I recently asked a teacher friend how the school year was going. She said that since August, COVID protocols have been manageable and work feels almost normal, but she shared that while she’s grateful and relieved, she regularly worries about things “getting bad again”—whether it’s another wave of COVID or some other disruption shutting schools down or putting undue burdens on staff and students.
This apprehensive optimism and continued fear is something I hear regularly from school staff in my work with schools and districts across the U.S. I speak and consult nationally on public education, youth development and child well-being, and since March 2020, I have integrated real-time polling into my speaking events, asking thousands of teachers, counselors and administrators about the well-being of their students, families and school communities.
From March 2020 to May 2022, their responses reflected strong trends. School-based staff expressed feeling stressed, stretched, afraid and overwhelmed. This summer, responses shifted. Feelings of stress and anxiety were still present, but more people started reporting positivity, hope and optimism.
School staff and students spent more than two years working and learning in fear and under threat. This period of volatility could continue even as school communities try to recover and heal from all they’ve survived these past two years. In my community, fights over masks and mandates have stopped for the time being, only to be replaced by similarly incendiary arguments over books, bathrooms, equity and teacher shortages.
Schools are still in disaster recovery mode, discovering the full extent of the damage they have suffered. Healing and rebuilding takes time, but schools can’t hit pause on addressing pressing issues such as student mental health concerns or staffing challenges—or on preparing for future threats. Disaster-prone communities invest in their resiliency, recovery and future-proofing, and it’s time for schools to do the same. If schools do not get the time and resources needed to recover, they may be unable to endure the next viral variant, culture war or economic disaster.
To recover, schools must invest deeply in student and staff well-being. This work should include establishing and expanding policies, programs, professional practices and practical supports that promote job quality, community healing and individual wellness. This means intentionally divesting resources from policies and practices that prohibit or prevent well-being, starting with those that actively cause harm to staff and students.
For 15 years, I have helped national networks, state partnerships, districts and schools implement strategies that prioritize child and youth well-being in times of vulnerability and hardship. From that work, I’ve learned that there are some outcomes that districts and schools should prioritize to support student and staff recovery, resiliency and well-being. These include creating a safe and inclusive learning environment that promotes healing and where students can learn and grow; supporting staff, students and families in feeling connected; and creating a culture of purpose.
I recently visited Liberty Middle School in southeastern Illinois to interview the principal, Allen Duncan, for a book I’m working on. When I walked from the parking lot to the front door, I saw sidewalks filled with chalk messages welcoming families and students back for the first day of school. Inside the building, there was upbeat music playing in the hallways and everyone welcomed me with warmth and enthusiasm. If I had come an hour earlier, I would have walked in on an all-school dance party.
As Principal Duncan took me on a tour around the building, I noticed framed photos of staff and students and ceiling tiles with inspirational messages from graduates. An outdoor courtyard had a rainbow mural painted by a parent that read, “U Are Loved,” and the entry had a sign in bold blue that read, “In this school… We belong. We are a family. We are Liberty.”
The school has a culture of inclusiveness and belonging. Students and staff are divided into eight houses, an idea inspired by The Ron Clark Academy, nurturing a sense of closeness and family and the staff gets together outside of school to stay connected and support each other.
Since COVID started, the school has increased counseling supports and upped tiered interventions. School leadership has implemented an open door policy for families and regular check-ins with staff members, which has strengthened personal relationships and provided a space for individuals to ask for the support they need.
When schools shut down in March 2020, Principal Duncan told his staff, “This can make us worse, or better. Let’s choose better.” Their collective commitment to each other’s welfare reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s book, “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.” In her book, Solnit tells stories of people pulling together after a disaster. She compares these communities to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community,” a vision defined by solidarity and affinity, and what Solnit calls a “revolution of everyday life.”
Liberty Middle School experienced two years of crisis and emerged stronger and more connected than ever. While I’m sure the school staff carries the same apprehensive optimism as my friend, they seem committed to recovering and healing together. This school demonstrates how everyday positive investments in infrastructure and individuals can be the bedrock from which beloved community and collective well-being are built, and through which recovery and resiliency are achieved.
As we move farther into this school year, let’s strive to be like Liberty—doing whatever it takes to support each other, recover, heal and cultivate collective well-being that makes us more resilient and future-proofed than ever before.