In addition to adjusting schedules and instruction methods, Idaho educators are also dealing with another side effect of the COVID-19 public health crisis and the soft closure of schools — we miss our students. We worry about their well-being, especially those who might be vulnerable for one reason or another. We are so used to seeing them and helping them every day that there is now a void that can’t be filled through digital communication. We miss the learning, the laughter, and yes, even the drama and angst that occur in a classroom setting.
As president of the Idaho Education Association, I’m speaking daily with educators who are sharing these thoughts and concerns as they navigate the uncharted territory of a crisis that has turned the world upside down for all Idahoans. As a longtime elementary school teacher myself, I understand and share the emotions our professional educators are experiencing right now.
Idaho educators are doing their very best to make sure students are getting the basics like food and emotional support, and then embarking on finding the best ways to provide instruction, whether it is through digital platforms or packets that are picked up at school or delivered on bus routes — or a combination of the two. There are a couple of points I would like to emphasize for parents, patrons, and others who are following public education during this unprecedented time.
-- There is no playbook for the changes to instruction we are making on the fly, so let’s all practice compassion, flexibility, and patience as we work through this new dynamic together.
-- Online and alternative instruction are emergency measures and in no way a substitute for the classroom experience. We are all making the best of a less than ideal situation, but online learning cannot replace the socialization, individualized instruction and support, and the breadth of learning students get when they attend school. Having well-trained, caring educators working hands-on with students is the core of the educational experience.
It is also worth remembering during this difficult situation that our most vulnerable students need us now more than ever. Educators around the state have done an amazing job with grab-and-go lunches and other programs to help ensure that food-insecure children are being fed. These students and many others will need us to go the extra mile to support them in the coming weeks.
Students who receive special education services and their families need extra attention now that their routines, and in many cases their security, have been upended. As we develop instructional plans for a long-term closure of our school buildings, we must be vigilant about providing learning opportunities for students who don’t have internet access or sufficient computer technology. To their credit, many districts, in conjunction with their professional educators, have been providing individual internet hotspots or using school buses as temporary hotspots. We know the situation changes almost daily, so it is important we adjust to meet the needs of students as quickly as possible.
These are uncertain and unnerving times, so it is only natural that students feel anxious or upset in the face of these changes in their lives. Which brings to the forefront an ongoing issue being exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis — the mental and emotional health of our students. While mental health and behavioral issues have been rising, Idaho remains woefully short of school counselors and psychologists. These dedicated professionals are providing the best services they can to as many students as they can through telehealth and other contingency strategies. Especially during the crisis, we must emphasize students’ mental and emotional health and do everything we can to educate the whole child.
Idaho educators, students, parents, and communities are resilient. We know we can — and must — count on each other and look after each other. Until the public health crisis abates, our educators will be doing their best to teach, engage with, and look after their students.
Layne McInelly is the president of the Idaho Education Association. He teaches sixth grade at Morley Nelson Elementary, a Title 1 school in the Boise School District.