The reach of our schools goes far beyond academics, as we have witnessed more during this global pandemic than ever before. Florida was an early national leader in ramping up distance learning options for students, and sharing the lessons learned from that experience will help ensure that all students are able to receive a high-quality education no matter what the upcoming school year brings. We are excited to partner with the UF Lastinger Center to share out the findings of their Virtual Listening Tour and reflect on best practices that were implemented in districts and schools throughout the state.
An early theme that has emerged from their research is a high level of concern over the significant trauma experienced as a result of COVID-19. In a Virtual Listening Tour interview, Orange Park Junior High Principal Justin Faulkner noted, “Mental health was the fastest thing that we saw impacted. I don’t think that people anticipated quite the impact COVID-19 would have, not just on our kids, we knew that would happen, but on parents. Some are dealing with the loss of a job, and they’re also now becoming a part-time teacher.”
To address the challenges they were seeing, leaders at all levels–classroom, school, and district–innovated and created new ways to get food, technology, and resources into the hands of families, and some districts pivoted to focus more intently on mental health. “We removed duties [from school counselors] that often get in the way of what they truly do,” Faulkner said. We’re really connected with our kids and families. My counselors started doing more virtual parent counseling, which was a new experience for them. They revealed this was a gap in what we had been doing in our schools.”
Impact Florida’s Five Conditions That Support Great Teaching emphasize the importance of a shared vision for student success. While a vision for great teaching necessarily attends to instruction itself, it is heartening to see that Lastinger’s research affirms what we have seen in our work through Districts for Impact: leading schools and districts have a shared vision that also attends to the social-emotional wellness of their students and prioritizes ensuring the equity of student access to instruction itself.
COVID-19 has shown us that access and equity mean much more than just access to rigorous coursework or great teachers. While those things are incredibly important, leaders who also helped their students overcome social-emotional trauma–like food insecurity, disrupted access to the safety net of health care or counseling supports, and a lack of access to critical broadband access, for example–were actually best equipped to ensure that the academic considerations of a great education were even possible for their students.
We are grateful to the Lastinger Center for highlighting the importance of acknowledging the trauma that occurred for students and families in grappling with the myriad insecurities created by COVID-19. As education leaders continue to reflect and learn from the distance learning experience from last spring, it is critical we do not forget the importance of the deep relationship that schools and teachers must have with students and families. Taking a second, or even third look at how our systems work to support students and families (or don’t yet, as they could or should) is critical. Making adjustments that better acknowledge and address the social-emotional needs of students and families as they process and heal from the challenges they have faced this year will go a long way in making sure we emerge better equipped and stronger than before to support student success in Florida.
The University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning’s Trauma-Informed Care Brief can be viewed in its entirety here.