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Classroom Relationships: More Crucial Than Ever

Perhaps the most salient lesson to educators working to adapt to the COVID crisis is this: you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

For most of us, the in-class instruction and interpersonal relationships we may have taken for granted before now seem all the more precious. As Doug Lemov reflected last month, ““Being away from classrooms will help us to see how clearly the intact and intentional culture of a classroom is critical and irreplaceable to learning– especially equitable learning.” It’s possible that, far from pushing us all to some online learning utopia, this national experiment in distance learning is reinforcing the particular value and irreplaceable nature of the personal connections that lie at the heart of great schools.

Even more importantly, we are learning that the personal connections that formed the basis of effective instruction are also essential building blocks for schools looking to adapt to this new era. Many large districts are finding it difficult to stay connected with students throughout the school shutdown. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, reported a failure to connect with 12% of its high school students. And in districts serving predominantly low income students, only a third of teachers report daily interaction with their students, according to an EdWeek survey.

Yet, as UCLA education professor Tyrone Howard noted in a Los Angeles Times article, of his former students (all current teachers), those “who have been able to get kids online already have strong relationships with them and their parents, know who their friends are and how to get in touch.”

Said more simply: the impact of our remote learning efforts may well be tied directly to the strength of the relationships and connections we had made long before this crisis began.

Of course, this isn’t surprising to anyone who has spent much time in schools. As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute notes,“schools are social as well as academic institutions.”

This is something Catholic educators understand intimately. And it’s why, across our own Partnership Schools, our transition to remote learning focused on building community and maintaining relationships first and foremost. And it’s why even the shiest among our teachers and leaders have focused on making connections using social media, email, and phone calls.

The results of these community building efforts have been heartwarming. One recent Facebook live gathering for families of St. Athanasius in the Bronx drew over 850 views–for a school with fewer than 300 students. And while Principal Jessica Aybar did cover some logistical information, the comments make it clear that it is simply being connected as families that many valued in the experience.

Yet it isn’t just endearing moments of appreciation we seek. As Principal Abigail Akano from Sacred Heart explained, teachers called every family within days of the roll-out of distance learning plans. When they encountered phones that were shut off or emails that went unanswered, they used staff knowledge of students’ and parents’ networks of friends and family to make connections, enabling 100% contact and the start of online learning for all students within one week. Without the relationships forged among families and school staff prior to the shut-down, that contact would have been even more challenging.

In the New York neighborhoods we serve, hard-hit by the virus and its economic impact, we must sustain relationships forged in classrooms and hallways not just to perpetuate learning, but to strengthen children and their parents with the fortitude and faith we all need to weather tough days. And thankfully, as Catholic schools, we have both the freedom and the imperative to do just that.