Distance Learning, Part 1

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This episode is the first of two that discusses the transition to and from distance learning. Our guests talk about how mental health supports in schools can help with addressing the effects that distance learning has had on students.

Guests: Brooke Albert, Nicole Hockley, Danny Carlson


  1. Trauma-Informed Practices Across School Settings (on-demand webinar)
  2. Student Mental Health in a Distance Learning Environment (on-demand webinar)

Comprehensive School Safety Planning Series Description

In this series, guests describe the importance of having a Comprehensive School Safety Plan, explain different perspectives on school safety, and highlight the connections between school safety strategies.

Other episodes in this series:

Episode 3 Transcript

Nicole Hockley: I heard a story the other day about a teacher who, the kids were returning to a hybrid model, and I think it was a seventh or eighth grader. And the teacher reached out and he’s like, “Oh, hi.” As the kid walked by and the kid just kept walking, didn’t stop. And then the students actually turned around and said, “Oh, my gosh. I’m so sorry. Well, I’m only used to dealing with you through a computer screen. I didn’t even think about that I need to say hello back.” That sort of basic social skill, we have to rebuild our tools. We have changed our behaviors over the last year. It’s gonna take time to re-learn appropriate social skills, appropriate interactions, and how to recognize when someone needs help. We’ve been so isolated. We’re not just gonna snap our fingers and everything is gonna go back to normal. We need to rebuild our communities.

Brent Miller: Hello and welcome to Progress Report, a podcast produced by the National Center for School Safety, the STOP School Violence Program National Training and Technical Assistance Center, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The center is a project of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Thank you for tuning into this series on comprehensive school safety planning. We hope listening helps you recognize the importance of planning, understand the different perspectives on school safety, and discover the connections and how various disciplines approach school safety. In this episode, our guests will discuss the transition to and from distance learning, and how mental health supports in schools can help. The voice you heard at the very beginning of this episode was Nicole Hockley, co-founder and Managing Director of Sandy Hook Promise. You’ll hear more from her later on. You’ll also hear from Danny Carlson from the National Association of Elementary School Principals. But first is Brooke Albert. She is a climate specialist in the Genesee Intermediate School District in Genesee County, Michigan. I asked her to describe her school’s pivot to distance learning when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Brooke Albert: I love that you used the word pivot, that was a word that we used as well to describe this incredibly huge transition to something completely new, completely unprecedented, and that’s another word that we’ve heard a lot to describe the situation. And I think it’s important to make a distinction between the transition to remote learning and then from remote learning to in-person because the circumstances around each of those were a little bit different. So when the pandemic first hit, when we first realized that we were not gonna be coming back to school for quite a long time, everybody was thrown into chaos. District officials and teachers and staff were taken by surprise and expected to plan and implement things with a very little turnaround time that had literally never been done in this manner before.

And so, I think it was just a privilege to be able to watch the collective resilience and support that everybody in my district was willing to give to one another to work through this. There was so much grace and so much compassion. And I think that it could have been an opportunity for a lot of things to go wrong because of the level of stress. And so, our community and our district really banded together and recognized that as much support as they needed, the staff, their students needed that much support as well. And I will say that the difficulty of it compounded this, again, collective trauma of walking through a pandemic of many staff members having their own young children at home trying to balance their work responsibilities and their family responsibilities and making sure that their children who were also students had what they needed.

So it certainly wasn’t without its difficulties, and I wanna be very clear and just honor that and acknowledge that, but at the same time, just as a staff member within my district, I just felt so proud of what I saw. And then, when it came to returning back to learning in person, there was a lot to navigate there as well, but because it wasn’t as unexpected, there was a lot more time to plan and think about what this could look like for families who wanted in-person learning for their children, families who wanted virtual learning, the virtual things. It wasn’t like we were experts at it, but we had had enough time doing it where we knew what we wanted to fix, what we wanted to change, and we wanted to keep the same. And so, it was a little bit different, but again, not without its challenges.

BM: Brooke highlighted the importance of school community. In addition to students, parents, faculty, and staff also had to deal with the switch to remote learning both at school and in their personal lives. Next is Nicole Hockley, co-founder and Managing Director of Sandy Hook Promise. She describes how the distance learning environment has changed the way students interact with their peers and teachers.

How do you think lessons learned from COVID and the mental health impacts on youth, on teachers and staff will inform school safety planning moving forward?

NH: Yeah, and this is interesting ’cause there aren’t any case studies on what is going to happen, but it’s easy when you look at the external landscape and scan it and think we’ve got a problem heading towards us next year. And not just for our kids, but for our educators as well, the lack of social interaction and physical presence hasn’t been there, and a lot of kids have been separated from their mental health support and their school counselors this past year, which is having an effect on them and we’re seeing that in terms of the reports that we’re getting from kids in terms of they feeling very alone, much more isolated than before. And we have no idea right now what the long-term adverse effects are going to be on kids’ mental health from this past year.

