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Gnu Stories Podcast | Episode 10: How do you return? Being back on campus during COVID-19

After an extended time in virtual mode, SSFS is opening its campus to students for in-person learning. From dealing with an array of emotions to building new habits, hear from our counselors about how you and your student can get ready to come back to school —whether at SSFS or another community.


TRANSCRIPT

Host:

  • Dr. Rodney Glasgow, Head of School

Panelists:

  • Erin Rose, Middle School Counselor, Couseling Department Head
  • Joel Gunzburg, Lower School Counselor 
  • Meghan Cassidy, Upper School Counselor (Boarding Students)
  • Nicole Banks, Upper School Counselor (Day Students)

Rodney:  
Well, hello, I'm Rodney Glasgow, Head of School at Sandy Spring Friends School. And I am really excited to be joined by our counseling team this afternoon for an important podcast as we return to go back to in-person instruction at the end of the month, we're going to do sort of a looking back to look forward, thinking about what have we learned and gathered from our virtual learning period? And, what do we need to prepare for as folks-- for us--return to campus that has been almost a year away from the campus. So I want these folks to introduce themselves and maybe we'll go by division. We'll start lower, middle, upper and have our counselors introduce themselves, and then we'll jump into this conversation.

Joel:  
Hi, I'm Joel Gunzburg. I'm the lower school counselor at Sandy Spring Friends School.

Erin:  
Hi, I'm Erin Rose on the middle school counselor and the head of the Sandy Spring Friends school counseling department.

Nicole:  
Hi, I'm Nicole Banks, I am the Upper School Counselor. I work primarily with day students at Sandy Spring Friends School.

Meghan:  
Hi, I'm Meghan Cassidy, I work with our boarding students, and mostly in the Upper School, with our boarding students. 

Rodney:  
Thank you all for making time counselors are very busy in this particular season. And always. Thanks for being with us. And I want to start maybe with a different spin than people normally start with when they have this conversation about the psychology that students and faculty and staff are under in a virtual learning period. Normally, we start with the negative psychology of it, right? And we do know the negative impact that it can have on the mental health of folks. But what positively have you noticed people have gained in this virtual learning period from our youngest students to our longest tenured faculty members? What can we gather positively from this period for ourselves?

Erin:  
Well, the first word that comes to mind is adaptability. So thinking about students, and how they have adapted to all the different changes that they've had, it's been pretty amazing. And in fact, some students were reflecting about that recently in the middle school, and they said, Yep, we learned how to adapt to handle different situations. And that was awesome that they could recognize that in themselves. 

Joel:  
One thing that's been really paramount across the board is that people are getting more time with their families. And not only just being around them, but taking time to do things that they maybe weren't doing before. And really enjoying some of that family time.

Nicole:  
I would also add that our students, especially in the Upper School, from what I have seen, has demonstrated a lot of resilience, and resilience in a way that doesn't always mean that they're coping well with everything all the time, because there have been a lot of difficulties, but that they're able to move through things and keep going. So I have seen that even when students feel full, they do keep working. And they keep working very hard. 

Meghan:  
I think another amazing outcome from this time period, kind of going along with the adoptability is that we have learned that some students have really thrived in this environment in some ways. And so we've learned that our students who have social anxiety may have really benefited from the time that they've had to themselves, or introverts really appreciate not having the same sort of social context that they've had previously. And so I think it's a wonderful outcome that we've recognized that, hey, maybe there are some things here that we can take into the rest of our lives going forward.

Rodney:  
So this adaptability, this connectedness, to family and to the social network, albeit sometimes in different ways, right? But feeling more rather than less connected for some folks. That resilience, which you know, is my word of the year. So I love that you brought that up. And also this sense of introspection and even the acceptance of introversion, especially in an extroverted world. And so it makes me want to skip ahead a little bit in my thinking and think about when we come back to in person, which we're going to talk more about in a different chunk. But for now, when we come back to in person, how will we be encouraging folks to maintain those things?

Meghan:  
I think that in the way that we have asked our students to be adaptable to what has been required of them in terms of virtual learning that we can all remember too, that there were some things that went really well and so we can be adaptable and make some changes to the way that we structure our days, structure our curriculum, structure our communities, so we can really bring those ideas in with us.

