It was a tough day for a 6-year-old. And her mom. Imagine being a first grader in a new school and unable to participate in “Best Friends” day.
Nikki Bourgeois went on Facebook not to complain but to share what it was like for her daughter Mackenna, a brand new Somerset, trying to make friends in remote-learning mode.
“Makenna didn’t have anyone that she could talk about. It was a bit heartbreaking,” Nikki wrote in the post on Oct. 2. “We don’t know anyone in the area, and without her being physically in school, she isn’t able to meet any friends. We have been told that there are kids in the neighborhood that are her age, but we have yet to meet anyone. COVID-19 didn’t help either.”
The social and psychological needs for some students have become a challenge to meet in this COVID-fear-wracked world. Making friendships online doesn’t compare to old-school in-school, face-to-face socializing. And even in the on-site half of hybrid learning, masks and social distancing can reduce the ability of an elementary school age child to make friends, something that is critical for the pre-K through grade 5 set.
Schools and teachers know better than most about this 2020 challenge. And they’re taking action.
Susan Darmody of Westport is a second-grade teacher at the Silvia Elementary School on Meridian Street in Fall River. She’s starting this school year teaching in full remote. Silvia has a mix of remote and hybrid students.
“Tougher for the remote kids,” Darmody said in a text message to The Herald News. “Hybrid kids do a lot of activities with their teachers using social distance in the classroom. Games and outside doing mask breaks. But (the children) are so happy to be in school.
“A few ways we help make the kids feel like ‘normal’ is doing morning meeting with kids at home and face to face in google meet so they can see each other and share stories. We have character of the week where kids work on traits like being kind, greeting others, etc. Spirit Wednesday. Virtual star of the week assembly.”
Retired from the Fall River School system but still active as a consultant, educational psychologist John Santos said it is a difficult time for elementary students who are missing out on some or all of the normally fertile breeding ground for friend making. The classroom. The school yard. The cafeteria. The school bus.
Even in school, it’s either two days in, a day off, two days back and then home for a week, or it’s a full week in school followed by a week of remote. And the numbers of students in the classrooms, Santos noted, has been significantly reduced. “The kids can’t have contact and they’re only seeing half their class,” he said.
The modified isolation, Santos noted, is especially dangerous for a sub-group of students: Special needs, most notably those on the autism spectrum.
“Their social skills are at a deficit. These kids have a difficult time making friends even with school and accommodations in place,” said Santos, well known locally as the former Durfee High School boys’ soccer coach and as a current high school soccer referee. “I feel for these kids. They’re going to be behind the 8-ball. These are critical years when they get the skills to compensate.”
If they don’t get those skills?
“When they get to middle school, they’ll have a bull’s-eye on their backs,” Santos said. “They’ll be a big target for bullying.”
One week after her Facebook post, Nikki Bourgeois on Monday was happy to report that “the post was a huge hit.”
Mackenna, she said, has made three neighborhood friends and that by Thursday of last week, the North Elementary School her daughter attends had instituted a 15-minute start-of-the-day practice for remote students. Each student, Bourgeois said, greets another student and tells that student what he or she likes.
Bourgeois, who moved to Somerset from Rehoboth in late August, is breathing a sigh of relief. Her plan is to keep Mackenna remote until January.
“We didn’t want to be that crazy family chasing people down the street asking do you want to be friends,” she said. “I hope this leads to more play dates and more friends.”
Email Greg Sullivan at [email protected] Follow him @GregSullivanHN.