Debate and conversation continue about how to open up our public schools during this COVID-19 era.
Many communities are offering two options to students and parents and caregivers: virtual learning or in-school. Families have serious concerns about which is the best choice for them, understandably. California’s two largest school districts — Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified — decide to begin the 2020 school year online. Other districts do not have the luxury of a virtual option.
Health experts, epidemiologists and pediatricians offer insights and teacher union leaders remain locked in an “either-or” debate — to open or not to open — with US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Add to that questions about testing — who gets tested and who pays — plus quarantine procedures, class size and distancing, and the divides seem to widen.
But one thing brings us all together: the well-being of our children and their caregivers. I propose we place the well-being of every child in our society at the center of our 2020 school opening procedures and guidelines.
Introducing “well-being pods”
What we need is a bridge — a seamless home and school partnership in which parents and caregivers and teachers co-create the maximum learning environment for their students.
This partnership focuses on children’s physical and social-emotional well-being. Social-emotional learning, which has its roots in the psychology of well-being, aims to help increase academic outcomes. SEL can and should be used to produce mental health and well-being outcomes, not at the expense of academic achievement but at least equal in importance.
This partnership will allow teachers to establish “well-being pods” or small groups of students. For example, many countries have limited class size — often allowing a maximum of only 10 to 15 students in a classroom — and place desks several feet apart. Some countries group children in pods or cohorts with social interaction largely restricted to those groups, especially at recess and lunchtime. Pods can be established for students enrolled either online or in person.
In well-being pods, or “pandemic pods” as they are sometimes referred to, instructional content is developed by the school district and delivered remotely — via videoconferencing platform — or on-site in a classroom.
Students learning at home are guided by a parent who has been trained to facilitate students in their pod in SEL exercises. The parent also advises other parents and caregivers on how to implement the exercises at their homes with their children.
Students attending school at a physical campus are greeted in the morning, as they enter the school or classroom, by their teacher who is trained as a well-being pod facilitator — similar to the SEL program, Responsive Classroom. Students’ physical health is supported through COVID-19 mitigation measures, as well as complex emotions through the safe expression of feelings and a sense of belonging.
One of the advantages of the well-being pods is that they can be delivered in virtual format to students learning from home and those learning in a classroom — and using the same facilitators!
Ensuring physical health and safety
A primary goal of the well-being pod is to support physical safety and health by enhancing contact tracing. The New York Times reported about a study from Ireland of six people who were infected — three adults, two students in high school and one student in elementary school. The group had spent time together in school before the closures took place in the spring. According to the Times story, researchers examined 1,155 people connected to the individuals — through school activities — to see if any of them had a confirmed coronavirus infection. Only two adults were found with the virus and both were connected to one of the original infected adults outside of school. No students were found to have transmitted the virus. It appears that pods can help maintain physical health and safety.
Enhancing social-emotional learning
Parents and families are concerned about mental health. Researchers in China conducted a study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, surveying 1,784 students in grades 2 through 6 in and near Wuhan, who were confined to their homes because of the pandemic. About 23% of the students reported symptoms of depression and 19% reported symptoms of anxiety. Researchers attribute these symptoms to the decline in outdoor activities and social interaction since the beginning of the pandemic.
Well-being pods help parents and caregivers understand the inner life of each child through SEL resources that connect home and school. Parents, caregivers and teachers learn how to impart SEL competencies, including self-awareness, emotional awareness, a life purpose and dreams orientation, self-directed successes in school and life, and creating healthy social interactions, among others. SEL develops resilient children who can withstand trauma and upsets; direct their own learning; create pathways of success; and contribute to the greater good.
Well-being pods combine the best practices and insights from parents, caregivers and leaders in medicine, mental health and education. Let’s grow from this crisis and do the right thing — for the well-being of children.
Henry G. Brzycki, Ph.D. has more than 30 years of experience providing leadership to the fields of education and psychology. He co-developed a K-12 social-emotional learning program known as The Champions Program, among other programs. He has authored three best-selling books on how to produce psychological well-being outcomes from K-16 schooling. He can be contacted at [email protected].
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