Last March, when school buildings closed as the pandemic spread, I wrote a commentary about what I felt was most important in distance learning: connecting with my students.
During our remote school experience this school year, I’ve met my students’ siblings and pets, seen favorite stuffed animals and Lego creations, and even been treated to a piano performance. Despite the physical distance, my students managed to come together as a community of unique individuals. It is essential as we are returning to in-person instruction that we build on that sense of community to create an affirming school climate. A positive learning environment is essential for re-engaging our students and meeting the needs of the whole child as the pandemic recedes.
How can we accomplish this? We should ask our students.
Our students have faced multiple traumas over the course of this year: the pandemic, the racial uprisings of the summer, the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, and the increase in violence against Asians and Asian-Americans. If we are really listening to what students are telling us, then our priority in reopening schools should be connection, healing and celebration. Students need time to play games, create art, chat in community circles, exercise outside. We must encourage them to look away from their computer screen and really see each other.
At the start of this semester in January, I surveyed my third-graders to better understand their distance-learning experience and learn how I could continue to support them. They shared their frustrations — computer issues, days when they don’t feel like working, and running out of time to share their ideas during class discussions — and talked about what they miss — hands-on science experiments, having time to talk and play together, and hugs.
With our return to campus this past week, the No. 1 thing that excites us each morning, is getting to see each other “live and in person,” as Amy, one of my students, says. In our small cohorts we’ve prioritized time for community circles. In the smiling eyes of my students, I see that our bond strengthens each day.
Teachers aren’t the only ones who need to listen. Decision makers at the district and state levels must hear our students, too. By elevating the data collected on school climate surveys to a statewide indicator on the California School Dashboard, we can better understand and address our students’ needs, both academic and emotional.
The California Legislature should pass and the governor should sign into law state Senate Bill 699 to ensure that schools and districts recognize that school climate is a priority on equal footing with other indicators, such as academic achievement. The bill would require each local educational agency to survey students each year using the California Healthy Kids Survey or an alternative that meets requirements set by the State School Board. Much like testing sets benchmarks for improving learning, the surveys would measure each school’s climate against accepted standards and set expectations for improvement.
The California Healthy Kids survey already collects data on key aspects of the school experience, including “student connectedness, school climate, school safety, physical well-being, and student supports.” Senate Bill 699 would ensure that schools and districts use this data to develop programs to create the positive school climate essential to student learning. Governor Newsom’s budget proposal for the coming year includes $10 million of one-time money to support local districts to administer and use school climate surveys more effectively, but I hope that the state will invest ongoing funding to build the capacity of all districts to conduct and use the surveys.
I’ve done my best this year to reach out and connect with all of my students, despite the distance between our screens. But in that space between, there have been moments of frustration, anxiety and sadness.
Now, back together in the classroom, I am ready to fill the space with laughter, excitement and joy.
Meghann Seril, teaches third grade in the Mandarin dual-language program at Broadway Elementary in Venice, a Los Angeles Unified public school. She is a 2020-21 senior policy fellow with Teach Plus California, a nonprofit organization that trains teacher leaders to shape educational policy. Teach Plus is a sponsor of SB699.
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