One word seemed to describe the sentiment among advisers as the COVID-19 pandemic numbers fluctuated from state to state, the jarring school shutdowns were still recent in everyone’s memory, and the new school year approached: Uncertainty.
In various ways—using technology, creativity, and the energy of their students—advisers managed to keep student leaders engaged through the spring and into the summer, but as fall approached, many didn’t know what to expect.
“There are so many moving variables to consider,” says Katie Mercadante Erdely, a science teacher and student council co-adviser at Montour High School in McKees Rocks, PA. “The unknown is the biggest—while we would usually be full-on planning for homecoming over the summer, we didn’t even know what fall would look like. We are learning as we go, which is frustrating for both students and advisers.”
She noted, however, that to get her students engaged and excited, she emphasizes the value of the group itself. “One of the biggest things I stressed to this crew is that we will have to be flexible, and that we are in this together. Things won’t be normal. Our kids know this.”
Others have similar concerns about the uncertainty, but they also have thoughts about the students working together to gain the most from their leadership groups, even suggesting that the pandemic’s challenges may offer valuable lessons and experiences.
“Our group prepared for different scenarios of what school may look like in the fall,” says Nydia Santiago-Cordero, the NHS and NJHS adviser at St. Andrew’s School in Honolulu, HI. As schools plan for the year, she says it will be important for advisers and their students to have a fresh approach.
“The inability to see and interact with each other in person will be hard, especially since we value relationships so much at our school. We want to safeguard traditions as much as possible but remain open to reimagining traditions or creating new ways of doing things,” she says, noting that they will want to help the entire school culture. “If we can continue to engage as many students as possible, then we will consider ourselves successful.”
Even just relaxing and having distractions in social settings will be good for students and potentially reconnect them to their school and activities, she and other advisers say. But students will likely need extra support from advisers, who perhaps will need to be even more enthusiastic and offer more one-on-one attention.
Some advisers will have their experience from spring and summer to offer some guidance. However, Henry Foust, adviser for the student council at Northwood High School in Pittsboro, NC, is concerned that it was difficult for many, which adds to the challenge of reengaging the students.
“A lot of student councils tried to maintain a presence and continue to serve students, but I get the sense that a lot—maybe most—just stopped functioning,” he says. “We had elections, but I know that a lot of schools did not. So how could they even begin to plan for next year, especially in places where the restrictions were pretty limiting? How do you keep students engaged?”
Terry D’Imperio, a math and leadership teacher and student council adviser at Livonia High School in Livonia, NY, worked with her students to create a series of weekly activities for the whole school. It may be something some schools can use as fall activities are restricted, she notes. “The Livonia Student Councils are working hard at ways to keep our staff and students connected during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the introduction to a webpage (www.livoniacsd.org/Page/2440) of weekly activities says. “Thanks in advance for participating and sharing your photos and videos with us.”
Activities included a “reverse light parade,” with cars decorated with lights as they drove through school property and past costumed faculty members. They offered a virtual art gallery where students could submit their work, a virtual spirit week, and “wellness bingo” games. A teacher appreciation event with students contributing videos was particularly popular, along with a “Survivor Week” based on the popular TV show (https://youtu.be/YBzd0kc6_a8), D’Imperio says.
“The student council officers initially wanted to do something right in the beginning for the workers who were standing in the cold giving out food for three hours a day,” she notes. “That morphed into people feeling connected, and they thought we should try to do something each week, so the weekly events took shape.”
D’Imperio says her group connected with middle level and elementary school student councils so that some of the activities could be used in schools at various levels districtwide.
The lesson from the effort was pretty clear, and she says it’s important to consider in the fall. “The more time that went by, the more it became apparent that the human connection was lacking. The kids needed to see their friends and their teachers. The teachers were missing their students. This was one way to bring us all together.” She says it gave her student leaders a purpose and sense of accomplishment, and the school valued the event.
“It reminded us all that we are human, and that school is about social-emotional learning as well as academic. I think even those who didn’t participate still watched the weekly videos and were satisfied knowing that at least there was an opportunity to get involved,” D’Imperio says.
Teri Kuebler, a school counselor and NHS adviser at Poston Butte High School in San Tan Valley, AZ, says students stayed in touch through the spring and summer using Google Chat. She believes that platform will be used again in the fall, if necessary. Her state was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 virus, with cases peaking later as June wore on.
