The School as Part of the Village
As educators, we work hard to refine a sixth sense pertaining to our students’ well-being: we hear their words, listen to their manner of speech, and track their body language. When a student walks into class and has their hoodie up, or puts their head on their desk, a sensitive teacher sees distress and reaches out. When remote learning began, reading our students from a distance became more complex. When a student didn’t log on to a virtual class, didn’t turn their camera on, or wasn’t responding to email, how were we to find out what was happening? How did we make sure that the student was OK?
Over the last year, Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit has methodically expanded our net of student accountability to encompass our social workers, teachers, learning specialists, staff, and leadership members, each gaining more expertise in recognizing students in crisis. In addition to our becoming detectives, there were constant lines of communication between the teachers, social workers, and school leadership, enabling us to connect families with outside support when needed. The leadership team began meeting daily to communicate any concerns and to stay connected. Teachers, social workers, and community directors were in constant communication with each other so we could know if an instance of a student having a camera off or seeming despondent was just a momentary blip in one class or more of a pattern emerging among many classes. The support team, comprised of the Director of Student Services, social workers, and community directors, began meeting virtually on a daily basis to review student needs and action plans, and to take care of each other.
Our teachers kept in touch with students after hours, met with them individually for socially distanced walks, and popped by in front yards just to smile and say hello to a student craving human interaction beyond the home. With time, the faculty and staff were becoming more skilled at being able to tell the difference between a bad day and a depressed preteen. We were able to distinguish between when a student chose to learn from their bed and when a student wasn’t leaving their bed and detected issues including academic disengagement, mental and mood disorders, self-harm, job loss, food insecurity, and more. Addressing these issues ranged from simple phone calls to negotiating professional psychological help and contacting local donors to provide financial assistance to families in distress. The school was thus transformed from an educational institution to a critical piece of the local Jewish community’s COVID response.
As we move forward it is clear that we have students and families who continue to struggle. Even more, it has become clear that the systems we put in place will continue to serve our students well in the post-COVID era. Our students are getting the support they need, they feel seen and heard by the adults in their lives, and their families know that we are here to help. The adage that it takes a village to raise a child has never been more true, and Hillel is proud to have become an essential component of that village.