed, anyone can achieve. It allowed us to understand resiliency through difficult times.
  • Connecting. Social distancing showed us how precious human connection is. It also taught us creative ways to reconnect with friends and family in ways that will live well past this social distancing phase. 

As you think about back to school planning, remember the importance of flexibility as we must always be prepared to improvise and respond to unexpected turns in the road. Find ways to track success and build on these successes through a solution-finding team that can broadcast and celebrate what is working.

Deborah Hardy

Deborah Hardy

Dr. Deborah Hardy is a senior advisor to Intellispark. She has 25 years of experience as a school counselor and is a former director of K12 school counseling services in New York. Currently Dr. Hardy works as a consultant and provides training for school counselors in developing the support for all students by embracing the whole child approach and personalized learning. Dr. Hardy works on topics such as implementing a comprehensive school counseling program, curriculum writing and technology for school counselors, multi-tiered of support processes, and other topics. Dr. Hardy is an adjunct professor at NYU, LIU and Western Connecticut State University. Dr. Deborah Hardy is also founder of GuidED Consulting.