It was March of 2020, and Melissa Van Wingerden was starting to hear worrisome talk in the news and among her colleagues at Parsippany High School in Parsippany, NJ, about a perplexing virus from China. There were rumors about the district’s response, then came word her school would close early before spring break.

“I think we were all a bit short-sighted. When two weeks rolled into a month—and then months—things really changed, and the physical distance was quickly dwarfed by an emotional one,” says Van Wingerden, an English teacher and yearbook and student council adviser. “We had to adjust.” 

About 1,400 miles to the southwest, another veteran student adviser was having similar thoughts. “I was talking to everyone about how this would be like a two-week thing,” says Susan Waldrep, a leadership teacher, student council adviser, and student activities director at Texas High School in Texarkana, TX. “It didn’t seem like it was going to be a big deal. But it was obviously a very big deal.”

Both Van Wingerden and Waldrep found that they needed to approach their students in new ways and encourage them to be very resourceful while keeping their own energy levels high. A wide range of well-tested systems and patterns and ways of using resources and connecting with others—that had been so central to their work with kids—had to change.

Traditional With a Twist

Waldrep quickly developed new approaches for how the student council would operate and communicate and supported her students in working through how they would meet. She asked them to prioritize activities and come up with three schoolwide events and some meaningful service projects that they felt they could pull off. 

Eventually, the events that they helped to move outside and handle slightly differently were all viewed as “successful,” and she believes the students may have gained even more than they would have had it not been for the pandemic. “I think they learned a lot about how to adapt and be resourceful,” she says. “They agreed that the activities weren’t exactly what we wanted but were a good option. That’s what we kept saying: ‘It was a good option.’”

Van Wingerden quickly found that she needed to connect more closely with her students more than anything else—so she gave a familiar routine a twist. “The first thing I did was go back to an old reliable thing. In school, I hand out lollipops as motivators, thank yous, to praise someone, or even bribe someone. So, I packaged up 80 bags of Dum Dums with a hopeful note and delivered them to each of my kids’ homes,” she says. She then prioritized communication using group texts, Google Classroom, and digital platforms. 

Van Wingerden and Waldrep perhaps both underestimated how the pandemic would cripple schools and stifle student leadership, but their response to the threat was similar. They prioritized communication, offered stability and structure, and put students in charge with encouragement about their ability to make things work. 

Other advisers report they followed a similar route, changing traditional activities to allow for social distancing and developing activities that were easier to complete in the new environment. And often the meetings and activities were creative and resourceful, and interaction among their students was upbeat.

The Inevitable Glitch

It is the nature of student leadership advisers to adjust when a school policy or an administrator’s directive alters a carefully planned project late in the process, or when illness or a conflicting event causes a program that looks good on paper to go south.

Roger Mize, an 18-year adviser at Chapin High School in Chapin, SC, says he learned a lesson two years ago when he found schoolwide election results had been compromised because a password for online voting was circulated and used by ineligible students. He had to review more than 670 ballots, then quickly found a way to use real voting machines for the next election. “It was a good lesson in how something routine like an election could be a challenge and how it is important to plan for the unexpected,” Mize says.

For Waldrep at Texas High School, a much-anticipated event two years ago where lanterns would be set aloft to honor cancer patients had to be cancelled because of high wind warnings—three times. Her group rallied, held the event inside, passed out the lanterns for participants to release later, and led a very successful event with instrumental music, fireworks (held outside of course), and somber and uplifting speeches from those with personal stories. “It was different than we thought it would be but still a wonderful, memorable event,” she says. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

While such issues are challenging—and sometimes humorous—there was not much to smile about for student leaders committed to interaction and energized participation in their schools once the pandemic shut them down. “At first, I know they just felt defeated,” Mize says. “They just were not going to be able to do anything in the way they normally had.” 

For instance, homecoming week at Chapin High School, which he says is “a cornerstone to their school year,” was very difficult with a hybrid attendance system and students only in school two days a week. “They really didn’t want to just do a half-hearted version of all these important events,” says Mize. “Kids were telling me, ‘We don’t want to act like it’s normal. There is nothing about this that is normal.’” They adjusted and put even more energy into the events, he says.