Nicole:  
I would also say that being mindful is a way we can really keep that as well. Being mindful of your emotions, being mindful of those around you in the situations that you're in. Because hybrid is going to look very different from anything we've seen so far. Listening to ourselves is a way we can achieve this as well.

Erin:  
Going along with that, we really need to do a lot of focus on self care, like we've already been doing. But that will continue as we transition into in-person school. So that means still connecting with your family, making sure you're going outside, taking those long walks, all those things that we really made a point of focusing on during this time, we should be continuing even though we're back in school.

Joel:  
I think when we talk about resilience, recognizing that resilience is not just something that you just have. Their's skill building that's involved in that. And, you know, there's some great articles too, about resilience, and not just resilience when it comes to things that are clinically significant. But just building your regular resilience through your everyday life. And I think that's really important. There's a great video that the third graders just put out, and it went out to the third graders, but it's going to go out to the larger community in a little while too.. But, just to hear third grader saying, you've got this, you know, we've only completed the first leg of this, we still have some more to go, but we got this and we got your back. So really fun video, but just a reminder that we've accomplished a lot. And when we look at the end of 2020, and how important of a benchmark that is, for a lot of us, we still have some work to go.

Rodney:  
Right? Well, I love the highlighting of the difference between a trait and a skill, and resilience--some people think it's a trait--but it really is a skill, you can develop that. I'm thinking about child development, which you all are experts and a lot of the buzz that especially parents and educators are having around this moment is like what's going to be the impact on child development of this extended period of quarantine. And let's add in, right, heightened anxiety about being in a pandemic, heightened anxiety about the state of the country with civil unrest, heightened anxiety from what we saw just last week with political unrest, right? All of these things converging at once. And as we saw from our kindergarteners all the way to our 12th graders, and we were in that meeting all together, they all have some sense of, "this is a chaotic moment in the lives of our country." And so, thinking about--and maybe starting with lower school and moving up-- what are going to be some things we're going to have to be mindful of even some deficits to the natural arc of child development that have happened because of this extended crisis period that we've been living under.

Joel  
I'm glad you started this conversation the way you did, because I think a lot of times the buzz is let's focus on the negative. And there's so much bad that's happening here. And yeah, this is a really tough time for us in schools. It's a really tough time for us in our nation, with everything that we're dealing with-- civil unrest and all that's going on. I see a lot. And I don't want to keep using the word resilience. But I see a lot from our students, when we're.. saying, Hey, you know, this is happening, although this may not be normal, and this may be a little bit off the rails, we've got this. I really think there's a lot to be said of that. I mean, I don't want to go back and start quoting Erikson's stages. But it's it's really important when we're developing that mind of how do you build a learner who's going to be comfortable making mistakes, and not looking at the shame and guilty of getting something wrong, but we're looking at "No, I can do this. And it's okay for me to have some autonomy here." And we nurture that environment, not just as parents, but as teachers and counselors and everybody else who works in a school.

Rodney:  
Interesting, Joel, you bought up Erikson, I was thinking for our youngest folks,... and the idea of school as the place where you start to slowly detach from home. But what happens when they're merged in the way that this has happened for us? What about Middle School? Thinking about that, my favorite part of the continuum.

Erin:  
Yeah, I can see so much developing. I'm like you, Rodney, I absolutely love middle schoolers, because they are starting to get their own thoughts and ideas and start questioning things and are like, "wait, why is it like this? And why is that?" And they're developing their own identities. So that's amazing to watch. And to watch to the difference between our sixth graders and our eighth graders. I feel like it's enormous maturity that happens in that time. So I think some of the real positives is, even though we are experiencing things that we never anticipated experiencing before, this is such a critical time in their development that there can be questioning and they're going to be thinking and they're going to be challenging us as the adult, which is also really fun to help and guide them through this as they start coming up with their own thoughts and ideas and beliefs. You mentioned, like what deficits might we be facing developmentally? I do think we're gonna see some rusty social skills because we've all been home for so long, and especially in middle school, where peer relationships and forming groups and attachments like that are so key. Yeah, we're gonna have a little rusty social skills. But that's okay. We'll bounce back. And it may take a little bit more reminding or like just even sometimes etiquette kind of things. But kids will bounce back from that too.

