In mid-March, educators joined the masses of workers across the nation who watched in varying degrees of horror as the self-care barriers they had built between their work and private lives dissolved right before their eyes. Spaces used for eating and being with their loved ones became impromptu classrooms for virtual lessons. Those with children of their own saw their already meager personal time become a thing of the past. Social outlets vanished, replaced with virtual get-togethers on top of the online time they had already dedicated to their jobs.
The general consensus among my peers is that we cannot wait for schools to reopen so things can begin to stabilize closer to the norm. I am finding that few of us have really thought through how that could actually unfold. In fact, assuming we can simply go back to “normal” is probably holding us back when it comes to making preemptive decisions that protect our well-being.
In the writing of this article, I do not intend to give you false hope that this is almost over. Estimates for the end of the shutdown range anywhere from four to six months at a minimum. The conservative estimate of Trump’s Coronavirus task force projects the potential death toll to be between 100,000 and 240,000 American people. As of today, the known death toll in our Nation is around 45,200. It is likely going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
You’re probably wondering why the hell I would write an article on how to prepare for the end of quarantine only to backhand you with such frightening numbers.
First and foremost, hope is an essential building block for positive mental health; however, acceptance of reality is equally vital. You need both if you are going to make it through this crisis.
“Your Search Yielded No Results”
When I began researching for this article, I was befuddled to find that there was very little out there on how to end quarantine with positive mental health in mind. The majority of sources regarding the effects of extended isolation related to resocializing prison inmates, interred refugees, and soldiers leaving high-tension situations. Some sources skirted ideas to support medical personnel, but I could not find a single source on how educators could prepare themselves to return to the classroom after an untold number of weeks of living in isolation.
What little I could find on the after-effects of quarantine were based on isolation cases of much shorter duration within societies that bear little resemblance to our current reality. None of it was even close to the scale we are going to experience. We are setting precedence and likely living through one of the most norm disrupting global events of our lifetime.
Contagion in America Not So Long Ago
Chances are good that unless you are older than 70 years of age, you likely have no idea what returning to society after self-isolating for so long will look or feel like.
The Poliomyelitis Epidemic swept across our Nation beginning in 1894 with infections surging well into the early 1950s. Commonly referred to as Polio, the virus killed without regard to age and left thousands of survivors with lifelong health issues. Children were especially susceptible and paralysis was common if the affected individual lived through the infection. Thankfully, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine against the disease around 1954.
I have personally spent quite a bit of time with an inspiring woman who not only lost her twin sister and young son to polio, but who also lost the use of her own legs when she contracted the disease while caring for her family. A woman of grace and fortitude, she seldom spoke of the illness and the damage it exacted in her early adult life except to say she missed those she lost. I wish she was still with us so I could ask her for advice.
Polio reached epidemic proportions across approximately 60 years. We are dealing with an outbreak that became pandemic within four months of the first known case.
Although our society looks very different than that of the mid-1950s, I assumed records of the time would have some guidance to offer on dismantling a large-scale quarantine. I was wrong. I looked for research and historical notes on the best ways to prepare to reemerge, but I came up with only crumbs of ideas with very few sources to cite beyond personal memoirs, textbook blurbs, and historical fiction. After days of looking, I could not locate any reference material on how to resocialize and restore society after an extended quarantine…in any language.
Despite the lack of resources, I will do my very best to provide enough kindling to start a fire you can use to light your own torch. Then it is up to you to carry this light back to your communities and set the signal fires ablaze.
Seeds for Thought
I am going to seed this article with a lot of ideas. Over the coming months, I will expound on as many of them as possible, particularly the keywords and phrases I have italicized in bold print.
Despite the sobering (and frankly terrifying) estimates for when this shutdown might end, it is best we prepare for the earliest predictions so as not to be caught off guard while steeling ourselves for much longer than we expect. It’s a strange balancing act that requires us to be both grounded and innovative.
For educators, it may make this unfathomable task more approachable to consider what adjustments you typically make when the end of summer break approaches. I caution you, however, if you only prepare for the reestablishment of pre-quarantine norms, you may not be equipped for the realities you will likely face.
Research Pertinent Topics Proactively
Educator, educate thyself! Set aside time each day to learn something new and keep a notebook or file folder for things you want to keep in mind.
Learn to recognize the symptoms of post-trauma mental health issues with special attention to the demographics of those you serve as an educator. Be prepared to identify them in both yourself and the other adults around you.
Be aware of the signs of neglect and abuse, and know your legal responsibilities and district policies as a Mandated Reporter. (Note that you are still required by law to follow up on suspicions of abuse, even in the virtual world.)
Deepen Your Understanding of differentiation. Besides classroom management, differentiation is often an area of struggle for new and veteran teachers alike. Regardless of how diligent you have been with your distance learning plan, many students will experience a learning gap due to their extended separation from direct, in-person instruction. Find new ways to scaffold, accommodate and modify (when appropriate) your classroom instruction.
Some highly productive search phrases for identifying resources on differentiation:
- Content, process, and product differentiation
- Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
- Backward design of lessons
- Formative assessment strategies
Connect with Yourself
Find some time and space to brainstorm both short- and long-term goals you wish to accomplish during and after reintegration. Write them out or record them for reference in the event you feel lost later.
Consider locating a therapist if you don’t already have one. Mental health should be tended in the same manner as cardiovascular health: early intervention and consistency are key. Finding a good-fit therapist who has room to take new patients will likely become more and more difficult in the coming months. Start now and consider virtual options if you cannot locate one nearby.