So I very much hope that schools take that mental health resource capacity much more seriously next year. If you don’t have a school counselor, get one. There’s funding available to help you out there and ensure that we’re doing more regular check-ins with the adults and with the kids to ensure that anyone who needs that additional support is getting it. And that we are much more attuned to, “what do these warning signs look like when someone needs help?”, and that we’re, we just need to be so much more sensitive to that and have adults ready to be able to step in and create that intervention when needed.

BM: Could you talk a little bit about some of the implications of returning to in-person schooling after having been out for so long?

NH: Yeah, I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that we didn’t know what we were going into when we started the whole year of COVID. We don’t know what the long-term effects of this are gonna be, so next year planning for the mental health resources and additional supports, learning how to really be so much more sensitive and tuned into the needs of the kids that are around us and our teachers and staff as well, because this is hurting everyone, but I would say just get more tuned into recognizing the signs of someone who needs help, reaching out more, creating this inclusivity, helping our kids to recognize the signs and creating those safer climates as well, and more funding for mental health resources, we have to rebuild right from the bottom, learning how to smile again and recognize body signals beyond computer screens and masks, figuring out how to socially interact appropriately with each other again, this is learned behavior that we have to learn all over again, ’cause for the past year, we haven’t had it.

I think it’s very short-sighted if we think that all of the sudden we’re back to normal and everything is just normal again, it’s just ridiculous to think that ’cause that’s not what’s going to happen. There’s going to be lingering anxiety, there’s going to be lingering health concerns. I have always been a huge hugger. I am not going to go back to just immediately hugging everyone that I meet, and I’m not going to feel comfortable in restaurants or movie theaters for quite some time, so there’s a lot that we have to think about in terms of our children as they return to school. Classrooms, the cafeteria, sports. This is all going to be new. It’s not normal, it’s new, and we need to think of it in that way. It’s kind of like we’re all starting school, a brand new school for the first time, and remember what that was like if you ever had that experience, that fear, that anxiety, what’s going on here? That’s what every single student in our school is going to feel like, and we need to be respectful of that.

So I think rebuilding a lot of that’s gonna take time, and we have to have a lot of patience and give each other the space and grace to get through this appropriately. I also think the academic part, that is going to have increased anxiety for kids as well. We’ve seen a lot of problems with academics this year, and when I think about the kids that are moving up to the next year and perhaps aren’t ready academically, and now to thrust them back into an in-person classroom environment, the normal homework, the normal testing, we’re kind of out of practice with that, and I worry about what additional pressures we’re inadvertently putting on our students by saying that we’re returning to normal when there is just no such thing anymore.

BM: Nicole pointed out that the return to in-person schooling brings with it a whole host of concerns, especially for students and their mental health. I also spoke to Danny Carlson, who works for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. He emphasized the position that school principals have in supporting mental health infrastructure in schools.

Danny Carlson: Like a lot of things in K-12 policy, it’s gonna look different. The K-12 space is a really fragmented ecosystem, and what your school does and looks like is gonna vary quite a bit, whether you’re rural, urban, suburban, on and on. But I do think the role of the principal is something that is a through line no matter where that school is, quite frankly. Whether it’s school safety or whether it’s a literacy initiative, this idea about school-wide initiatives is something that is a singular role and responsibility that principals have. Teachers have really, really important roles in terms of what they do in classrooms, but it is for the most part limited to what’s going on in that specific classroom. And superintendents in the central office, they have very important roles, but those are district-wide initiatives and so the things that happen school-wide, when we step back and think about it, it’s really sort of basic, but it is really important to think about is that school initiatives start and stop with school leaders.

BM: Could you talk about the actions that school leaders can take when it comes to these school-wide initiatives?

DC: I think one aspect that principals really look at is this idea about integration, and so how do you integrate services into what’s already happening in schools? And so when you think about fostering this collaboration among staff, between staff and community-based providers and other things like that, is how do you integrate those initiatives? And whether it’s school safety or in any other thing, how is it perceived in terms of the culture of the school? And that seems, again, pretty basic, but schools can’t prioritize everything. And the things that a principal prioritizes can, both in terms of words and funding and priorities and how much they focus on, that becomes ingrained in the culture of that school. And so I think principals, in terms of school safety, I think rather than looking at school safety as this targeted goal of a single program that you’re trying to look at, it’s this idea about how do you create the model? How do you support the model in your school that sort of integrates these various aspects of the things that we know that work into something that students and family are supported through behavioral supports, mental health supports, social services in that school culture?

BM: I also asked Danny to give an example of what this kind of integration looks like in a school setting. He described something called a “Multi-Tiered System of Support,” or MTSS, which is a framework for providing academic and behavioral support for all students based on their individual needs.

