By Teachers, For Teachers
Schools across the nation are taking extra measures in response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) to keep students and staff safe. While these steps are certainly necessary, it can be unsettling for students who may not know exactly what is happening but see the changes taking place. Administrators and teachers can do a lot to reduce the fear and inform students with facts on a developmental level appropriate for each child.
Adults hear a lot of information, and some can be misleading and a lot can be overwhelming. It is human nature to then share the message and discuss the concerns. However, this type of “water-cooler” banter must not take place in the presence of students, especially those who may not be able to fully separate the fact from opinion. When talking about COVID-19 in the presence of students, it is important to provide accurate information, in a way that is understandable to them. It is also important to present yourself in a calm and reassuring manner, even if you personally have questions or concerns on the subject. Students of any age feed off of their teacher’s energy. If a teacher appears stressed and anxious, then students will often react in the same way. However, if the teacher appears to be rational and peaceful, then students will be more relaxed as well.
It is okay to let high school students know that this is a new strand of a virus that has been around for nearly 60 years. Older students will be able to grasp how new strands may develop and it takes time to build immunity, find cures, and create vaccines. A good history lesson that might lessen their fears would be to share how we have overcome previous medical concerns such as polio and discovered medicines such as penicillin through similar trials in our past.
No matter the age of the students, this is not the time to be sharing political views or placing blame on those believed by some to be responsible for this pandemic. Keeping a positive message for students is best, such as reminding students that there are scientists all over the world currently working on vaccines and medications to help.
Allow students time to ask questions, share concerns, and relay things they have heard in order to help validate their feelings and lessen their fears. This is a time to be honest but limited in information. Be prepared to answer questions with facts, and make sure to keep answers on an age-appropriate level. When students are sharing things they have heard, it is important to correct misinformation in a reassuring way. Be careful not to spread panic. To get the most up-to-date information, teachers and students can visit the Center for Disease Control website.
Likewise, if students know of someone who has contracted the virus, it is best to be reassuring that medical staff can provide support and quarantining can help stop the spread of the virus. Do not go into details about mortality rates at this time. If students ask about the possibility of death, place emphasis on chances of recovery and allow parents to dive deeper into that conversation as they choose.
It might be added that it is best to keep these discussions brief, as children, like adults, can become consumed by the “what-ifs” and inundated with constant talk of COVID-19. Teachers can address questions as they arise or set aside a few minutes to address questions and concerns. Keep the main focus of the day the intentional lesson of the class.
Emotions are high for everyone, especially when a sneeze or cough is heard across the classroom. Remind students to cough or sneeze in the way your school or district has determined most appropriate. Some ways include coughing or sneezing into a tissue or into the bend of the elbow; but this can still spread some droplets, so have sanitizer nearby. Handwashing is another very important activity to encourage frequently. While hand-sanitizer may be adequate, students should be allowed time to wash with soap and water that is warm several times throughout the day.
This is a great time to teach about health and communicable diseases and how they spread, again at an age-appropriate level. Let students take part in experiments demonstrating how germs are spread from person to person by using flour or baby powder and watching how it spreads across the room as someone touches varies items. For those who are ready to understand, have conversations about the need for social distancing and how this is effective in flattening the curve so that our medical facilities can care for all the patients in need.
It is also a good time to talk about other healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet and getting exercise and appropriate amounts of rest required to restore the body. Share with students that these are important ways to help your body prepare for an illness so that it can recover more quickly and be less affected by any type of illness. Use this time to focus on what is truly important, like good hygiene and preventive measures.
More schools are beginning to close in an effort to provide safer alternatives to gathering in classrooms. This is the time to assure students that things will be different for a little while, but they will get back to normal. Provide fun, engaging activities they can do at home to stay busy and be creative. Encourage students to take advantage of free educational sites that help them sharpen their skills while they are home. Remember the teacher is there to educate and provide facts. Keep in touch through online sites used by the school, and continue to share positive, calm messages to reassure students in this unusual time.
Misty is an assistant elementary school principal and holds an Ed.D. in School Leadership from Carson-Newman University, TN.