Getting ready for school, pandemic and all

At the same time every school district faces the choice of whether to open this fall, every household with teachers or school-age kids weighs a web of decisions over how to address the new normal. 

 
There are fears and tears aplenty, whether a district opts for a remote, in-person or hybrid option. To help, local educators and College of Education (COE) experts are offering tips on how teachers and families can navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on communication, connection, hygiene and safety. 

Here are a few ideas from our experts:

Offering general remote learning advice 

Oregon 2020 Teacher of the Year Mercedes Muñoz, a Portland State University alumna, says building relationships is critical for parents and educators, no matter the teaching venue.
 
“Now, more than ever, students are looking for community, relationships and meaningful learning experiences,” says Muñoz, a teacher at Franklin High School in Portland. “Whether in-building or remotely, it all starts with relationships and building trust and rapport. It is fundamentally one effective strategy that must occur before approaching content.”
How do we improve communication in a remote world? 

“Recreating presence with virtual tools takes persistence, consistency, patience, dedication and lots of practice,” says PSU alumna MariaEugenia Olivar, Hillsboro High School assistant principal. “Keep students at the center of all of your decisions and impactful moves. Students need us united and working together.”

Lorna Fast Buffalo Horse, Portland Public Schools director of multiple pathways to graduation, says adults should talk to students about both the pandemic and the “racial reckoning and uprising.”

“What are the ways that we can learn more about Black Lives Matter, about race in the United States and the world, about history?” Fast Buffalo Horse says. “If we just make it business as usual, but on the computer, and miss that point, we’re not going to engage a lot of students, and we’re going to miss an opportunity to change things in the world, also.”

Fast Buffalo Horse adds that children are mourning some of the changes in their lives, such as being apart from friends and missing rites of passage, and children might enjoy a greater sense of agency right now. She says one parent she knows uses a Kanban board to keep her daughter focused and to give her ownership over planning her daily activities. The mother writes times on the board and writes activities like walking the dog or finishing math homework on sticky notes. Her daughter places the sticky notes in a time slot when she has finished them.

For any students with in-person classes, Kevin Walker, COE 2020 doctoral graduate and principal of Rosa Parks Elementary School, says following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines is crucial. 

“This means ensuring we are wearing masks, maintaining social distance and washing hands regularly throughout the day,” Walker says.

Supporting children with special needs 

COVID-19 has created waves of change, most especially serving as an overwhelming haze, where each amorphous day can bleed into the next for families and educators. 

“Routines, along with plenty of access to healthy and crunchy foods, helps us a great deal,” says Amy Parker, an assistant professor in the COE’s Special Education Department and mother of two. “Also online learning still takes time and focus. Some people think it is easier than face-to-face, but it isn't really. It takes self-management and having movement breaks.”

Educating preschool children

John Nimmo, an associate professor in the online early childhood and doctoral leadership programs in the COE, says knowing a small child’s personal likes and dislikes is the key to helping them focus on school work.

 
“I think the most important thing is having something that’s really engaging for them,” Nimmo says. “Try and work with what they’re interested in because then they can be motivated to engage in that subject area.”

When his now-grown son was very young, Nimmo helped him create an insect collection because his child was fascinated with these small beings. The activity stoked his son’s interest in reading, learning and the natural world.

Teaching elementary children 

Walker says the teacher-family partnership is more important than ever, even if schools’ physical doors are closed. 
 
“Teachers, finding new and meaningful ways to connect with your students is paramount,” he says. “It is our job, by any means necessary, to craft, create and ensure our students have the experiences they need to continue their educational growth.”

A brand-new dad himself, Walker offers encouragement for families. 

“Families, you are your child’s first and best teacher,” he says. “Being flexible and supportive of your child’s learning — and being patient and understanding yourself throughout the virtual learning process — is important.”

Leading middle school students


PSU alumnus Todd Stoddard, a former teacher at Lakeridge Middle School in Lake Oswego, cautions that learning online can frustrate students with sluggish connections and unfamiliar programs. 

“Plan quicker activities that can be completed within 30 minutes or break larger activities up into more manageable pieces,” Stoddard says.

Stoddard, a father of two, suggests parents and teachers of middle school students keep expectations clear, incorporate physical movement into the day, and remember that, despite adults’ current stress levels, this is “about the student's educational experience, not ours.” He recommends checking in with agitated or distracted students and figuring out how to make the learning experience better for them. 

“If the adult in the situation doesn’t do this, and continues to push the student, it can cause more frustration, an increase in anxiety, and ultimately can lead to the student developing negative feelings toward school and education in general,” he says.

Read more about teaching middle schoolers.

Guiding high school students

Olivar says regular communication with students is crucial and keeps teachers and parents connected. Olivar, who has three children of her own, explains that this is a time to practice and teach persistence, flexibility, patience and grace. 

“This is what our role as public educators is all about, to meet our students and communities where they are at and provide the service that would best meet their needs,” she says.

Olivar says that school communities’ diversity in culture, population and life approach is something for teachers and administrators to consider, especially when it comes to providing effective communication and feedback. She recommends surveys, needs assessments, emails, phone calls and texts. 

“Our services in meeting the needs of the communities that we serve depend on communication to identify authentic needs, provide, and receive feedback,” she says. “Identify which ways work best for students and parents to receive communication and to provide you with their feedback.” 

She also emphasizes the value of having interpreters ready to support communication.

For more information, visit the Teaching from Home resource page.

Photos, in order of appearance:

Photo 1: Hillsboro High School Assistant Principal MariaEugenia Olivar says students should be at the heart of all decisions and communications. Olivar is shown here cuddling her middle child, Antonio, 15. Photo courtesy of Olivar

Photo 2: Oregon 2020 Teacher of the Year Mercedes Muñoz, a Portland State University alumna, says relationships are critical to teaching. PSU file photo

Photo 3: Lorna Fast Buffalo Horse, Portland Public Schools director of multiple pathways to graduation, says adults should use class time to highlight current issues, such as the pandemic and race relations, as it will serve to engage students. Photo courtesy of Fast Buffalo Horse

Photo 4: Amy Parker, an assistant professor in the COE’s Special Education Department, says online learning seems easier, but it can actually take more focus and hard work. PSU file photo

Photo 5: John Nimmo, an associate professor in the online early childhood and doctoral leadership programs in the COE, says tailoring lessons to a child's interests can help keep a student focused on learning. PSU file photo

Photo 6: Kevin Walker, COE 2020 doctoral graduate and principal of Rosa Parks Elementary School, reminds educators to follow experts' recommendations about wearing masks and washing hands. Photo courtesy of Walker

Photo 7: PSU alumnus Todd Stoddard, a former teacher at Lakeridge Middle School in Lake Oswego, says incorporating movement into learning is critical for keeping students on task. Stoddard is shown here near Bridal Veil Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, enjoying the day with his wife, Loni, and their sons, from left to right, 4-year-old Logan and 6-year-old Emmitt. Photo courtesy of the Stoddard family

Photo 8: Oregon 2020 Teacher of the Year Mercedes Muñoz, a Portland State University alumna, says relationships are critical to teaching. Here, Olivar enjoys time with her family. From left to right: Olivar’s husband, Victor Zabala; their kids, Victoria, 5, and Gilberto, 15; and Olivar. Photo courtesy of Olivar

To share stories with the College of Education, email Jillian Daley at jillian@pdx.edu.