Coping with COVID-19 - 5 Ways Leaders Can Alleviate the Anxiety of Students

After our school closed under the direction of the Governor, I found myself worrying more over the spread of COVID-19. Then, around mid-March, my son’s university closed all classes and told students to go back home. His college campus is three hours away so I began the journey to bring him home. My worries caused me to try and buy hand sanitizer for the trip, but the shelves were bare. I mean totally bare, the only thing left on the shelf was the sticker saying the shelves needed to be restocked. I thought, “Oh my goodness, what am I going to do?” I can’t drive that far away, with all of those germs, and not take something to protect myself. As a result, I bought a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Lysol spray. The Lysol said that it killed 99.9% of germs in the kitchen, I figured if it works for the kitchen, it has to work on people.

So, I began my three hour journey with a stop to my favorite food stop along the way, Chick-Fil-A. Once I got my food at CFA and walked to my car, I started the disinfecting. I sprayed my hands with the Lysol and then began to rub the spray, from my hands, onto my face.

Only a few minutes into my journey on the road, my lips started to tingle and my face began to feel really hot. I called my wife, who is a nurse, and asked her why I might be feeling this way. She asked, “Did you touch your face with anything?” I said, “Yes, I bought this bottle of Lysol for the kitchen and simply cleaned my hands and face with it.” In the most loving way she could say it, she said, “How could you be so stupid, that is not meant for your face!”

I had a bottle of water in the car so I washed my face the best I could and stopped using Lysol to disinfect my face from that point on. I must agree with my wife, just because it says that it kills 99.9% of germs, it doesn’t mean that it’s meant for your body!

I also was paranoid that I had a fever almost everyday the first week we were out of school. I found myself checking my temp or thinking I had the latest sign of the virus. Am I the only one being so paranoid like this?

The reason I share these stories with you is because if a grown and educated person like myself was petrified to get the virus, what do you think our kids are thinking and dreaming about? The mental health and well being of our students needs to be a top priority during this pandemic.

A recent report shared Americans are having more restlessness, nightmares, and generally poorer levels of sleep during COVID-19. I’m confident this is true for students also. As educators, we have a responsibility to consider and plan to support the mental health of students during this time. If we ignore their mental health, we are simply neglecting one of the biggest issues in our country right now. As principals, we must be thoughtful, visionary, and focused on supporting the mental health and wellness during this time. Without this, our students will begin to struggle and may begin to withdrawal, become depressed, or think suicidal thoughts.

Here are 5 Ways Leaders Can Alleviate the Anxiety of Students

  • Plan - I regularly meet with our school counseling team to plan, organize, strategize, and vision cast on how we can support our students' mental health and well being. Without these planning sessions, I find that we only sputter along and fail to truly implement anything with fidelity. I so appreciate and value our school counseling team as they are champions for students in regards to mental health. They are regularly trying to find new ways to support students and to get creative in how we go about supporting the mental health and wellness of our students.

When planning, be sure to take good notes and reference these notes for direction and

focus. Our assistant principal is the go to notetaker and he does an outstanding job of keeping us committed to what we write down. When planning, we typically gather around a Google doc and give everyone access to edit, plan, and dream together.

Ways to Plan

  • Collaborate around a collaborative online document such as a Google Doc

  • Create Timelines - this helps to layout a focus and action plan

  • Schedule it - Without scheduling time to plan, our efforts often fall to the wayside. Commit to meeting and follow through on it

  • Collaborate - Without a doubt, these are not the times to fly solo, these difficult days require the best minds to work together. Plus, most principals don’t have a background in mental health so it’s important to rely on and lean on the expertise in your school such as school counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and more. I depend on our school counseling team of 7 (counselors, social worker, school psychologist) to provide key information, resources, and ideas in how to strengthen the mental health and well being of our students. If I did this alone, our students would lose out on the braintrust that our counseling team consists of. Plus, I value how our counseling team members have such diverse backgrounds and expertise. When we collaborate and bring people together around solving a problem, we strengthen the outcome and enrich the experience for our students. Be sure to collaborate. Jump on a zoom with your counseling team, call them over the phone, or invite them to edit a document together.