They moved popular homecoming activities outside and helped their student pep group, one of the best in the country and a focus for spirit in the school, still cheer at football games. Pep students moved from the stands to a hill adjacent to the field where circles painted on the grass kept them socially distant. 

A Flow of Ideas

At Parsippany, Van Wingerden and her students turned their concern into several activities and an engaging schoolwide virtual event. “We were talking a lot about the seniors, as they would not be able to visit colleges. So, we reached out to alumni all over the United States for virtual campus connections,” she explains. “We set up a registry of school alum who were willing to field questions virtually about college life in general and their campus specifically. We found ourselves tapping into resources that our short-sighted former selves might not have considered.”

The effort worked so well that the group became excited about things they could do virtually for the entire student population. “How could we all be in this together but apart?” Van Wingerden recalls asking them to consider. 

The council initiated something called “The 20-second Challenge,” connected to the recommendation that hand-washing last 20 seconds. “The idea was for students to time and film themselves responding to a different question each day for 20 seconds,” with students combining the videos to make a montage for virtual spirit week, she says. On Monday, for instance, students might film themselves in pajamas naming all the things they missed about the school, and on Thursday they might wear everything backwards in their video while naming all of the ways teachers (now parents) and classmates (now siblings and pets) were “driving you crazy.”

“This was so much fun and let everyone just be silly again and feel connected,” Van Wingerden says. “But we also realized how easy it had become to focus on what we were missing instead of what we had and what opportunities we could make to share with each other.”

Brenda O’Shea, a veteran leadership adviser at Somers High School just north of New York City, found her students lacked enthusiasm initially but soon became motivated to take on projects that were customary, had significance, and were “just fun.” For example, a field day attached to spirit week had to be moved outside to the school football field, a venue that made some of the most popular games either too challenging to watch or play, especially with social distancing. “The students recognized that we had to change them to fit the space,” she says. “We had to do something big and visually interesting.” 

The group planned a relay race on inflatable ponies and a pie-eating contest, just to name a few of the new activities. “Everyone had a great time,” O’Shea says. “It was different but a lot of fun. I was trying to take pictures, and I was laughing so hard I couldn’t. One of my students asked, ‘Why would we want to do it inside ever again?’”

The student council group also moved meetings online, and O’Shea promoted having more leadership lessons and ice-breaker activities in the middle of the pandemic, so the time could be well-spent and the kids could form closer bonds to break through the isolation. As they began to get back to face-to-face meetings, the group let her know they wanted to continue the online activities, as well.

Student Choices

Advisers report that their students understood the need to prioritize activities and adjust to ensure everyone’s safety. To that end, Waldrep asked her group to select three things that were “non-negotiable” that they felt they wanted to carry out in some form, discussing them at what became regular Zoom meetings with drive-by materials distributed beforehand when needed. The students selected an annual variety show that was popular with the entire student body, homecoming activities (because they were such a strong tradition at Texas High School and would help provide a sense of normalcy), and a breakfast “bacon fry” that involved the community and that the students loved and agreed would provide some light-hearted relief.

Students ended up shifting the fry and accompanying pep rally, which usually requires 30 dozen eggs, to later in the year during a baseball game rather than during a football rivalry. They held the event fully (and safely) outside and enlisted teachers rather than students to cook. 

O’Shea encouraged the group to rethink and strengthen their communications with the student body and community as they planned and promoted the event. “We got everyone in the school to be much more conscious about checking social media for information, and I encouraged my students to work hard on how they got their message out,” she says.

They also continued a tradition of making cards for elderly persons at nursing homes, although they were disappointed that they could not see the residents face-to-face. She also worked with local health care facilities to accept food prepared by the students for their workers, a new activity. “Some things were very different, and some things were new, but I think generally we found solutions, and that process was valuable,” O’Shea says. “It taught them more about how to adapt.”

Van Wingerden saw some surprising thinking and adjustments, too. “It is easy and natural to focus on what we are missing, not just in this pandemic but in life,” she says. “I’m proud of my council because they were able to find opportunities to undertake things we missed doing previously and now had an opportunity to tap into. Human connection, especially, is easiest when we are physically present but is most meaningful when we are emotionally present. I think we all got a new understanding of that.” 

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.