Rodney:  
And you think about so much of the reading of social cues that happened in that middle school environment and the scanning the crowd for "where am I on the arc of appropriate?"  that you lose in the virtual setting. And then, of course, I'm thinking about our seniors all the way down to our first years, and seniors must be in some ways mourning sort of the loss of all those traditions, right? And this being a very memorable, but also in some ways a sort of lackluster final year.

Nicole: 
I would agree with that completely. When we talk about our upper schoolers, and we're looking at their development and them developing their identity more, I think some of the things that have been going on with a pandemic, and with a lot of unrest and our whole political situation, you want to consider the effects of complex trauma and how people respond to that, because we are in a threatening in an ambiguous way situation with COVID. So how people respond to that trauma can be so varied, and for some, they will be very resilient and will develop just fine. And for others, it may be much more difficult. And we may not fully know what we're going to see for years until they enter new situations, or when the world returns to "normal." Some of those things may be really shocking. So I envisioned that there's going to be some deficits in separating from home or feeling fully comfortable with people because we've been so isolated for so long. And that can potentially have an impact on wanting to seek out your identity and  try new things. So I can imagine some confusion and maybe even a longer adolescence. And there's already been studies that say emerging adulthood is almost like a second adolescence. So I can see that being a little bit longer.

Meghan:  
Yeah, I just want to echo what Nicole said about trauma... We are creating this intentionally safe space and working on making sure that safety is of utmost for our students, and that there is such resiliency, and our brains do have incredible neuroplasticity, especially our children, which means that this period of time, which is extremely difficult--as we move towards healing as a country, and as the pandemic lessens, there will be changes that happen to our students brains and our brains. And, also, there is trauma that is occurring. And our perceptions really do affect how we experience what occurs and that we are being intentionally aware of how our students and how our community members can be affected by everything that is occurring at a community, and national, and global level is extremely important. And I really love that we're doing both of those things.

Rodney:  
And we don't want to forget about our colleagues who are also living through this moment as well. How would you say this extended quarantine period--matched with civil and political unrest--how do you see it impacting your colleagues and what has been the hit to educators who still thrive right in a totally different environment than Zoom?

Meghan:  
One of the amazing things about our community is that we have colleagues who have been doing what they do for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, 30 years. And we have incredible new faculty and staff who are just extremely talented and brilliant, and they have all had to learn new skills and be vulnerable, which is extremely difficult for a lot of us, especially when we are an expert in a craft or a subject matter. So our community members and our faculty and staff are also having to work through what that means and do so in an environment where the community looks different, and the support looks different-- we can't just pop into each other's classrooms or see each other at lunch. So that has been really, really hard. And I think that will be something that even though there is some trepidation about what it'll look like to return, I think we will all have a lot of comfort from being able to have community and in those ways that we have been missing. 

Joel:  
Meghan mentioned our community, and I remember when we first going into our quarantine [we were] trying to recreate our community. Especially in the lower school, you've got teachers who normally are a teaching team working together, you know, in a certain grade, a while we may be able to get each other on  Zoom and have connection,  it's a lot more difficult than just moving next door, and oh, hey, so and so this is going on. And one thing I've noticed is that as siloed as we are, I think we've created some really interesting ways to stay in touch and stay on each other side and making sure that we're taking care of each other. And Rodney, I know you've seen a little bit of how this community works. And I know I'm just a new guy in this too... [our] community is is amazing, just from talking about a walk across the campus and seeing somebody, and running into someone at lunch from a different division, or having a quick conversation and breaking some of those silos down to be able to see each other. And then reframing what is that now, because we still need to keep our social distance, right? So doing that in a way that we're still supporting one another, and that we can let this amazing community that we're a part of still be present.

Rodney:  
And we don't want to forget the parents that we're in partnership with, right? And they are also living and parenting through all of the conditions we've just described. As you are helping parents navigate this, what are you noticing about the psychological impact on parents of this particular time?