  • Listen to all voices - it’s critical to give everyone value and to listen to everyone’s voice.

  • Trust - we need to trust our team members

  • Rely on them - It’s important to rely on them to be the experts in the room and to provide them the leadership capacity to make decisions.

  • Develop Leaders - Foster leadership qualities in team members so the collaboration can continue even when you aren’t there.

  • Kids Over Content - Stress to your teachers and entire staff the importance of focusing more on the student than the content. Kids over content is my mantra and it’s one that I learned from a friend of mine who is an elementary school principal. His focus is about his students and their mental health, wellness, and physical safety first and foremost. By doing this, we support the whole child and empower them to meet their basic needs before learning. Another way to think of it is Maslov over Blooms. Students can’t focus on their academic needs when their basic living needs aren’t being addressed. Food, shelter, health, family support, and love are all basic needs of students that may be in peril or jeopardy during this time.

It’s challenging for a student to be studying Shakespeare’s sonnets when his mom or grandma is a healthcare worker and was recently diagnosed with the virus. When this happens, it pushes the academics aside and forces the student to focus on supporting his family, rightfully so. And, we need to support that as educators. I like to think of it this way, ten years from now students won’t remember the content you taught them but they will never forget how you made them feel, how you gave them hope, and how you showed them love during this most difficult time. Focus on kids over content and you will never go wrong.

  • Grace Over Grades - We need to be focusing on grace over grades. This isn’t the time to dig in your heels and try to teach a lesson on responsibility. It’s the time to have grace over grades. This reminds me of an educator who shared with me, “Bill, we need floating deadlines.” At first I thought, that’s an oxymoron, I’m not sure that lines up. But the more I think about it, that’s exactly what we need to be doing at this time. Have floating deadlines to support the needs and well being of your students. By doing this, you take the anxiety off of them and allow them to focus on what’s most important. In addition, you demonstrate to your students that they are more important than their grades.

Furthermore, many students are lacking the resources to be successful and in many schools there's huge equity issues in regards to wifi, technology, and other resources. This is yet another reason that we need to provide grace over grades. Let’s ease up on the grading and focus on grace during this time. Let’s just get students to hand work in, work with students to have them complete assignments, and extend an olive branch in allowing late assignments.

  • Mental Health Matters - Now more than ever, we need to be focusing on the mental health needs of students. Principals need to be leading more than just the learning, they need to lead the mental health needs of students. Work with your school counseling team to host small group counseling groups throughout the week, lead a Zoom Town Hall meeting on mental health, and share with families resources to access mental health resources even though the school is online. These small group counseling groups could be on topics such as dealing with disappointment, overcoming anxiety, and working through frustration. Establish a counseling plan and implement it throughout the coming weeks. By setting up small group counseling sessions, students have an opportunity to work through their fears and anxieties with a professionally trained counselor and a group of students who have similar concerns.

Some schools are also doing a daily question as their way to take attendance. Most of the questions are fun and upbeat but it’s good to pepper in a mental health question of the day like the one listed below.

How are you doing?

  • I’m doing great!

  • I’m doing pretty good

  • I’m doing ok… I guess.

  • I'm starting to struggle.

  • I'm having a really hard time.

  • I need to reach out to someone for support.

Share this data with your school counselors and have them follow up with students who express they are struggling. By doing this, you are checking on students and making sure their mental health is supported.

With the possibility of some of you students or families being infected with COVID-19, the anxieties and fears of students is at an all time high. This is why it is critical for principals to be focusing on mental health for students. By doing this, we are supporting the Whole Child and helping them find success in and outside the classroom.

I'd love to hear what you are doing to support mental health of students during this time, please comment and share out what your school is doing.

Check out Dr. Ziegler's latest Book, "You Don't Need Superpowers to Be a Kid's Hero: Leading A Hero-Building School Culture"

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