We’re five months into the pandemic and still dealing
with many unknowns. We are dealing with whether
school will be virtual, face-to-face, or a blend of both,
and we don’t yet know the long-term toll that months
of quarantining, social distancing, remote learning,
and coping with devastating news about racial
injustice are taking on our students. We do know that
families have endured traumas ranging from furloughs
to job loss to illness, with blacks and Latinos dying
from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates.
We also know the homework gap is real, and many
students, particularly those from economically
disadvantaged areas, have been unable to access any
education at all since schools shut down in March.
In comparison, canceled sports seasons, camps, and
birthday parties may seem inconsequential, but these
are real disappointments for students, too.
I don’t have a crystal ball and kids are resilient, but
I anticipate that many will return to school needing
support. Here’s how educators can work together
to help students make a smooth re-entry, whatever
school looks like this fall.
Talk about racism, inequity, and how
they can make a positive difference.
Middle schoolers are highly attuned to equity and
fairness, and they need to exercise agency and
independence. Many have been participating in protests and engaging in conversations at home
about racial injustice, but others have had to process
recent events without adult intervention. Be prepared
to talk about the current unrest and the 400 years
of history that got us to this point. Recognize that
many students are feeling raw and will need you to
acknowledge their pain, regardless of the subject
you teach. You may need to educate yourself first,
says former principal Baruti Kafele, author of The
Assistant Principal 50. When he delivered a lesson to
administrators about social justice education recently,
he was struck by how many participants told him, “I
have to change based on what you said.” As he told
me, “If teachers don’t bring a social justice pedagogy
to their practice, students won’t have that context.”
At the same time, kids in this age group thrive
when they feel empowered and optimistic. To instill
hope, share examples of kids making a difference. For
instance, three teen girls organized Nashville’s largest
protest, and Kamryn Johnson, the 9-year-old daughter
of former NFL player Ron Johnson, raised $40,000 for
black-owned businesses in Minneapolis by selling
homemade bracelets with her friends.
Help kids reconnect with peers.
Social distancing has had its challenges. Many
children who lack strong social skills have struggled
to connect virtually, while extroverts have found
virtual communication unsatisfying. Kids have
felt extra sensitive about ambiguous comments or
inadvertent acts of exclusion, in part because it’s easy
to miss nuance in virtual communication, and in part
they have had no organic opportunities to smooth
things over in person.
Other friendship issues emerged during the
quarantine. “I feel so left out,” one 11-year-old girl
told me. “Everyone is double bubbling except for me.”
When I asked her what she meant, she explained that
other families let their kids “cluster quarantine,” or
hang out together. This is classic FOMO, but with
a COVID-19 twist. Meanwhile, for many socially
awkward kids, the end of school may mean they no longer see peers at all. These are the kids who only
spent time with classmates when teachers facilitated
inclusive lunch groups or other structured activities
and lessons. Another sizeable group of students
had no access to virtual socializing (or instruction)
because they lack access to technology.
Despite these constraints, social distancing hasn’t
been a universally negative experience. Some kids
who are introverts or easily overstimulated have
even fared better. But whether the quarantine was a
positive or negative experience, I suspect that most
kids will feel a bit awkward, lost, excluded, sensitive,
or unsure of their place when school re-opens. In other
words, they’ll be cycling through the typical middle
school emotions, only amplified.
Remember, students have had their lives turned
upside down. They've had to master the art of
videoconferencing at an age when many have a
difficult time talking face-to-face. And at their most
self-conscious, they’ve had to interact and learn while
staring at their own image. As one middle school
counselor told NPR, “I know a student has had enough
when they turn their camera to the ceiling.” I once
asked a seventh-grade student if she’d be willing to
turn on her video so I could see her face. She quickly
responded, “The face isn’t the problem. It’s the hair.”
Educators can help by spending extra time
establishing class norms, reiterating expectations for
kind behavior online and offline, discussing the types
of social challenges that emerged during quarantine,
grouping kids thoughtfully, telling social stories or
sharing real-world events during advisory time that
encourage perspective-taking and build empathy,
and deploying students with social capital to help
classmates hovering on the edge of the herd.
Meet them where they are academically.
As with social distancing, some kids thrived
during remote learning. These kids tend to be selfstarters
who enjoy setting their own pace and
exploring interests independently. They don’t need
a tremendous amount of direction or reassurance to
stick with an assignment. They also may be more
open to participating and taking academic risks
when they’re not performing all day in front of their
peers. Others have benefitted from the ability to
take frequent movement breaks without missing
instruction. Quieter kids liked sharing their ideas in
writing via the videoconferencing chat feature. And in
the absence of grades and scores, many students were
able to demonstrate their learning in novel ways and under less pressure. If teachers abruptly strip away
students’ newfound independence, they’re going to
bristle. They’ve grown used to being the architect of
their own learning, and they’ve shown that they don’t
need a teacher looking over their shoulder or micromanaging
them. Let's not lose those lessons.
On the other hand, some students didn’t fare as
well during this period, whether they needed more
specialized support, lacked access to instruction,
floundered without structure and accountability, or
had family stressors or responsibilities that interfered
with their ability to learn remotely. To address the
needs of both groups, meet kids where they are. Some
will need more opportunities for self-directed learning,
while others will require more targeted interventions.
Ask students questions such as, “What have you
learned about yourself while working at home? What
elements need to be in place for you to be productive?
What got in your way?” Respect that they’ve been
through a lot and have matured and developed
self-awareness as a result. Be flexible and open to
tweaking your approach.
Proactively teach coping skills.
This spring, I asked one of my seventh graders if her
classmate was okay, because it wasn’t like her to miss
a group session. She replied, “She’s quarantine good,
like the rest of us.” Start from the assumption that
kids are quarantine good at best, and remember that middle schoolers are notorious for misreading their
own and others’ emotions. They also have a spotty
track record when it comes to asking for help and
identifying coping strategies.
Under normal conditions, kids might have leaned
on their parents for support, but middle schoolers
tend to protectively shield their parents from pain
when they sense that they’re not at their peak. And
very few adults are at their peak right now, which
means that kids have been working hard to hold
themselves together. When they return to brick-andmortar
school, they may finally uncork their bottled-up
emotions and fall apart. If that happens, they’re going
to need sensitive adults to help them put themselves
That means schools will need all hands on
deck, with every empathetic adult in the building
proactively reaching out to students to ask how
they’re doing. It doesn’t matter if that person is a
counselor, building services worker, science teacher,
or assistant principal. Anyone and everyone can greet
kids in the hall, smile, and prioritize connection. Don't
forget to look out for one another, too. The adults in
the building need to model for kids what it means to
care for one another and normalize asking for help.
Middle schoolers need to know that it’s okay to not be
okay, and they need to know that they’re not alone.
Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC, is the school counselor at
Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at
the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author
of Middle School Matters (Hachette Book Group,
2019). Phyllis also writes The Kappan's weekly Career
Confidential column and tweets.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2020.