It seemed as though time stretched with every new announcement of closures, restrictions, and new coronavirus infections. As the difficult decision came to close schools in Ohio, there were many unanswered questions. School faculty and staff were charged with figuring out how to “build a plane while flying it.”
How do we care for ourselves and our families during the COVID-19 crisis? How do we help our students and their families? How can we support students who are homeless? What happens to our students who are already in crisis over the illness or death of a loved one? These are serious questions without clear answers.
The CH-UH school administration made some hard decisions quickly, and worked through some tough issues with the teachers union. We were concerned about the students who are food insecure, students for whom school is a place where they get two meals per day. The district made a plan to make breakfast and lunch available at six locations for all children who live in the district.
We were concerned about reaching students electronically. We know there is a digital divide—many students have Internet access while many others do not. The district made Chromebooks available to families without computers. Two companies provided free Internet access for 60 days.
Plans came together very quickly. Our school social workers, counselors and others immediately reached out to discover what families needed. One counselor told me that she had made 168 phone calls in just a few days to ensure that families were up-to-date with information, and that they had access to an electronic connection with the schools. She added that there were only seven families she had been unable to contact. This same work was being played out throughout the district.
At the end of the first week, and heading into a spring break of quarantine, we have all been learning a lot. Our teachers are up to speed on virtual meetings for staff, and with students. Each teacher has virtual office hours to “meet” with his or her students. Some are using meeting software, others are making themselves available through e-mail, and still others are talking to kids on the phone.
It continues to be a unique and strange experience. We are trying to provide materials for students that will keep them engaged with learning while distracting them from the frightening aspects of viral spread, and keeping them safe, all at the same time.
This is not a normal time. Everyone has concerns and anxieties about missing friends and staying healthy. There are tremendous disappointments because events, such as concerts, proms and graduations, will likely be missed. Teaching the standards-based curriculum while trying to determine the lay of the land—which keeps shifting—is difficult, to say the least.
If the school closures continue, and they likely will, we will have to revise our current plan to continue to serve our students. We will use the data from teachers collected during these first few weeks to figure out the next steps. The regular curriculum is going to take a backseat to serving the social and emotional needs of students and their families.
When we are able to return to school, there will be a period of adjustment as students work out the issues they have been dealing with at home. For some it will be the normal tensions of being trapped together with only family; for others, the issues may be more serious.
These unusual circumstances call for caution and caring as we move forward. Here, in the CH-UH school district, we are trying our best to serve our students and their families while also caring for our own families. What I have seen from our union members has been nothing short of amazing. I am certain that, as this quarantine continues, we will pull together, be creative, and focus on the needs of every student.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.