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While we all continue to deal with the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, education professionals throughout the world are finding innovative solutions to a variety of recently encountered learning-related challenges. One such challenge is meeting students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) needs as they continue to adjust to life in a COVID-19 world.

Students’ SEL capacities are very much being challenged now as routine disruption, distance learning, and several other factors impact their sense of community. Research suggests that a strong sense of community is important to maintaining a positive educational environment, optimizing engagement, and keeping anxiety levels low, all learning factors that have been shown to enhance student achievement.

Educators and family members can support students’ SEL and mental health in several ways during social distancing. In addition to monitoring screen time, ensuring adequate self-care, and integrating school counselors/psychologists into online learning, fostering a positive environment that supports a sense of belonging and togetherness is key to student success, especially in times of uncertainty.

By proactively initiating creative solutions to the various restrictions that social distancing has engendered, it’s still possible for education leaders to help foster their students’ SEL facilities by providing a strong sense of culture and connectivity to one another as we collectively negotiate this unprecedented societal predicament.

Morris Lyon, superintendent of the Hawkins Independent School District in Texas, recently took part in a REL Central Quick Chat titled “Strategies to Support Remote Learning Along a Continuum of Internet Access,” which presented strategies school districts might use to bridge the digital divide and support student learning at home. In addition to ensuring that students in his district are well informed about the ongoing situation and can effectively practice distance education, Lyon has also made a concerted effort to help the unique and vibrant culture of Hawkins thrive during this challenging time.

Organized under the umbrella of a unifying theme, Lyon’s district has managed to maintain a semblance of normalcy and provide a comforting respite from any pervading sense of negativity that COVID-19 might cause residents of Wood County, be they students, parents, alumni, or simply casual observers.

“We’ve used the theme of ‘Game On’ in our district to keep everyone engaged as much as possible in our school’s culture,” said Lyon. “The theme encompasses a lot of different things: grit, effort, determination, tradition, integrity–all the values and character traits we try to instill in our students. This is a challenging time for everyone, so anything we can do to help the members of our community feel better about things we’re more than happy to do.”

Shortly after social distancing parameters were set in Texas and remote learning was set in motion, Hawkins launched the Camp R.O.C.K. (Reaching Our Community and Kids) initiative, which, in addition to putting forth guidelines for distance learning during the pandemic, also established a generic email address for parents, students, staff members, and community stakeholders to utilize for reaching out to district officials during the school closures. This email address has been used to promote school culture; Hawkins’ community members have sent several photos to the address for various promotions ( Spirit Week, Earth Day, cheerleader tryouts, etc.), which were then posted on the district’s various social media accounts.

With graduation dates looming, Lyon and his team are striving to provide as memorable an experience as possible for seniors and their families.

“We’re working on trying to make the best graduation ceremony we can think of happen,” said Lyon. “Initially, we were planning on doing everything virtually, but we’ve recently been permitted to hold an outdoor graduation, so we are going with a hybrid version now. We are going to continue with the virtual graduation as planned, but now we will follow up with a social distancing graduation for those who want to walk across the stage on the football field.”

“We will have three flights of students, and all CDC recommendations will be followed,” Lyon explained. “We are trying to maintain the necessary social distancing, so we are breaking the class into flights to control things better. The hybrid model will be more effort on our part, but we want to meet the needs of our students and parents. There will be a nice virtual graduation for those who are concerned about the face-to-face ceremony, and for those who have the dream of walking the graduation stage, we will give them that opportunity.”

While the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic are indeed daunting, Hawkins has shown that innovative solutions can help preserve school culture and students’ engagement with their community during times of crisis.

For further perspectives and resources on education during the social distancing era, be sure to visit the COVID-19 FAQ’s section of publications page on the REL Central website.