Sitting in the ER of the Kwajalein hospital, my wife turned to me and teared up. “I can’t believe we’re here. After all we’ve been through, we’re finally here – and nobody else here really understands,” she said. Moments later, we both received our first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Everyone has a unique pandemic story. So many have been shared with so many left to tell. But ours was a winding one; taking us halfway across the world. Sitting in the hospital, both my wife and I realized just how heavy our previous 11 months were. Certainly there were signs. Our 4 year old covering her ears and cowering at a local birthday party. A sense of panic as the next wave of kids ran to me at a community event. Separation anxiety for our middle child, constantly clinging, unable to engage in our new reality without constant support and guidance. Ours was a tale of two realities. One, full of Covid, while the other, never having felt it.
As a long term substitute in a special education room, there’s incalculable work to be done. But something our team has begun to notice are the little signs that students are carrying the pandemic with them. RTI and IEP meetings are ever the more complicated as we sift through student stories from their time in the continental United States. Every story is unique but full of hypotheticals and the reality that the previous 11 months have mattered in ways ineffable. Although scattered throughout a school that was never forced to close, enter into digital learning, and carry the weights of mitigation; we still view students with pandemic experience as complicated and altered. With so much of the process of caring for children falling back into the basics.
Regardless of how many principles of learning you embrace, as schools begin to open and immediate fears of the pandemic recede, teachers must hold the line of relational education. Although wrong, states will resume standards based assessments and high stakes metrics. Funding structures will still be centered on enrollment and attendance. But all the while, the needs and realities of students will have changed. How are we to know the impacts of a year of remote education? What’s to be expected when vaccinations resurrect the classrooms we crave and cultivate? No one knows for sure.
The only certainty is grace through relationships. Walking my daughter outside of the party to catch her breath. Hugging our middle child a little longer, hoping she’ll begin to let go of the anxiety she’s developed. These are the practices we must embrace as the next year brings whatever you cling to as “normal.” Acts of patience and understanding. Clear communication and a willingness to ask the tough questions with grace. Most importantly, operating with an expectation that although things will begin to look normal, our children are far from it.
Although the vaccination feels like the end of a period, children make up 25% of the population and will likely not receive it this year. Kids will carry the weight of their situations into a reality where adults are safe, but they are not. Whether the threat of a virus or the pressures of entering into familiar territory as something new, teachers hold the keys to a soft landing. We must remain understanding that they will face risk, however small, entering into society.
Every morning I have playground duty. For ten minutes, myself and a colleague watch and interact with students before another day begins. Without fail, half way through my time, my middle daughter arrives from home. The nature of a small island is that kids can ride their bikes, free of the dangers that space and population density brings. As she walks onto campus, she runs to me, arms outstretched. She hangs on me, tells me she loves me, and stands, physically connected to me. Although it has been over a month, she still needs to feel security and familiarity. A product of both a new environment and the traumas brought on by a pandemic, by definition world altering in immeasurable ways. So I stand, talk, and provide security. Much like the world, mindful that who she was is gone and who she is has arrived. Offering me an opportunity to cling to what’s lost, or help usher in what’s next, unknown and unfamiliar, but as urgent and important as the pandemic itself.
As the 2021-2022 school year comes into focus and conversations begin in each of your districts, there must be a place at the table for mental health. The social-emotional conversations should drive the conversations being had about the workings of a school. Each of us offering opportunity and insight from our experiences; hoping to impact our communities for the better. When the conference rooms open and all our vaccination cards are full, what will be your voice? How will you begin to address the unknown and, most importantly, will you consent to a return to “normalcy” when the word no longer exists as we once knew it? Ever mindful that as we mourn the past, the present and future will not wait.