Erin:  
Well, I think it's an understatement to say that everybody's been stressed. It is a lot to navigate your own personal responsibilities, professional responsibilities, and also be homeschooling your children, especially in our younger grades. So yeah, definitely stress levels are higher than they have been in the past. It's just so much to navigate and to juggle and maintain and try to balance, and keep that balance from getting off.

Joel:  
I know from conversations that I've had with some of our parents, I think just the reframe of, "what's supposed to be happening" into, "I hear you, but we are where we are." And I think the other side of it is parents getting to a space to recognize that this is too much. This is way too much! There is not like  a "you're winning at this." Seeing parents interact with some of the mindfulness activities that are being given to students in the lower school, and practicing some mindfulness with with their child, has allowed some of that space to be like it's okay. And I have had a long standing conversation with one parent in particular about [how] there's just not enough time to get that mindfulness time in like, how do you make 15 to 20 minutes, when you're working [ and] managing children ?  aAnd hearing some of the dialogue of those who actually work that time in that they're getting the results back.

Meghan:  
My child is a kindergartener at Sandy Spring Friends School and I constantly have his teachers voice in my head when the guilt pops up. I think that a lot of parents right now have that guilt of a lot of what Joel was talking about, "I'm not doing enough." Just really hard on ourselves and hear Maryanne's voice in my head when I'm starting to have those inner critic voices pop in. And she's like, "just read to him, we will catch them up. He's right where he's supposed to be. everything is happening as it should be right now." And so just really drawing back on that strength. Given everything that is going on, they are exactly where they're supposed to be right now. And that really helps with that parent guilt.

Rodney:  
Thinking about him his theory, and our parents, all of a sudden also became English teachers and math teachers and kindergarten teachers and Dean's of Students, right?And so, really, really challenging. So needless to say, folks are both highly anxious, and highly excited, and highly anticipatory about returning to campus after quite some time away. As the counseling team, what do you recommend people do? And in two weeks, we'll be opening back up, how do people prepare themselves for a return to campus and the psychology of returning back to this place?

Nicole: 
So I think one of the first things we touched on a little earlier, is setting up a routine and realizing that your routine for going to school is different than your routine of opening your computer. So if getting dressed is difficult: laying your clothes out the night before, making sure you are out of your bed with pants on with plenty of time for you to drive to school or your parents to get you to school or the take the bus to school. I think we all have forgotten that commutes are a thing. So planning for that time in the morning. And not just doing it the day before the night before but actually practicing, going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier so your body can adjust more slowly versus being thrown right back into it. And in addition to this, noticing that when we're at school, and we're excited to get there that it's definitely going to look different than that. It might feel really weird. We might might feel sad, we might still feel a sense of loss because things won't look normal necessarily.

Rodney: 
Thinking too about our kids who are going to be new. Even some of our faculty who've never physically taught on the campus before, and thinking about what should tips for those families, students, and employees who are new to campus might be feeling.

Erin:  
I think in that situation, as much knowledge that you can prepare yourself with ahead of time is really helpful. So know your schedule, know what classes you're going to have, know when your breaks are, know what the plan is for lunch. So you just have all that information. So when you are on campus, it's not so overwhelming.

Joel:  
And speaking of overwhelming, the one thing that's been part of conversation in our lower school meetings the last two weeks is just the level of exhaustion. And you know, we're talking about cognitive load and how much we've got to do to prepare for virtual lessons and get ready for space. One thing that I don't know that students and staff will be ready for is the pace at which we'll go, especially students with student movement around the campus and how much more you're taking on and all these different things you've got to take in. The end of the day may be met with someone who's ready to just fall on a bed and go to sleep. And what that might look like in home, it could be different for each student. But, just managing your mindset and just looking at this is all new. We're all approaching this as beginners, and let's take each day as they come.

Rodney:  
Sounds like a part of what y'all are describing is it's going to be like the first day of school for everyone all over again. Even though we've been in session since September, this is a true reopening, right? Everything will have to be sort of recalibrated. Are there techniques you've learned as people, and I'm going thinking back to Nicole's words, routines...you could go back to your former routines, but this also is a great time to maybe play around with some new routines. And maybe I might speak about how people break old habits and embrace the newness of the moment to think about some new routines that they might try as we reopen.

