Caitlin R Keaton, EdS
Overshadowing the typical new school year fanfare with its cute outfits and new pencil boxes was the “wait and see” game of Fall 2020 which saw all Ohio schools as involuntary players. Held in limbo by climbing case numbers of COVID-19 in a worldwide pandemic, we all awaited, with nervous anticipation, Gov. Mike DeWine’s verdict on the reopening of our schools. For some, there was a sigh of relief when permission was granted to reopen the schools, for others, terror for themselves and the students they served, but all were caught in the snare of the same question: What now?
It was not just a question of how the schools would look if and when they welcomed students back through the doors, but how would we meet the growing list of needs attached to the children entrusted to us? Not only did we have children who had missed the last few months of the previous school year, but we also had children who lost family members to the virus, whose families had been financially impacted by the shutdowns, and children who had been stuck in unsafe living conditions for the past several months.
As a school psychology student just entering internship, it was also an uncertain time for other reasons. Going into the year, my cohort and I knew that our supervisors would be called upon to quickly catch up on the backlog of spring cases, to provide social-emotional support to our students, and to help with remediation. And as students ourselves, we had projects and assignments that no longer fit into the mold of a typical school year. We were crossing our fingers and hoping that we had learned enough in our shortened practicum year that would allow us to be assets instead of being in the way during what would likely be a hectic year.
These unique problems, both the students’ and my own, would require solutions like no other and in the Girard City School District, that challenge was met head on. Although we would spend the first half of our school year with students engaging in remote learning, our students showed up with tremendous needs ranging from academics to food scarcity to loneliness and despair.
For those of you whose brains are often alight with pictures and sounds, you might understand when I say that those first few weeks had my brain spinning with scenes and music from the movie "Titanic." One scene that played on repeat was that poignant scene in which Rose has a chance to save Jack (no, not THAT scene, although everyone knows that Jack could have fit on the door too). The scene I reference is when Rose is asked to use the ax to break Jack’s handcuffs. In the movie, we see her take a practice swing on some nearby furniture, and then a second swing, which lands nowhere near the first. Still, Jack trusts her to swing the ax and break the cuffs, which she does.
I thought about how we had parents in our district pleading with us to save their kids, just as Jack pled with Rose. While their children might not have been physically handcuffed on a sinking ship, to them, it probably felt pretty close as they lacked the resources and knowledge to help their children successfully navigate a COVID-19 world. As educational professionals we were expected to make on-the-spot decisions and follow ever-changing game plans. Early on, I had that panicked feeling that the only thing we would be able to do was swing that ax and hope to hit the mark, with only a couple unsuccessful practice swings, but my two internship supervisors helped me to learn one of the most valuable lessons of the year: Adaptability.
That lesson came as they pulled up a seat and made room for me at the table. They included me in discussions with various administrators as we planned for the coming days, weeks, and months. The panic subsided as they reminded me that our unprecedented pandemic didn’t leave us untrained or unequipped. Sure, I think everyone would have liked to have a magic wand to make the problem disappear, or even a band-aid to slap over the hurts, but in the absence of either, school psychologists filled in the gaps.
A surprisingly large part of filling in the gaps included things that were familiar: looking at deficits, creating solutions/interventions, tracking data, collaborating, and reviewing outcomes. It also came with the opportunity to make my internship change project so much more than just taking the intermediate school MTSS process into the digital age.
Through teacher and parent referrals we were able to see where our district’s COVID-19 strategies were weakest and shore the cracks. Some days this looked like dropping off hot spots and Chromebooks, or teaching students how to login to their accounts from across their front yard or down the hallway in their apartment complex. At other times, it involved dropping off weekly meal bags to student families that lacked the transportation services necessary for a pickup at the school. As we tracked our data and assessed our referral requests, we found that this specific need was larger than we had planned for, or that we could fulfill via my supervisor’s car. Through a collaboration with the bus garage, we were given three buses and drivers to help us make deliveries. We tapped our colleagues to join us in loading and unloading the buses that went out.
We spent time focusing on students with a history of school refusal and decided to use the time to build new relationships in hopes that we could get the students to school once they were allowed back in the building. We created craft activity boxes, made tie blankets, and iced sugar cookies together virtually. And when we reviewed the data, some of our students who previously had the worst attendance were the ones who were screaming, “Zoom, zoom, zoom” more enthusiastically than Zenon and Nebula at the Proto Zoa and the Microbes concert.
For every referral we cleared, several more would pop up and at times we had so many that it seemed that we’d have to be superhuman in order to get to them all, but daily I watched as my supervisor donned her metaphorical cape and responded to every Bat Signal in order to help kids and families in crisis. While my internship year ended up looking nothing like what I had originally imagined, it allowed me to develop tools to put in my sidekick utility belt that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Now that we have reached the endemic stage of COVID-19, it may seem as though everything can return to our previous normal, but the truth of the matter is that our kids are still stuck in the aftermath of the pandemic. They’re still handcuffed on a sinking ship, trying to survive a space station on the brink of collapse, or living in the seedy underbelly of a city steeped in darkness. Our students need for us to continue to pull tools out of our utility belts, to be creative, to be adaptable, and to approach their problems with an intensity that shows we care. Our students need us to not be relegated back to the sidelines, but for us to allow our skills to shine. Gotham needs a hero.