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 back together.
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.