Most of us entered 2020 with high hopes, as we often do at the beginning of a new decade. That hope soon dwindled as we opened the year with Australian wildfires that killed a staggering 1 billion animals. It dwindled further when we witnessed increased social injustices—including George Floyd’s death. On top of it all, we were mandated to stay home due to a deadly pandemic.

Now, envision 2020 through the lens of a middle level student. These issues may be known to children, but probably seem far away—their world is smaller. They depend on food, shelter, learning, and love—the four basic needs that will help them grow into well-rounded adults. We all have students who lack in one or more of these areas. Coupling that with COVID-19 brought on a new level of trauma for students.

Finding Food and Shelter

According to No Kid Hungry and statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 11 million children in the United States live in “food insecure” homes. In my district, 100 percent of students receive free lunch. They depend on the meals served in school for nourishment. When COVID-19 hit, many students left wondering how long they would be home and how long their food would last. Districts throughout the country pulled together resources. Each day, my district delivered cold breakfast and lunch meals to students at their bus stops, and parent organizations sought donations and organized with local pantries and the local teachers’ union to create care packages.

Where I teach, most parents are immigrant laborers who live paycheck to paycheck. They make enough money to pay the rent and cover some of the basics. Due to the pandemic, parents either lost their jobs or were forced to work more because their job was considered “essential.” Unlike many who applied for unemployment, most of my districts’ parents were not eligible to make claims to supplement their lost wages—their options were to pray their jobs would open soon or work anyway and risk illness. Parents feared the loss of income would cause what little they had to perish.

Students who are lucky enough to have parents with steady work worry each day about how exposure to COVID-19 will affect them if or when it is brought home. A few households I know of were stricken with the virus—children looked on as family members were bedridden, hospitalized, or deceased. Their roles at home evolved from helping out to stressing out.

When a home cannot be seen as a haven, students often turn toward school for comfort. Whether it be a full tummy, a stable environment, or a listening ear, school is a safe place for most kids. When schools are closed, what are kids supposed to do?

Middle Level Mindset

Technology? Wi-Fi? Peace and quiet? No one was ready for what COVID-19 brought into the learning environment. Let’s face it: Most middle level students are not self-starters. They need direction, modeling, and encouragement. The change in learning disrupted their routine and took away their comfort. For the first two weeks of the quarantine, my insides felt like scrambled eggs trying to assist each one of my students with special needs. My colleagues had students crying on Google Meets because they didn’t understand directions or why the virus was interfering in their lives.

Those with general education students saw the frustration as well—kids working at 3:00 a.m. because it was when the Wi-Fi worked, or it was when the computer was free. Kids isolating themselves because the weight on their shoulders was too much to bear. It was painful for students and also for educators as they watched their students fall apart. We made efforts to use words of encouragement, create “we miss you” videos, host daily check-ins, plan birthday and graduation drive-bys, and deliver paper assignments—just to name a few. Why? With the hope that we could support our students and help them cope when they needed it most.

Focus on Love

From parents working too much to abuse to lack of supportive friends, children need love more than ever in the COVID-19 world that has threatened to become the new normal. Sure, some students are thankful to be home so they don’t have to face harassment by their peers. But for others, the harassment doesn’t end due to social media or an unsupportive household. The COVID-19 pandemic sentenced some kids to an extended period of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

How Advisers Can Help

Middle level students are at an age where they are learning to independently apply all the strategies and coping mechanisms they learned in elementary school. They come to school with a backpack-load of issues—some heavier than others. Add COVID-19 to that load and the thread begins to unravel, and the strap is about to snap!

Here’s how we can help as advisers, be it online, in person, or in a hybrid learning environment:

  • Be observant. We need to be vigilant and pay extra attention to the clues that students drop. Take note of appearance, hygiene, sleeping habits, and interactions among staff, peers, and family.
  • Be patient. We need to remember that during this difficult time, many kids are still learning and are not equipped to handle large amounts of stress.
  • Provide ideas. Listen to the needs of your students and design lessons that help strengthen their coping skills. Show inspirational videos, have discussions, play games, or have students think of ways to provide service.
  • Stay connected. Since many students have been isolated, create opportunities for them to stay connected with their teachers and peers.
  • Reach out. As much as we love to help, educators need to remember we are not superheroes. Your guidance department, child study team, and administration can assist with professional resources for your students in need. Reach out to your colleagues or find teacher forums to share struggles and ideas.

We are not over this pandemic yet, but we do have a clear cry for help from our students. As advisers, we are tasked with assisting them in any way possible. With our students’ struggles at the forefront and educators and community members poised to help, perhaps 2020 can be a year for new beginnings after all.

Brenda Douglas is the student government adviser and special needs teacher at Lakewood Middle School in Lakewood, NJ. She has been an educator and adviser for 20 years, has won District Teacher of the Year, the New Jersey Association of Student Councils’ Adviser of the Year, and the National Student Council Warren E. Shull Regional Adviser of the Year.