Leveraging Relationships in a Time of Pandemic

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The recent events surrounding the global health crisis have made one aspect of my job very apparent: It’s truly a blessing to work in a small school. Chelsea School is a nonpublic special education school that serves 71 students with language-based learning disabilities. Those students represent a diverse spectrum of the socioeconomic background of the greater Washington, DC, area. Many of our students struggle with poverty and related concerns.

Two weeks before our state’s closing of schools, we began planning for a long-term closure. We surveyed our parents, trained our staff and students, and gathered our technological resources. We put together “go packs” for students and families that contained Chromebooks, instructions for how to access Wi-Fi at home, and for many of our families, grocery store gift cards. While the jurisdictions around us spent weeks without an instructional plan, we launched our virtual school with only two days of lost instruction.

We’re now several weeks into our virtual school program. Students are attending all of their classes via videoconferencing platforms. Along with their academics, they’re also receiving counseling, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. In the first weeks of this program, we had over 92 percent student attendance in all classes, and engagement and satisfaction are consistently high for both students and parents. How did we achieve this level of engagement in distance learning?

“Involve everyone in your school community—from school leadership to the front desk receptionists—in your efforts to monitor and encourage engagement and attendance.”

Our successful transition to a virtual school model occurred because we were able to leverage relationships with stakeholders. Our school model is based on the power of relationships. Our students come to us after having suffered a great deal of school failure. For them to learn and start to believe in their potential as students again, we must build relationships with them that are based on respect, empathy, and love. We have the benefit of being a small school, but some of our strategies should be leverageable in larger school settings. You might try to: 

-Rally teams of teachers and social workers to focus on the needs of your most at-risk students. 

-Assess which families need technical support and which students need Chromebooks or other technology. Assess who needs emotional care as quickly as possible. Continue to reassess on an ongoing basis.

-Ask staff members to leverage their relationships with individual students to monitor and encourage engagement and attendance, while also making sure students’ basic needs are being met. 

-Involve everyone in your school community—from school leadership to the front desk receptionists—in your efforts to monitor and encourage engagement and attendance. Leverage whomever individual students have close relationships with, not just their classroom teachers. 

-Be responsive to individual and community needs by adjusting your plans and programming in flexible ways. When we discovered that many of our students had not left their apartment during the first two weeks of the shutdown, our physical education teacher created a class called Fun Fitness Challenges designed for the children’s homes. 
Leverage or develop an advisory program that pairs staff members with a cohort of students (in the smallest ratio possible), based on considerations of personality and communication style, that will stay together through this crisis and beyond until graduation.

I’ve been asked if this kind of leveraging of relationships is possible in a large-school or public school format. While it’s true that these strategies have been easier to implement in a small school, I believe it’s possible for other kinds of school contexts to put relationships first. The key is to find ways to leverage and amplify the strong and positive relationships that were in place before the crisis and to grow from there.


What we learned/big takeaway

Strong relationships and communication among stakeholders allow for quick assessments of student needs and safety. All students, but most importantly students who are at risk due to socioeconomic concerns, need the lifeline that school provides. The school lunch you provide your students may have been the only reliable meal they had each day. The mental health services your school social workers provide might be what is keeping your students alive. For a student to be available for learning, all of their basic needs must first be met.

What we are still figuring out

How this is sustainable over a long period of time. We’re concerned about many of the possible negative outcomes of long-term virtual learning. Virtual learning is not the same as face-to-face instruction. And for our students especially, a relationship with the teacher based on trust, empathy, and warmth is critical. We worry about academic regression, physical and emotional health, and social abilities.

What I would tell other leaders during this time

Utilize every person in your organization, from top to bottom.


This case study highlights how Frank Mills’ school used their relationships between staff and students to mobilize virtual learning quickly. This resource provides some basic considerations when creating a virtual learning plan.
Frank’s school services students with language-based learning disabilities. This compilation of resources from the Council for Exceptional Children has a focus on what works for students with disabilities.
While Frank’s school worked to meet the basic needs of its student body, families may need additional emotional supports. This article from Understood underscores the importance of finding an outlet during the pandemic.
Frank attributes his school's quick turnaround to virtual learning to the relationships his staff has built with students and their families. This resource provides some strategies that are being used by schools across the country to build connections.
The school featured in this case study did an admirable job of taking the whole student and their families’ needs into consideration as they prepared for online learning. This resource from the Education Trust provides additional equity considerations schools should keep in mind as they prepare to teach online.

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