DC: I have a very obvious one, but I think it really shows this idea about the integrated services is how principals could implement and do implement Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). And I think the reason why that is, again, fitting for a principal is this idea that in the name of “Multi-Tiered,” it’s multi-tiered. So, in thinking about what teachers can do, even individual support staff, school counsellors, school psychologists, the principals can really focus on all of the pieces of that approach, whether it’s universal screening for these academic behavioral barriers or implementing some of these interventions. Principals might not be doing that themselves, but they can support the folks in school who do that work.

And so that’s a really common one. Of course, we’re seeing RTI, Response to Intervention, and PBIS. Though those have emerged as some practices, obviously those might not be as holistic as MTSS. So that’s a really common one, and I think some of the pieces of that, again, school psychologists, school counselors, are ensuring that access. And sometimes that can be out of the principal’s hands, right? There are ratios and funding issues, but the extent to which the principal prioritizes that they stand up and advocate for that in their school is really important. So that’s a key part of MTSS, but the collaboration and integration of services, of course, as I mentioned.

Yeah, and then I think the other piece of it, which is a little bigger but is just more common again with what principals do is, what are principals doing to allow staff time in their school to be able to problem solve and plan around some of these challenges? It doesn’t happen by taking a manual off the shelf, and turning the key and here we go, MTSS. It’s a lot more than that. So, school leaders, principals, can really lead that by ensuring that school staff have the time and space to be able to do this work as well.

BM: Thinking about re-entry, thinking about transitioning from distance learning to potentially a hybrid environment or for some schools fully in-person, what are some other implications that come to mind for having been out so long for principals and maybe other school leaders?

DC: Yeah, I think the… You’re right, we have members in certain states that have been basically in-person since the beginning of the school year. A lot of them are hybrid, and then some fully remote, but depending on the school context, it seems like the consensus is… The first step is let’s make whatever that intake process is a diagnostic, and assess them as students both academically and emotionally. And I think that seems like priority number one is just ensuring that, identifying the students that previously maybe had struggles and need support and just checking in and seeing where they are. Not that schools haven’t been – they, of course, have been – but again, just the difference about being in person. But then I think trying to identify and trying to get a pulse on where students are and maybe there’s some pandemic-induced challenges or issues that have come about because of the pandemic. And so I think schools are really in that phase. And then I think really looking at staff support and programming around that and how are they gonna meet these needs? And generally, in the sense I get, we do quite a bit of surveys with our members, is that principals are both aware of additional challenges and they are expecting and planning for those to not go away, I would say.

BM: And you mentioned surveying members pretty frequently, so I’m curious if folks have hinted at or identified a few things that they think will be different as we head toward post-pandemic?

DC: Yeah, one very concrete one is just school counselors, school psychologists ratios, which was not a new issue it’s been around before the pandemic, but I think just the legitimate concerns about meeting certain things. And it’s a little bit, you know there’s gonna be challenges and you’re trying to anticipate those and predict those, but yet not knowing exactly what it’s gonna look like. I will say the recent move by Congress and the administration to provide $122 million for K-12 schools through the American Rescue Plan is a big boost in funding and one of the allowable uses, of course, is supporting students’ mental health and hiring additional staff for this. I think it’s a great, and welcomed, and much needed response, but I do think one of the concerns about this is what does it look like when this funding goes away in a few years. It’s actually allowed, you can actually spend it through 2024, which is a nice runway, but it’s technically not permanent, and so some folks are confronting that as well, but I do think the big issue is just trying to get in schools and contacts and districts where they haven’t been fully in person, is just trying to get their arms around this, like, “How big is this challenge?”

BM: According to Danny, it is especially important for principals to lead efforts to improve mental health infrastructure in their schools as more and more buildings bring back staff and students. Our guest in this episode spoke about the importance of supporting both student and staff mental health in a transition to and from distance learning. If you’d like to learn more that may help in your context, you can check out the following freely available resources from the National Center for School Safety. The first is Trauma-Informed Practices Across School Settings. This on-demand webinar provides tools to help you address the social and emotional needs of your school community. The second on-demand webinar is Student Mental Health in a Distance Learning Environment, which offers strategies to support mental health and learning, while class is online. Thank you for tuning into this episode, next time you’ll hear about how school resource officers have adapted their role in the distance learning environment and why it’s important to review emergency response plans. For more information about the National Center for School Safety, visit our website, nc2s.org. You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook.

This episode of Progress Report was produced by the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes and music is thanks to Makaih Beats.

This project was supported by cooperative agreement number 2019-YS-BX-K001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justices, office of justice programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime. And the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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22 min.

Topic Areas

Comprehensive School Safety Plans


Parents & Families, School Personnel