As principal of the Urban Assembly School for Collaborative Healthcare, I want my students to succeed under any circumstance and I believe that social-emotional learning (SEL) is the best tool to ensure student success. In the last five years, we have transformed the climate and culture of the school, such that students actively seek opportunities to develop SEL skills. These connections have reaped quantitative and qualitative benefits for our school community. Over the course of 4 years at my school, physical altercations have gone down, SEL competencies have increased and school surveys have consistently reported that students feel safer and more empowered. SEL has made a difference and I am proud to say that my staff is committed to using it. We even managed to successfully transition our social-emotional supports to the virtual space during the last four months of the 2019–2020 school year.
With all of this said, as a school leader I can acknowledge that it is much harder to provide students with SEL support in light of COVID-19. At this time, educators are scrambling to reimagine schools, provide new academic resources for students, and transition to remote and hybrid instruction. There is a lot competing for our time and investment. There is also a lot that we still do not know. And still, while there is much uncertainty that looms over schools reopening and what the classroom will look like in the fall, I am committed to prioritizing social-emotional learning at my school and I urge all educators to do the same. This is the time for SEL.
We are living in a time where students and staff are losing loved ones, where families are facing the anxieties that come from heightened job, food and health insecurities, and where racial injustices are marked by another hashtag on a daily basis. Many of our students no longer have access to affirming safe spaces as a result of COVID-19, which threatens their ability to develop and thrive.
Not only is SEL needed now more than ever, but it is possible in a virtual or hybrid learning space. When schools physically closed in March, my school transitioned our SEL supports remotely along with instruction. We virtually repurposed our advisories, which serve as an open space for students to connect with peers and dedicated adult advisors. Receiving at least 90 mins weekly of tailored SEL development in a small virtual setting, students still had a space where they could safely express themselves to a trusted community. Within the first 3 days our “new normal,” advisors contacted over 95% of our students and held conversations that started off with “How are you? I am here for you.” Once school became remote, advisors served as conduit to responding to and processing sensitive information between families and the school and even now, play a role in supporting students over the summer.
Our staff also adopted a “no harm” policy where teachers proactively demonstrated compassion and made accommodations for students. If a student was unable to complete their assignments because they needed technology, a device was provided; if students needed to adjust their submission times due to their irregular sleep patterns, changes were made; if a student was unable to describe their feelings in advisory or during class, they were provided time to speak with a teacher or a counselor, where they could say as much or as little as they desired. And if a student or their family member was directly impacted by COVID, care packages were sent out and follow-up was made. Adopting this policy has been helpful to the students at my school and I believe that it can be of benefit to students and school communities elsewhere.
During this time of crisis, I urge every administrator, teacher, and parent to demand their school community adopt the strongest SEL policies they can. We are living in a pandemic and we have a responsibility to prioritize social-emotional development and student well being. As our education system seeks to safely serve our students this fall, I encourage us to lean into our responsibility to support students so that they not only make it through these wild times, but that they are able to thrive in the future.