March 2021 marks a bleak milestone – one-year of COVID-19-caused closures of school buildings across the country. When Washington’s public charter schools started closing and shifting their programs online, they also stepped up to support the needs of scholars, families and the wider community with food, necessities, transportation and open communications to support scholars’ mental and emotional health through the crisis.
While last spring felt like a whirlwind, this spring we have the opportunity to take time and look back at the impact for our scholars and envision our future coming out of the pandemic.
The topic on many parents’ minds is that of mental health for their children. In particular, the mental health for scholars with learning differences and those in the global majority (i.e., Black, Brown, Indigenous, and students of color). What has the pandemic done to the mental health of our children? And, more importantly, what can we do to support our young people moving forward?
Meet the Expert: Tynishia Williams, Assistant Principal at Rainier Valley Leadership Academy (RVLA)
A child of educators, Tynishia Williams grew up observing her parents working with scholars daily. Her mother, Joyce Williams, was a special education teacher who inspired Ms. Williams to follow suit. Ms. Williams would observe her mother working with scholars in her classroom to achieve outcomes that moved and inspired her – like a partially non-verbal scholar using new tools to say ‘hi’ or ‘I love you’.
After her mother’s passing, Ms. Williams vowed to continue her journey and build a school for special needs kids. She went on to finish her degree in Special Education and pursue her passion.
Ms. Williams has since worked across the country with schools and agencies writing individualized learning plans (IEP) and behavior plans for scholars with IEPs. She has also developed systems that aid teachers’ readiness to support a scholar’s unique learning needs. Eventually, Ms. Williams moved to Seattle to join the WA Charters family at Summit Atlas.
There, Ms. Williams instituted a program for scholars with cognitive impairments paired with autism. She saw amazing growth for scholars within this program, as did outside observers including one state auditor who exclaimed “you bring hope back to special education, Ms. Williams.”
What did she do? She created an inclusive program where her scholars were learning side by side with their general education peers.
“I believe in inclusion for our special education scholars. I believe that inclusion is the way of life,” said Ms. Williams. “Our scholars may be viewed as struggling compared to their general education peers, but I don’t see it that way. The general education scholars learn so much more from their special education peers. Scholars’ compassion, maturity, and responsibility grow in classrooms with a special needs scholar.”
COVID-19’s impacts on scholars
It’s been well observed that the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health have been widespread. In particular, Ms. Williams notes that it is most severe for those with learning differences, existing mental health challenges, and communities in the global majority – groups that have been marginalized by ongoing systems of oppression. Without dismantling those systems, these same groups have been harder hit by COVID-19.
According to Ms. Williams, she’s observed mental health as the biggest barrier for schools to address for their scholars. She has seen her scholars feeling isolated and concerned for their family’s health. Many of RVLA’s scholars share homes with multiple generations, keeping kids further removed from participating in social activities, all to keep grandparents, parents or vulnerable siblings safe. This stress is felt throughout the family unit.
“Scholars need to be around each other, and they are not right now, so we are seeing declines,” said Ms. Williams. “Our work is about building a different narrative for them and creating outlets to ensure they can connect.”
At first when school went virtual, scholars would shout over zoom to say ‘hi’ to each other and get chatty. They were so excited to see everyone that RVLA started building enrichment programs within the school day where scholars could have that informal time to reconnect. The school also started evening social events like virtual game nights for scholars, their families and friends outside of RVLA. These programs have proven helpful in keeping scholars socially connected while remaining safe.
Even with these challenges, the school is continuing to operate with virtual learning. RVLA surveyed its teachers, parents, board members and other stakeholders to come to this decision. They also did personal outreach to every RVLA family, and they felt the same way.
“They know the risk factors – especially for the African-American community and the Latinx community,” said Ms. Williams. “There are higher risks for COVID and going to the hospital is really not safe either. So, we all decided to prioritize safety. It takes a village, and we protect our kids here.”
RVLA continues to ensure families have the resources they need, and scholars have the support required to fully engage in their learning. For special education scholars and English language learners, the school offers additional one-on-one instruction suitable to their unique needs.
Anti-Racism and Social-Emotional Learning
Most WA Charter schools have social-emotional learning (SEL) practice built into daily curriculums. RVLA adds anti-racist practices within their social-emotional learning. Along with decolonized curriculums, and representation for global majority scholars in content and within the faculty and staff, RVLA uses SEL to empower its community to address issues they feel are racist or problematic when they come up.
For scholars who often were discouraged to participate in open communication in the past, building trust is critical. For school leaders, this includes opportunities for scholars to discuss issues honestly. School leaders and staff work to offer scholars the tools and language to help interpret their feelings in effective ways. Teachers are also encouraged to hear scholars and give them an opportunity to speak their truth and address their needs.
“We are really pushing our scholars – if they feel a certain way about something, they think it may have something to do with racism – they can call it out,” said Ms. Williams. “It’s not a disrespectful thing, it’s more disrespectful to have that racism around you.”
Social-emotional learning is critical in anti-racism. It’s also critical to the mental health of scholars. The school’s SEL practice includes difficult conversations that allow scholars and staff to address items that may be uncomfortable – often using storytelling as a mechanism to explore important topics. In other avenues, scholars are encouraged to share more of themselves – posting in zoom chats to cheer each other on and express positivity.
“We encourage scholars to share themselves and show appreciation for others,” said Ms. Williams. “SEL, mentor classes with mentors that look like our scholars, and modeling positive feedback all help create a culture that celebrates one another and the love we have in our school.”
Preparing to return to in-person schooling
RVLA has identified one of the greatest needs for scholars coming back to school: more time for social-emotional learning and mental health supports.
Ms. Williams believes that mental health is going to be the biggest factor for scholars coming back to class. A return to a school building alone can’t address that need. Schools should be prepared with the right counselors for their scholars, with more time for scholars to talk and express themselves. This is true for both special education and general education scholars.
Time should also be given to do more SEL in daily mentor classes and in the curriculum itself, including different ways for scholars to express themselves such as art or creative writing time. Within the school’s overall activities, Ms. Williams envisions a day a week in which the school offers a focus on mental health strategies to build into daily habits. She is also looking to have counselors speak at school assemblies regularly, helping remove taboos associated with mental health – especially for their African-American scholars with decolonized therapeutic services.
Finally, Ms. Williams notes that families need to be involved as well. She wants to encourage families to receive counseling too. They have been dealing with COVID, just as their scholars have. At RVLA there is an open-door policy for families; they have always encouraged families to come to the school and interact with the scholars. A return to the school building can offer new opportunities for families and community members to address scholars with deeper conversations about what’s been happening in the world.
The value of family involvement cannot be understated. Ms. Williams sees families at school as a bridge for scholars to better connect with each other, and expand what family means.
“Having parents just come in and say ‘hi’ to the kids and be present makes a difference,” said Ms. Williams. “The scholars see the respect and love that’s there, and it’s beautiful.”
For special education scholars, parents get to see the integrated learning and activities in which their children are involved. In particular they witness the compassion of general education scholars towards their child, in part because the school has built a culture and community where scholars take their responsibilities towards one another seriously.
“As a black woman thinking about separation and segregation for people of color and for the world of those who have differences – we need to be around one another, this is how we grow,” Ms. Williams adds. “I look at it the same way. Building that love, that compassion, building that acceptance of one another makes the world a better place.”