Nicole: 
I love talking about routines and behavior patterns and changing behaviors. So you're definitely right, going back to our old routine probably is not going to be the most effective thing because we have to consider not just,  "where are my shoes, or my house keys" but, "where is my mask? Is it a clean mask? Do I have a backup mask?" We have to consider new items that we're taking with us. We have to consider, "are we getting a cold lunch today? Or will I get a hot lunch today?" Remembering, for the Upper School, we'll be doing cohorts. Is it my cohort day or is it not my cohort day? So you remember how you have to get ready in the morning. And in changing these routines, why I said we should start earlier versus the day before or the day of, it's better if we can do something called shaping behaviors is successive approximations of the behavior that you want. So we're not immediately changing our behavior, but we're kind of sampling it and leading up to that behavior change. So doing little things, like not waking up a full hour earlier than you wake up, but 15 minutes one day, 15 minutes more the next day, and so on and so forth. So, shaping what you want to see in the mornings, shaping what you want to see with your homework at the end of the day, not just waiting until late at night to do your homework, if that's been happening, because you do now have to wake up in the mornings and maybe actually go to school.

Rodney:  
Thinking about when you said mask and the new routines, one of our new routines is going to be social distancing, which,  in a preschool to 12th grade setting is is actually unheard of. It's against human nature, especially at those ages and in a school to socially distance. And so what is the psychology around [it]? I'm thinking about even when we do our social pods the oddness I feel when you walk by a teacher who's doing exactly what they should be doing, "you're standing too close, don't hug that friend," which is so different from what human nature is all about and what we would love to be able to do. How do we wrap our minds around the psychology of finally getting back to our campus, to our friends, to our community, and still needing to be reminded to stay distant? 

Joel:  
For me, I've been able to see a lot of the PreK drop off, and not that I'm in with the preschoolers, but that was probably the group that I was most worried about. You know, you've got a three or four year old who thrives on that physical contact. That's part of making you feel like this is a nurturing environment. I was on the nervous end of coming back to school. But seeing them throughout the last couple of months has made me realize, Oh, no, we've got this. And I see it, too, when you think about like that moment that you would normally hold the hand to head to the next space for the three or four-year-old.... I was walking across campus the other day, and a couple of pre K students wanted to follow me back to my office. And I said, "you can skip behind me, but make sure you say [distant]. And when I see you, I wish I could hold your hands, but I can't." But I'm able to put that into words to let them know that affection is coming, we're gonna get there. And I know that that's some of our younger learners. But just talking about a smile and seeing the smile in your eyes...[and] just putting it into words, and just talking about what we have to offer in our community, I think will be really helpful.

Meghan:  
I think one of the most powerful lessons I've learned throughout this process is.. well, two things. But when I was thinking most prominently of was the power of play for any-aged person that playfulness and play is so important, and is something that I have had to intentionally integrate into the way that I function and the way that my routines play out. And so I have been thinking a lot about how to do that, within the context of this--Rodney, as you said---way of engaging that's against human nature. And there are still ways that we can be playful. And there are still ways that we can inject fun into the way that we interact with one another. And it's so important, I mean, laughing is something that you don't have to do while you're touching or hugging someone else. But it is something that releases those important bonding hormones into our bodies and our systems. Being silly and dancing, or there are other ways to just inject those really intregal ways to connect with one another and not have to be close to one another. And so those are the things that I've been thinking about that are... ways to be playful, and how important those pieces are.

Rodney:  
So we've got a lot of great tips for students and even our colleagues as they're coming back. But parents are also making this transition with us, what would you recommend parents do maybe even just one tip to help their kids get back into the "new normal."

Meghan:  
One tip would be certainly with the older students. But I think this applies across the board [is] listening. When someone feels heard about how they are feeling and what their fears are, that can go a really long way in alleviating those fears. Just having having someone really listen and feel listened to, can really, really be powerful. So that's something that as a parent at home, that you can really offer your your students about what they are experiencing,

Nicole:
I would also add in the idea of balance. There may be times especially at the beginning, where you actually might have to step in a little bit more as a parent to help remind your older students of, "we need to wake up at this time, we need to get going do you have XYZ items when you go to campus," because they may be so used to not doing it, that remembering to do it may be hard. And just using those gentle reminders and balancing your students need for independence with making sure they actually have the necessary equipment now, because we are going into a situation that is very regimented.