“Our students said that they enjoyed the weekly online meetings because it gave them a minute to see their friends’ faces, even though it was over the internet. It was a really great opportunity to feel as though they still mattered,” Kuebler says. The students did organize a blood drive virtually, contacting donors and making arrangements for blood drive sponsors, and recruiting donors in several ways.
“My biggest concern for the fall activities has been that when students are together, they really like to be within close proximity. Keeping social distancing between large groups of students working together on a project is going to be challenging,” she notes.
Others echo that concern. Mercadante Erdely believes there are two potential problems for advisers this year as they work with their students: 1) managing the time away from school (“How do we get kids to ramp up their school spirit and engagement when they have been living this new normal for six months?”) and 2) functioning with appropriate health protection measures in place, including in larger groups.
“As advisers, we of course want our student body to be engaged in these large-scale events—what does that look like if only one member of our student body can be in one place at one time?” Mercadante Erdely asks.
Brenda Beers, director of student activities at Notre Dame Preparatory High School in Scottsdale, AZ, faces similar late-breaking and intense COVID-19 infection rates.
“I know the students want to get back to normal, so I don’t think enthusiasm will be an issue, unless they are not allowed to do anything,” she said, as she planned for the year in early summer. “I don’t even know what I will be doing, since even club meetings might have to happen virtually, or not at all. Being creative and sharing ideas with other schools is going to be so much more important now than ever before.”
Tapping Into Adviser Energy
Kuebler notes that advisers may have to increase their involvement, at least temporarily.
“I feel that the excitement and enthusiasm that the adult leader brings to the table has a lot to do with how well the students respond during these times,” she says, noting that while her group’s meetings are student-run, she is taking extra time to praise students as a group for their efforts and provide individual support.
She believes that students should realize that being involved in a group is valuable during stressful and isolating times.
“As adult leaders, we need to remember that NHS is a good and positive part of our students’ lives, and the more the students feel that they are a part of something that is still moving forward, the more they feel like their lives are not totally falling apart,” she says. Beers says it is important to have the students making decisions about how their activities and the school year generally will unfold.
“We have to find new ways to do things we’ve done. We have to be creative,” agrees Mercadante Erdely. “I told my kids to think about things they’ve always wanted to do but didn’t think we could. Let’s generate a list of ideas.” That will benefit the whole school, she says.
“As student leaders and advisers, we will be tasked with helping to build a school community again. This is more important than ever as we return to school in the fall—whatever fall might look like. This is really a chance for our kids to stand up and create something great, if we give them the opportunity to do so.”
Jim Paterson is a freelance writer based in Lewes, DE.
Sidebar: Emotional Health
Students may respond to the pandemic and even other dramatic events this year in a variety of ways, and experts say adults who work with them should be prepared to provide some extra time listening to their concerns and paying attention to worrisome behavior.
“As we look to the school year, whatever shape it takes, we have to anticipate that everyone will be returning from different experiences and with different needs,” says Phyllis Fagell, a licensed school and clinical counselor and author who writes about the emotional health of students.
Students may feel pressure because they are behind academically, which could impact their confidence and willingness to engage in school or activities, she says. “Some will be fearful of getting sick or bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members, and therefore might avoid activities to limit their exposure. Some might even avoid school altogether—we might see more school phobia. Some will be dealing with parents’ job losses and other economic setbacks, even from families who seem financially secure.”
Fagell notes that students who are easily overstimulated under normal social conditions might need particular attention, along with those who used to rely on social encounters in school and may find them limited in the fall.
She believes there will be a rise in depression, suicidal ideation, and anxiety. One recent report noted a rise in depression among minority students in particular, which she says isn’t surprising “considering all the recent examples of racial injustice, health disparities, and other systemic inequities.”
“We should do whatever we can to reassure students that they’re safe and that the school is taking all the necessary precautions, while also validating their real concerns,” Fagell says. She recommends community-oriented events, even if they have to be virtual, because they signal that “we prioritize connections.”
All educators should be attempting to spend some one-on-one time with their students every week, even if it’s only for a few minutes. She also recommends:
- Incorporating time to talk about recent events: racial injustice, protests, COVID-19, students’ quarantine experience, isolation, and other issues
- Instilling hope by empowering kids to make a positive difference and pointing out ways others have effected change
- Talking about how students can support one another and how they need support from one another
- Working on perspective-taking skills and boosting empathy