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‘We’re all they have for some students’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Darya Peterson Glass, co-director and teacher at Santa Fe Girls’ School, preps a lesson from home as the school has shifted to a virtual model for school. Peterson Glass said the school is checking in with students and making time for discussion and fun activities in addition to academics amid the pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s just a little note reminding her students that she’s thinking of them – a handwritten blurb on the back of a math game.

But the intention is for the little notes to carry a big underlying message.

“I hand wrote letters to all of my kids, just kind of saying, ‘I miss you’ and talking about how I wish we were in school but I know that’s not the safe thing to do yet,” said Chelsea O’Connell, a fourth grade teacher at John Baker Elementary School.

After schools closed because of the novel coronavirus, O’Connell, like so many other teachers, knew she wanted to keep in touch with her 19 students.

Teachers across the city and state are using this time out of the classroom to get creative about connecting with the children they used to see nearly every day.

“Like all the other teachers, we were kind of freaked out about how to stay in touch with our kids, especially our kids who don’t have access to technology,” O’Connell said.

She turned to old fashioned letters as a way to contact as many of her students as possible.

O’Connell even included self-addressed envelopes and stamps in her parcels to give each of the fourth graders the opportunity to respond. The teacher hopes to have some pen pals for the rest of the school year or into summer.

It’ll be somewhat of a substitute – albeit a poor one – for what the teacher of 11 years misses the most: the interactions with her students.

“I’ve heard from about nine of them consistently … but, you know, the rest of them … I don’t know and it just makes me sad,” she said.

The letters, which were sent out last week, also serve as a little nudge for students to keep learning.

O’Connell used a printout of a math worksheet as stationery and she made it a point to tell students that she is reading to help pass the time – a hint that her fourth graders could be doing the same.

But, ultimately, the notes’ main point is to show someone still cares.

“I know nothing is going to be normal for a while. … I feel like if I can just keep myself a little bit in their lives maybe they’ll feel like it’s normal and it’s going to be OK,” O’Connell said.

Cibola High School teacher Melodie MacDiarmid had the same intention, but she took the digital route, using the Remind app to get messages out to her freshmen.

“My kids know I care and I wanted to remind them they’re loved,” she said.

The 59-year-old teacher said her grand-maternal instincts may be to blame – she got an iPhone so she could communicate with her grandchildren in North Dakota – because right away she was sending messages to her students.

“We’re all they have for some students. It’s important they know the adults are thinking of them,” she said.

And Annie Syed, teacher at Desert Ridge Middle School, has been using books and writing as the anchor for her students to work through what they are feeling and experiencing during the pandemic.

Syed uses a video sharing app and other platforms to engage her students, asking them to share meaningful passages they’ve read recently, to write letters to the virus or prompting them to write about how music has helped them while they’ve had to stay home.

Syed said she uploads consistently to give the students something to count on, adding that the students need both the stimuli and the human connection.

“For many of our students, school was a place of structure, of play and freedom. This has provided that structure,” she said.

While teachers weren’t required to provide instruction during the first few weeks of the closures, it was almost reflexive for Syed and the other educators to jump into action and create some stability.

And Darya Peterson Glass, co-director and teacher at Santa Fe Girls’ School, notes student check-ins and stability are also important once kids begin coursework again.

She said the private school in Santa Fe, which recently shifted to online school, started offering recreational video calls – such as taking pets to “school” or a game of educational charades – to help kids blow off steam.

Staff get to know the girls well since it’s a small school of 45, which Peterson Glass recognized as a unique privilege. So, to keep up with that dynamic in a digital learning environment, educators will facilitate one-on-one calls with students if needed and teachers also have the flexibility to have discussions and other emotional wellness checks during class, Peterson Glass said.

With public schools remaining closed for the rest of the academic year, districts are completing plans on how to address students’ academic, social and emotional needs from afar.

It’s a big shift.

That’s why O’Connell, the teacher from John Baker, thinks it’s important to remind students now more than ever that they are loved and noticed.

“I think it’s scary for all of us. Even the adults are a little worried,” she said. “School didn’t just completely disappear. Hopefully, it communicates to them this is temporary.”

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