Erin:  
And I would add that as we adjust to all these changes, as much as possible, to have some structure and consistency. Because we all thrive when we have some structure and consistency, especially when things don't feel very consistent right now. So as families start establishing these new routines, making sure you keep some consistency, like "yes, we all get up at 7am. And we have our breakfast at 715." Or actually it has to be earlier than that! But just establishing that structure in that consistency.

Joel:  
What I recommend is as you set the new routines, being aware that separation could be looking different [than in the past]. We're looking at students being home close to a year at this point and whether things have been tough or not, this is extra time that they've been home with you. So if we can create consistency to "this is when we're going to be spending some family time" because that family time is so important that you've already established.... If you can't do it a couple days a week, it's going to be Friday night.  Just some sort of this is how we're connecting back to our family. Also just really paying attention to the mindset. And I don't know if I'm giving myself advice with this. But when you think about what this has been and now we're going into a different routine... it's very easy for your mind to go right into, "Oh, I can't wait to get back to school." Ad just knowing that just because we're going back to school doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be so much better. It may look different and it goes back to the point I was making about exhaustion earlier. So take it slow. let's let it play out a little bit and see how they're doing. 

Rodney:  
Well, as we wrap up this discussion, I'm thinking about probably the biggest word  that I hear as we get towards the reopening is, "I'm excited about it. And I'm really anxious about it. How as a counseling team, do you recommend be managed people's anxieties at this time? What can people do? And it will be anxiety producing, even as it is exciting. How can people manage their anxieties as we go back to campus?

Erin:  
I think it'll be really important to continue to have the conversations. So with our students hearing their questions, hearing their concerns. Engaging them in the problem solving, like what would you do if a classmate didn't have their math? Or had let their mask slip down? Like, what would you do? How would you handle that? So that [students] feel like they have some power and some control over what's happening. And then, after listening to them and hearing their thoughts and hearing their questions, it's so important for students to be able to identify Well, if you're feeling nervous at school, who do you go to? Who are your trusted adults? Who can you turn to when you have a concern? So that they know that when they're back at school, they have support.

Nicole:  
In addition to that, I think validating the anxiety that students may feel --that it is valid, even if your friend isn't anxious, it's valid for you to feel anxious. These emotions make sense at this time. And going back to the notion of self-care. Even if you're feeling completely fine, you don't notice any anxiety, doing something every night to intentionally relax and take care of yourself and calm yourself, and soothe yourself can actually help manage that anxiety that may come up long term. 

Joel:  
I think the other side too, is recognizing what might be invisible too. We've got some friends who may not be coming back, right? They've made a family decision to stay back and being aware that there may be other anxieties at play. And I think that gets to what everybody's saying, too, is, you know, just getting to know and having the conversations aboutt what might be present. You know, I've got friends who are doing this all throughout the world... and I think, at Sandy Spring, we've done a really top notch job just sitting back and talking about what we want to do to make sure that everybody's cared for especially our students. When we think about when we go in, we may have the expectation to say this is you some of the anxieties, we may be looking for the first week or two, but if something else presents itself...we just need to be able to be adaptable to go along with what what anxieties we might not have seen come up Listen, who would have ever thought we saw what we saw last week, that that was going to be something that we were going to deal with? There's lots of things that are coming up. So just recognizing what those anxieties might be and then just meet our students where they're at,

Rodney:  
and thinking a lot about and who you all speak to maintaining a sense of control. And one of the quotes from one of my favorite books, middle school books, "Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pies" is focused on the things that you can control versus the things you can and really that is a mantra for the moment. So as we get to this reopening, we're gonna take a deep breath and a deep dive. And I know that this team will help us to exhale as needed. And so thank you for all that you do to hold everybody in good stead and good care here at Sandy Spring Friends. I have enjoyed this conversation and so appreciative to have you all in this journey together.

Erin:  
Thank you, Rodney.

Meghan:  
Thank you.

Joel:  
Thanks, Rodney.

Nicole:  
Thank you, Rodney.

 

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