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Virtual Groups Help Students Stay Connected During Pandemic

This fall, remote learning has shifted all instruction and class activities to online platforms for Chicago’s public school students, but it has also changed the way they engage socially. Chatting in the hallways, running around on the playground, even enjoying a lunch break in the cafeteria are all routines that have changed dramatically during this time. Students, however, need these opportunities to connect socially and emotionally, perhaps now more than ever.

To address this need, CIS of Chicago’s Student Supports Managers have been hosting small groups virtually. These groups offer students a space where they can explore, create, and chat in a safe structured environment. Small groups encourage them to socialize with their peers, play games, make art, and even discuss their fears and insecurities.

Here are some of the innovative ways that our Student Supports Managers have gotten students to log on (outside of formal classroom remote learning time) and connect with each other in support of their social and emotional wellbeing.

Glow Up Group, Saucedo Elementary

After receiving a generous donation of beauty products from Ulta Beauty, Student Supports Manager Ms. Juanita Herrera wanted to create a virtual group for her students that incorporated beauty, self-esteem, and self-care. In the fall, she reached out to several seventh- and eighth-grade girls to see if they were interested in a Glow Up Group, and she heard a resounding yes! Ms. Herrera supplemented the palette and lip gloss contributions from Ulta with other beauty items she was able to collect from friends and family members, and she put together beauty bags for each of the group members.

Glow Up Group

With the needed supplies in place, Ms. Herrera began hosting Glow Up Group through Google Classroom. To structure the sessions, she used Dove’s self-esteem curriculum to create themes around appearance, comparison, and even media portrayal of beauty. Students discussed everything from the impact of social media filters to embracing their natural beauty. The group has allowed the girls to be honest with each other about their own self-confidence and learn from those discussions, Ms. Herrera says. She plans on hosting Glow Up sessions through February 2021, and has even invited a recent Saucedo Elementary graduate to pop in and lead one of the groups.

Group Call

Middle School Boys Group, Hefferan Elementary

Without recess or passing periods in remote learning, it can be difficult for students to have natural interactions with their peers. Student Supports Manager Mr. Ken Stratton has structured his virtual groups at Hefferan Elementary School on the West Side to allow space for unstructured conversation and time for fun. One activity he has used to help students connect is leading a virtual scavenger hunt. Mr. Stratton asks each student to find an item around their home that brings them joy, helps with remote learning, or even motivates them on a hard day. This activity allows the students to connect on a deeper level, and some of the students have even challenged their family members to participate in the scavenger hunt.

In Mr. Stratton’s seventh- and eighth-grade boys’ group, two members were reluctant to participate because of an ongoing conflict between them that had lingered since late summer. When they did participate, the boys sometimes used the space to confront each other. Mr. Stratton addressed the tension immediately after the first group meeting. Even though facilitating restorative practices can be challenging through screens, Mr. Stratton was able to discuss with the students what happened and what could be done to move forward. The students were ultimately able to repair their friendship and become active members in the small group.

Middle School Girls Groups, Hayt Elementary

Students at Hayt Elementary on the North Side were feeling exhausted and overwhelmed this fall from endless hours of remote-learning screen time and fears around COVID-19. More than anything, students were feeling disconnected from their peers and the personal support that school communities provide. Student Supports Manager Ms. Emma Heidorn sensed that her students, particularly her eighth-grade girls, were seeking social connection and friendship, so she started a virtual girls’ groups.

Hosted around the lunch hour and after school, the groups provide students with a space to build community — and they replicate the class breaks that students enjoyed in the cafeteria when school was in-person. For one group, Ms. Heidorn structures the virtual space with a biweekly theme, like self-esteem or igniting your passion, and for the other groups, Ms. Heidorn lets the students decide where the conversation leads with arts projects and games.



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