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5 Tips for Talking With Students About Coronavirus

As a teacher in Seattle, I’ve seen my class size dwindle through the week. On Monday, 15% of students were absent. On Wednesday, 30% were absent. And on Friday, I had less than half of my students in class. Walking the hallways felt like a ghost town.
My 1st period class on Friday. Half of students were in the hallways for mentor meetings, but the room was still eerily sparse.

There are a number of reasons why my students were absent. Some students had a cold or flu, while others were at academic competitions and college visits. For the vast majority, it was out of precaution for coronavirus. While most of our teenagers are not personally at risk, they might live with an aging grandparent or have a younger brother with a compromised immune system.

Regardless, the empty seats were an ever present reminder, and for the 30-50% of students still in my classes, the only thing they were talking about was coronavirus. Here are some tips I’ve kept in mind when talking with them:

Tip #1: Recognize that this situation is emotional

Every student will feel differently about coronavirus. They might be thinking about a family member or themselves at risk. They might have lived through a similar situation or know people who have. Or, they might feel indifferent. It’s all normal.

One of my colleagues shared her own example of an emotional response: “Some of you might not realize or think about the tornadoes in Tennessee, but for me, I lived through tornadoes. I lived in Nashville as well. So, I am really affected by that news right now.”

Modeling emotional response can be really powerful. If you can, share an example of you feeling emotional, and then acknowledge that students may feel differently about the coronavirus situation based on their individual circumstances, previous experiences, and cultural background.

Tip #2: Encourage informed conversation

I overheard a group of students talking about how wiping down surfaces requires alcohol wipes and not anti-bacterial wipes, and the different ways the virus was transmitted. When I sat down with them to compliment their fact-based discussion, they said, “Mr. Christensen said we can only talk about coronavirus if we’ve read Trevor Bedford’s blog. He’s the epidemiologist who did the analysis around how long the virus has been in Seattle.”

With so much misinformation around the virus, this is a great opportunity to remind students to do their research and check their sources. Here are some resources that we recommend:

Tip #3: Stay in the now

“Ms. Kong, are they going to close school?”

I tell my students, “I won’t speculate, and I have no idea. What I do know is that the district has been having conversations daily with public health organizations, following the recommendations of the experts, and balancing a lot of challenging factors in their decision.

My job as your teacher is to support you and all of my students 100%, whether you’re in class or at home. We’ll take it day by day.

“Tell me though - how are you feeling about this situation?”

Tip #4: Get prepared

Regardless of whether or not schools are closed, as I’ve seen in my class sizes, coronavirus is changing the way school looks. So, when I first saw a drop on my attendance, I reminded students of how I communicate with them when they’re not at school: our LMS PowerSchool for announcements and content, and Floop for assignment submission and teacher and peer feedback.

Floop lets me review student work remotely and have feedback conversations with my students.

As the week went on, I set up a OneNote Class Notebook as a shared collaborative space, and gave time in class for students to move materials into the notebook. From here, I’ll need to think about procedures, routines, and expectations, and how to communicate and keep track of work in an online space.

Tip #5: Continue to have fun

Heading into the classroom, I saw a student do a hopscotch foot dance with his teammate. “Is that a new handshake?” I asked. “I love it!” The student explained that he saw it in a video from China, where a man rejected a handshake and instead clicked feet. I insisted that my student teach me, so he did: We tapped the insides of our right feet together, and then the insides of our left feet.

Like all the days of teaching before, every day ahead will offer little surprises and happy moments. As teachers, we create or capture these opportunities as they happen. It means being creative - as we always are. My co-founder Christine promised her students that every remote lecture will be led by her puppy Echo. As for me, I have no pets, but maybe my students can admire my silver splash pothos plant instead.

So everyone - stay safe, healthy, flexible, and resilient. We will get through this, together with our students.

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