Staying Connected

By Christy Merchant, Cohort 7 Mentor, Principal at Grassy Creek Elementary

Today was our last day in-person until January 19th.  Our elementary school is going virtual.  Again.  And our anxious feelings of loss and grief and anger and sadness and fear came rushing back as we headed to the buses at dismissals.  I came back to my office and had an email waiting from 10-year-old Xavier. He’s likely using that cool new hot spot we gave him to take home for virtual learning to connect from the bus as it pulls out of the parking lot….

I’m going to miss you

…and then the breath rushed out of my chest, and my heart hit the floor.  Quick!  Reply positively, so he will think this is an adventure…

I will miss you too!  But 27 school days will go quickly, and we’ll be back to school in January.  Then you’ll wish for some stay-home days again!  Enjoy your family time over Thanksgiving, and I’ll see you during zooms after the break.  🙂

…within minutes…

But are you sure we are going to come back

…and then I knew.  You see, Xavier is a strong kid.  He works hard and is talented in many ways.  As a class leader, he helps his teacher and uses positive praise with his friends like a PBIS pro to keep them in line.  He has a contagious smile and laughs straight from his belly.  But last spring, during our COVID school closure, his parents got a divorce.  And when we returned to school in August, he was afraid to leave his mom alone because he needed to protect her.  And now he’s afraid the cycle of life change is happening again…

Buddy, I can’t predict the future.  But I promise to do everything I can to get us back to school as soon as we can.  This school feels pretty lonely without any kids in it, so I know the teachers feel the same way.  I promise to work hard at getting you back in school if you promise to work hard for Ms. Corey.  Deal?  Oh, and be nice to your mom, too.  She could use some extra kindness with you boys both home.  😉

Thank you, and I will.

Anytime.  I’m always here. 

…breath again.  You see, I didn’t get to say that to Brooklyn last spring.  We didn’t know we were closing and sent the kids home like a normal Thursday only to get the call that night that we were closing for COVID-19 precautions until after Spring Break.  Frantically, we switched into panic mode, buying toilet paper and Lysol and making masks out of t-shirts.  We pushed school aside because we didn’t have school until April 6th, and right now, in March, we needed to stock our pantries and take care of our own family.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn wasn’t protected.  As an eight-year-old in a secretly abusive home, she was lost, and we didn’t know she needed to be found.  She didn’t have a way to connect with her teacher or her friends or her principal because we didn’t send home hot spots and devices regularly back then.  When she died on April 6th, the day we started back to school, nobody had seen or heard from her in weeks.  We hadn’t seen or heard from any kids in weeks.

Brooklyn’s horrific murder rocked our staff and shook us into action.  Connect with each child every day.  See their faces.  Know their families.  Recognize the lilt in their laugh that indicates fear or highlights hope.  Notice all the things, big and small, and ignore nothing.  This wasn’t in any class I took for my school leadership degree.  It wasn’t in any of the Education Specialist coursework either. There’s no checklist, no webinar, no book, no workshop, nothing to prepare you for the fallout from a pandemic but the sheer urgency in which our students need our connection and engagement is life-saving.  So I challenge each of us always to stay connected.  Our children need you.  And when we move past this pandemic, I hope we still remember the power of engagement is more significant than what happens inside a classroom.