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As schools across the Washington, D.C. metro area announced closures, Siobhan Davenport and her colleagues at Crittenton Services of Greater Washington (CSGW), a nonprofit that seeks to empower teen girls, began receiving dozens of calls and messages from middle- and high-school girls concerned about how the novel coronavirus would impact them.

At first, girls asked for information about the coronavirus itself and how school shutdowns would affect their access to school resources. But, as the days have gone on, more are worried about the basics, from job loss to food scarcity.

“Two of our young ladies have lost their jobs. For the majority of them, that income is essential to running their household,” said Davenport, who’s the executive director of CSGW. “They’re concerned about their jobs. They’re concerned about their parents’ job.”

CSGW, based in Washington, D.C., works with over 600 girls, in grades six through 12, from low-income and at-risk backgrounds. CSGW leaders hold weekly after-school programs providing girls with support to “overcome obstacles, make positive choices, and achieve their goals,” according to the organization. As schools closed, the organization had to pivot its in-person programming and services and go online immediately to address the social and emotional needs, including social isolation, of the girls it works with.

As the country adjusts to a new reality of social distancing and life in quarantine due to fears of the coronavirus, the move from brick-and-mortar classrooms to an online world — or no school at all — is sparking anxiety and fear, not just for kids and teens but also for their parents and caregivers.

Davenport said the girls want to stay engaged with the organization because program leaders are often some of the most trusted adults in these teens’ lives.

“It’s almost like a sister circle, they want to maintain contact with each other. They want to maintain contact with the program leaders during this time,” said Davenport. “Even though this generation is very much social media savvy, they still miss that face-to-face personal contact.”

Davenport and the program leaders are keeping in touch with the girls through calls, group and one-on-one chats and emails, but plan on using video chats as the primary means of communication. The teens have suggested social media apps like Houseparty, a group video chatting app, and classic video platforms like Zoom.

Experts say it’s important for parents and caregivers to provide children with social interactions, even when they may not be able to interact in person with their peers.

Jacqueline Ancess, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools & Teaching said one of the ways to help kids manage social isolation may be through online activities being provided by some schools, or through informal means like CSGW’s online weekly group meetings. Just because “we’re supposed to say six feet away from each other,” Ancess said, “doesn’t mean that we need to be socially isolated from each other.” (NCREST is based at Teachers College, Columbia University; The Hechinger Report is an independent unit at the college.)

Ancess said parents can use Google Hangouts or Zoom to engage younger kids. “A friend of mine gets her grandchildren on Google Hangouts or Zoom and they spend time singing together or they bake,” she said.

Lynne M. Celli, executive director of leadership and professional education at Endicott College in Massachusetts, said parents and caregivers can also give “the old fashioned way” a try.

“The simple writing of a letter. Encouraging students to write letters to their friends that they aren’t seeing on a regular basis and putting it through the snail mail. I mean that seems sort of simplistic where we have such sophisticated technology, but I think incorporating everything that we can have at our disposal, to keep those social groups alive and well … it’s the most important thing,” Celli said.

Groups such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), have also provided social and emotional learning tips and resources for parents and educators on their websites during the coronavirus outbreak.

Ancess said adults should help children and teens talk about their emotions and understand their feelings so they can learn how to manage them. “Provide them with opportunities that teach them how to manage their feelings.”

Adults can help kids manage anxiety and stay engaged in school by trying to keep to a routine or develop a schedule, whether students are going completely online or doing take-home packets or a combination of both. “There is routine when they’re in school and there should be a routine at home,” Celli said. She added the family unit can design these routines, building social interaction into them. Celli suggested families go hiking and biking, play board games, paint or read and that parents and caregivers encourage kids to find new hobbies, if possible.

“That’s the fun part of the learning and that reduces anxiety,” Celli said.

Davenport said CSGW is working with teens to create SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) goals and teaching them what it means to be self-motivated. The girls share goals with each other, which helps them to be accountable and remain engaged with school.

Also key to helping kids manage anxiety and fear during uncertain times? Adults should acknowledge their own anxieties and give honest answers to kids’ questions about what is happening. Adults need to be “aware of their own behavior because children of all ages can pick up on our cues immediately and recognize that we’re anxious,” said Celli.

She added it’s important for parents and caregivers to have open communication with kids, but to keep in mind that they need to speak to children at their own developmental or cognitive level. “I know it can be very scary for adults and it can be very scary for children,” Celli said. “I can’t underscore (enough) self-awareness and self-regulation for adults.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about social isolation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, she worked as an editor and reporter at The East Carolinian, an independent college newspaper in eastern North Carolina,...

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  1. Great article, I wrk as a therapeutic day treatment counselor for at risk youth in an inner city school. This pandemic has really isolated those in inner city areas. Teens are using this time to smoke, have sex, and not practice social DISTANCING at all. It’s like a looong summer break. How do you think inner city students from elementary to high school can be educated on the seriousness of this time in our history ?

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