Coronavirus Chronicles: For at-risk students, pandemic is one more challenge to handle

Joseph Paulauskas
| For The Columbus Dispatch

Ask any teacher what they’ve missed the most during the COVID pandemic and you’ll hear a common response: students.

That’s particularly true for those who teach at-risk teens and young adults. The importance of building trusting relationships with students as the first step in addressing their academic needs simply can’t be overstated.

Unfortunately, the lack of frequent face-to-face engagement during the pandemic — and the distance learning that it has required for many schools, including ours — has posed challenges in making personal connections with students and made it more difficult to help those with significant problems.

As an administrator at Focus Learning Academy of Southeastern Columbus — a dropout prevention and recovery high school — I begin each day during the pandemic concerned about my students’ health and safety.

My top priority is identifying students who need the most help — those who are food insecure, homeless or living in unsafe conditions. We’ve conducted surveys of students’ needs and assigned a member of the Focus team to maintain regular contact with every student.

Through ongoing communications with our students, we’ve come to understand that they haven’t always had good experiences with learning through an online curriculum, whether it’s due to a lack of necessary electronic devices or a simple distaste for this learning format. So we’ve had to adapt. The school is offering classes virtually through Google Classroom and a more traditional paper class route while recommending any student who needs help to contact the school and set up an appointment to come into the building.  

Our interactions with students have revealed responsible behaviors: They are practicing social distancing, wearing masks and washing their hands frequently. It makes me so proud. Since the beginning of the pandemic, students have focused on the greater good for their own communities, including their Focus family.

It likely surprises some that at-risk students have adapted to our unusual situation so well. But their life experiences — overcoming daily challenges — have prepared them for adjusting to our new normal. For many students, the pandemic is yet another struggle they must deal with, and they don’t want or expect others to single them out as victims.

We hope to welcome students back into traditional classrooms soon, allowing them to talk face-to-face with our social worker or a trusted teacher. In all our interactions, we want students to know one thing for certain: We care deeply about them and are always willing to help. Our primary goal is to ensure that they succeed academically, that they earn their high school diplomas, and that they graduate ready for the workforce or to continue their education.

When the pandemic first hit the U.S. and schools were forced to close, Team Focus — both students and staff — came together, recognizing that these are extraordinary times for which there is no blueprint. We pushed our fears and frustrations aside and focused on the better good for the community at large.

The answer to one key question — what’s best for our kids? — has driven every decision that’s been made and will continue to do so. And our efforts are paying off. Despite COVID-19 and the need for distance learning, 113 Focus Southeast students received hard-earned high school diplomas in the spring.

I have every confidence that Focus students will continue to rise to the challenges in front of them — pandemic or otherwise.

Joseph Paulauskas, 38, of Columbus, is director of Focus Learning Academy of Southeastern Columbus.

Have an essay?

We invite readers of all ages to submit an original and previously unpublished personal essay of musings related to life during the current pandemic for Coronavirus Chronicles. Submissions should run no longer than about 600 words and should include the name, age, hometown and phone number of the author, as well as a current photo. All accepted essays become property of The Dispatch. Send essays by email: [email protected]

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