Your brain may have changed the way it processes inputs while isolated in quarantine. For example, if your safe space is considerably quieter than your typical workspace, consider resensitizing yourself to noise. It may even be beneficial to read about sensory processing sensitivity and strategies for managing the sudden change in sensory input that will come with returning to work, dealing with crowds (and traffic), and resocializing into your school community.
Prepare for the varieties of anxiety that may develop as you move closer to leaving the safe space. Check out my video titled, “What a Shame: Let’s Destigmatize Educator Anxiety” for an in-depth discussion of symptoms associated with anxiety. It was my first video…don’t judge me; I was anxious.
You may feel separation anxiety, or you may have to support loved ones who do. Things may feel surreal, making it difficult to put your finger on what to do to feel more normal. Your typical stress reactions may be amplified. Feelings of distrust and insecurity around others may persist even after the threat of the virus has passed.
Brace for the impact of having to multitask on a grander scale again. Establishing boundaries, routines, and schedules that are similar to your actual workday may help. So might a little mindfulness…
Cultivate Your Mindfulness Practice
Whether you have already begun practicing mindfulness or you are just reading about it for the first time today, I cannot overstate the importance of training your brain to manage thoughts and external events without overreacting or shutting down. Mindfulness is an intentional set of behaviors that allow you to do just that. Go deeper by reading my article, “Something Educators Need Now More Than Ever.”
Pace Your Reintegration
The ambiguity of our timeline for reemerging from quarantine makes this one a tough one, but you can still be intentional if you start as early as possible. Move deliberately and in phases.
Socialize virtually. Build (or repair) relationships now that will serve to sustain you later.
Resist the urge to over-schedule your social calendar early in the reemergence. You may miss human contact now, but by not giving yourself time to process the early abundance of sensory inputs that will come with returning to school, you could overstimulate your system quickly. This comes with knowing your own limits and respecting yourself enough to put boundaries in place.
For those of you who are true extroverts, this may not be the case for you. You may need as much human contact as time will allow. Just be aware that the introverts in your life may be standoffish at first. Let them know you’ve got their back.
Know and Respect Your Own Limitations
You know your body’s response to extreme stressors. Honor those signals and apply self-care liberally.
Get your personal spaces organized while you have more time at home so you have less chaos to return to after working outside of the home all day.
For some, your safe spaces are already spotless and in order. If that is the case, consider the files on your computer. Have you always wished you had a better filing system? Move on that now.
Play and supported exploration are both very important factors in healing, regardless of age. Edutainment offers both to students of all ages. You probably already do some edutaining, even if you haven’t heard the term before. Some of you had a crash course in it when you found yourself teaching a classroom of students virtually. How do you keep their attention? Props, visuals, jokes…
Get them laughing. Teach them to ask higher-order questions themselves. Plan lessons that culminate in fun and exciting ways.
There is no growth in your comfort zone and no comfort in your growth zone.”(Various attributions, including John Maxwell)
Deliberately Destigmatize Mental Health Discussions
Whether you experience mental health issues in the wake of the quarantine or not, someone you work with or teach will. We need to be talking about things like anxiety and depression in open and supportive ways.
As an educator, you have the responsibility to maintain a safe space within your school or office. Be intentional and cautious with your language. Using phrases such as “made me crazy” and “it was insane” could clam up someone who was (and may still be) dealing with genuine mental health concerns.
If you haven’t already, create some low-stimulus, safe spaces within your classroom or school building. Make sure students and staff know who they can safely talk to in the event of an emotional or mental health urgency. Guidance counselors and most special education teachers are specially trained in emotional and behavioral de-escalation strategies. Your employer likely has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place. Check near the OSHA Regulations board in your breakroom for flyers or contact Human Resources for more information.
Reestablish Your Expectations
While your emotions may tell you to ‘go easy’ on your students when they return, recognize that they will likely need structure and predictability now more than ever. Start reading about classroom management now. Treat your first days back like the first day of a new school year or the return from Winter Break.
If we return to work this school year, directly teach and reinforce your expectations. Be liberal with specific praise and champion growth mindset practices. Instead of teaching to the test (because standardized testing is temporarily a non-issue for the first time in most of your teaching careers), teach to the needs of the students and prepare them as much as possible to move up to the next level of schooling or into the workforce.
Consider building in (more) brain breaks and structured downtime for resocialization and pleasure.
Build Reflection Time into Your Day
Start the habit now, while you have the time. Once we return, the days are likely going to move faster than you anticipate. Whether you teach or manage those who do, a reflective practice helps you gain new insights over time so that you can adapt to a rapidly changing environment.
The most effective method I have found involves intentionally planning my day first thing each morning and reflecting upon that plan and the events of the day later in the evening. I use the Evo planner (No, I don’t get paid to say that; it’s just the best one I have found for me.)
This article wasn’t written to give you the comprehensive answers on how to prepare for the eventual end of the quarantine. The experience of reintegration will be different for each of us. My purpose in writing this is to get you asking the right questions and to spur you into having crucial conversations with your loved ones and colleagues.
Stay strong. Stay positive. Stay mindful.
History of Polio. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.historyofvaccines.org/timeline/polio
NMAH: Polio: Timeline. (2005, February 01). Retrieved from https://amhistory.si.edu/polio/timeline/index.htm