Our Health Also Depends on Social Connection and Community

These are unprecedented times. While we are preparing round the clock, as is every teacher and school leader right now, for any possible closure of our Community to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I wonder about what it will mean for a Community that lives and breathes that word with a Capital “C” to go online for any extended period of time. I’ve always maintained that my work cannot be done from home. The visibility of any leader in a Community like ours, or yours, is essential for the building and sustenance of relationships. What will happen to that Community when it is behind a screen and contained within four walls but never the same four walls?

There are schools in Washington, California and New York that have closed for several weeks. Harvard asked their students to vacate the dorms by Sunday and classes will be conducted online for the remainder of the spring semester. Several other universities have taken similar measures. Google asked all of their North American employees to work from home where and when possible. Other companies have also given their employees the freedom to do so. The State Department and USAID has suspended nonessential travel to international destinations. Italy has suspended all commercial activity except grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, and public transit. These uncharted waters are not just about learning and working from home. The New York Times followed a second-grader and his family through this remote learning experiment, sharing their experience. We lose so much when we go into hiding, even when it’s hiding from something we cannot see.

I’m not dismissive of the seriousness of this public health emergency. Earlier today, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. The White House is considering declaring Europe a level 3 travel advisory, discouraging nonessential travel. The State Department and the CDC have both issued guidance discouraging travelers from cruises, long plane rides and large crowd gatherings, especially for the elderly or with a compromised immune system. Big events like South by Southwest are now cancelled. This is a big deal. So IF it’s imminent that I, a head of school, will be staying home in the foreseeable future and performing my duties from my home office, what will I gain and what will I lose? What, in the absence of that human connection with my colleagues and our families and students, will I miss about all of the reasons I became an educator in 2001?

Community depends on connection. How will we authenticate and establish those connections online that, so far, have been in person? We assume any closure will be temporary, but an article in The Atlantic imagined, using real examples from Hong Kong the Colville School District in Washington State, about what happens to student learning when school’s out for 3-5 days, two weeks, a month, or longer. The article didn’t really go far enough and it shared many obvious (at least to an educator) conclusions. When I discussed that article with our leadership team on Tuesday, here are some of the questions we asked ourselves:

  • How will we check-in regularly with our Community, and create those informal and impromptu opportunities, the serendipitous moments when a colleague stops into my office, or I go to the playground and run around with our preschoolers, or open the car door and wish the student and his parent a good morning and good day? What will replace those moments for us?
  • Do we establish office hours via video conference?
  • How do we set limits around channels of communication for our colleagues, students and families, so text, email, Slack, Google Docs, Google Hangouts, and Zoom are not all blowing up constantly around us?
  • How will we communicate daily with our families, and not just communication from their classroom teacher?
  • What are the limitations of our remote learning tools?
  • How will we care for the social, mental, and emotional needs of our students?
  • How will we support students and families remotely when they know someone who has passed away?
  • Could we provide childcare for families that need it?
  • Could we ask neighborhood Communities where our students live to organize recess for the children?
  • Are there families who will need laptops or iPads? For families, especially those with younger children to whom we don’t provide any iPads or laptops, will they have enough devices at home so parent and child do not have to share a device to access and complete work and school assignments?

These questions, at their core, are about maintaining connection, fostering Community and continuity for our students and families. We need to address those same needs for our faculty colleagues. How will we manage and create Community for them? We’ve considered several possible solutions and I know that we’ve only scratched the surface so far.

Social connection is critical to healthy child development. It’s what the best elementary schools offer and coach their students and families. Social connection and the development of healthy relationships are also the keys to true happiness and a long-life. What happens to our mental and emotional states when social distancing, not social connection, becomes the norm? I worry if this virus, and the anxiety associated with it, lasts for a long time. It will make learning and working from home normal for the current generation of students and come at a significant cost to their growth and maturity that we will not fully absorb or understand until years later.

We don’t have all of the solutions worked out yet. Just thinking about myself for a moment, I’ve not fully contemplated working from home for weeks and months without the regular check-in, meeting in person, lunch or dinner with colleagues to discuss work and socialize, and the evenings and weekends at the theatre, cinema, concert, restaurant or some other big social event at the botanical gardens and the public park. We lock down these places, including our schools, to mitigate the spread of the virus and bring down the rate of illness, but for how long? Like everyone else, we are managing the day-to-day, while still planning for this unknown and uncertain future for our school. We stay flexible and we adapt. Yet, how do we as leaders also mitigate the long-term consequences and recognize the short-term measures that will also inevitably cost us dearly?

For seven summers till 2014, Tony F. and I would talk about leading and managing for diversity and inclusion to approximately eighty independent school teachers and administrators at the NAIS Diversity Leadership Institute. Tony was a head of school at the time and he would speak to the non-heads in the room about what it’s like to be one. There are two lessons he’d always share with the participants:

Lesson #1: People think a lot of what we [heads of school] deal with is black or white. Either this or that. It’s not that simple; it almost never is. It’s all grey all the time.

Lesson #2: When I was a teacher at 22, I thought the head of school was a doofus. I knew I could make better decisions most of the time.

Then I became an admissions director and I had a clearer picture of what happened at the admin meetings. I still felt that the head of school didn’t know what he was doing. I could have done better than him at least 60% of the time.

I became an assistant head and now I was the #2 guy. I was closer to the head’s reality than all of my colleagues. Even then, Nishant, I just knew that I could do better. The guy had no idea and made so many avoidable mistakes. I would have made a better call at least 30-40% of the time.

Now, I’m the head of school and everyone else says that about me.

What Tony said. It is all grey and it’s easy to second-guess the decision makers. But as we make plans to go remote, I hope we will consider beyond the academics and beyond the meetings that can happen online, and create real, not just virtual, solutions to drive the human connection and Community that are the foundations of any solid relationship. Our health depends on it.


P.S. I’m well aware of the many valid and real questions that come up now and affect millions of families, if not in the billions, the world over as workplaces and schools go online right now. Currently, over 300 million students worldwide are not going to “physical” school. The US stock market has entered bear territory, 20% below its high, and layoffs have begun as a result of the economic decline affecting small and midsize businesses. It’s not just individuals that are vulnerable; institutions and businesses are as well. There are issues of equity too. For many students and families, school is a safe haven. It provides stability, meals, and childcare. School can literally be a source of nourishment and relationship. It’s the social safety net in many vulnerable communities. The spiral continues as schools close and workers are told to stay home. The vulnerable population grows. We have responsibilities to our own families and Communities, but what about the larger neighborhood? Our communal health depends on a strong Neighborhood, a vibrant and healthy Community.

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