In an otherwise isolating time, Maine Department of Education (DOE) staff have never felt more connected to Maine’s education field. Through daily virtual office hours, Maine DOE staff have been hosting content specific and mindfulness online meetings with school staff in an effort to answer questions, connect teachers and other school staff with one another, and offer resources and advice about how to provide remote learning and school support while school buildings are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The meetings have been a gift of time with Maine educators,” said Maine DOE Career and Education Development Specialist Diana Doiron. “We connect at a very human level, collectively sharing our questions, our insights, our worries, what is working well, and what resources are worth recommending to others.”
In daily email blasts to educators, school and district administrators, and other school personnel, DOE staff are sharing links to join various sessions held using online conferencing platforms. This allows anyone interested to join meetings remotely, see the faces and hear the voices of other education professionals from Maine who are experiencing, and in some cases overcoming, challenges like never before.
While school buildings are closed around the state, educators and other support staff are tasked with the unprecedented challenge of continuing to support and connect with their students, all while experiencing an unanticipated isolation, having to distance themselves from other people while COVID-19 creeps its way into communities across the globe.
“Every session has been exemplary and so helpful at this unusually confusing and difficult time,” said Woodside Elementary School Counselor Helene McGlauflin, who has been regularly attending sessions on social emotional learning and school mental health supports.
“I participated in two of his [Maine DOE Social Studies Specialist Joe Schmidt’s] office hours on Tuesday, and they were great, primarily in that they weren’t scripted,” said one of the participants. “He wanted teachers to set the agenda with their questions and concerns.”
Originally offered as a way to provide resources for remote learning for traditional education subject areas like math, social studies, and the arts, the popular sessions quickly expanded into other areas like special education, social emotional supports, and school finance, among many others topics. The virtual office hours have been widely attended by Maine school staff drawing anywhere from 50 to upwards of 300 people in some of the sessions. With an average of 30 sessions held per day since March 16th, the virtual meetings have drawn educators from other states and even some international participants.
“I’ve had tremendous response to these sessions,” said Maine DOE School Nurse Consultant Emily Poland. “I started providing sessions once per week, but now I do them twice weekly. Today there were 178 people on!”
An outside-the-box session with an element of well-being for school staff has recently been added to the mix. Fifteen-minute Brain Centered Emotional Support sessions are being offered at the beginning and end of each weekday to bolster resilience and provide a chance to connect and share space with school professionals around the state. The sessions are hosted by Maine DOE Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Specialist Kellie D. Bailey and Mental Health/School Counselor Specialist Bear Shea and have provided a space for educators and school staff to take a deep breath and be mindful of their own well-being before they try to address the needs of others.
“LOVED this today,” said MSAD 40 Assistant Superintendent Cristina Wotton after one of the first Brain Centered Emotional Support sessions. “I felt like jelly after, why do we resist taking care of ourselves? Thank you!”
“As a Special Services Department, we at MSAD 20 have greatly appreciated the timely and impactful support that we’ve received through the Brain Based Emotional Support sessions provided each day,” said MSAD 20 Director of Programs for Exceptional Children Eric McGough. “In our staff meetings, these are consistently brought up as being of great value not only to helping us design supportive experiences and resources for our students, but also in helping us carry on with our work during these difficult times.”
The Department has vowed to continue offering the virtual office hours for as long as needed in addition to continuing to provide a listing of resources for remote learning and support, as well as regular updates and other essential resources for schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Department is in the process of working with educators and school staff to provide more focused support sessions and virtual professional development options in addition to transitioning to more consistent virtual meeting schedule.