Keeping Students Safe in the Digital World

keeping students safe
(Image credit: Shutterstock/Anikei)

As school leaders, many people come to us to help solve problems and work through issues both large and small. Some of the problems we’re dealing with right now, however, we just can’t fix--districts have students who have lost family members to COVID-19; staff members whose own children have been put on ventilators; and several principals who have contracted COVID-19 since coming back to school. 

These are challenges beyond anything we’ve ever dealt with before, and it doesn’t even include all of the typical issues that we manage on a daily basis (e.g., children living in poverty, in abusive households, or dealing with social and emotional issues). In other words, the pressures didn’t start with COVID-19 and they won’t end with it. 

5 Roadblocks to Work Through 

Once schools got the official word that they were going to be closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 year, some pivoted from getting their staff used to teaching online to better understanding what their students were experiencing during this disruption. Fortunately, we have some modern tools to help us through this trying time. 

As the former director of digital learning at my district, having a student safety platform in place allowed me to confidently say to parents, "My only two jobs are to make sure your kids are safe and make sure they have the best learning environment possible." With remote learning coming to the forefront during the pandemic, we have to stick to this commitment and ensure that students are safe no matter where they’re learning.  

Here are five roadblocks that our district is working through right now in order to reach that goal:  

1. Digital inequity. Students want to be able to do their work, but not all have a means for doing that. Without devices, they can’t get online and work. And without internet access at home, they can’t connect to our systems. They also can’t interact on social media platforms, which has replaced much of their in-person socializing during the pandemic. Students who don’t have technology and connectivity feel left out and stranded, and need a way to connect. We have to take it upon ourselves to help even out some of this digital inequity.  

2. Navigating uncertain environments. Students are used to seeing one another, interacting with teachers, and talking in person on a daily basis. In one fell swoop, COVID-19 took all of this away. To help fill that void, some districts are implementing a hybrid learning model in which students can meet their teachers in person (following proper mask and social distancing protocols, of course), participate in campus tours (particularly for freshmen who have never set foot in our high school before), and get acclimated to being on campus while also learning virtually. We’ve also learned about districts that created buttons with teachers’ faces so that younger students can see what their teachers’ faces look like and to help alleviate any anxiety.

3. Creating a flexible curriculum. Today’s educational curriculums have to be elastic enough to handle changes on the spot. We don’t want to get into another “crisis remote learning” situation in which everyone is scrambling to quickly take an existing curriculum and make it into one that’s suitable for remote learning. One of the best approaches is to help teachers understand that everything they’re doing should be geared for remote learning. That way, they’ll be prepared either way, whether students are sitting in the classroom or at home.

4. Monitoring hot topics of conversation. This past summer, many students wanted to discuss issues related to race. As educators address these issues, they’ve seen students proactively use tools such as G Suite to congregate and share information. They sometimes create small groups and develop their own activities that can get out of hand, and that’s when we turn to student safety platforms such as Gaggle to help us keep an eye on what’s happening. Regardless of these challenges, I'm just pleased to see the ways kids are connecting despite their lack of proximity to one another. It really hasn't slowed them down much at all.

5. Prioritizing social-emotional learning. When the pandemic emerged, our schools looked at trauma-informed practices and some of the research around how to support students, knowing that 100% of our students (and their families) are going through some level of trauma. Recognizing this, educators have prioritized social-emotional learning practices, checked in regularly with students, allowed them to go at their own pace, and paid attention to our student safety platform. We want students to know that we're there for them and that we’ll respond to any issues immediately.   

As educational leaders, when we know these issues are occurring, we can do a much better job of intervening and protecting our kids, and keeping them safe.

Dr. Matthew Joseph is Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts. 

Dr. Matthew X. Joseph (@ MatthewXJoseph) is Executive Director of Learning in Providence Public Schools, Rhode Island.