July/August 2020

Practical PR: When Preparing for Back to School, SEL Wellness is Key

By Mary Morgan Ryan

“When physical distancing is deemed necessary, social and emotional connectedness is even more critical.”
— Karen Niemi, CASEL President and CEO

Looking ahead, school district staff, students, and families are all wondering what school will look like in the Fall of 2020. At the time of this writing, it is uncertain whether public schools will offer in-person instruction, remote learning, or a hybrid of both. Districts are preparing for all three possibilities.

In one township, the school districts are working together to address this important task through a social and emotional lens. Several school districts in New Trier Township in the northern suburbs of Chicago, including the Northern Suburban Special Education District (NSSED), are partnering with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in this work. CASEL is a nonprofit organization based in Chicago, focused on integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) into preschool through high school education. 

The collaboration began last year with the goal of aligning SEL plans throughout the township. An intensive summer workshop was planned, with teams of educators from each district and facilitated by CASEL to determine each district’s status and develop a common framework for moving forward to support social and emotional learning together. When the novel coronavirus pandemic resulted in the closure of school for the remainder of the school year, the group pivoted and is now using the summer session to focus specifically on the transition back to school for students in all grades. The gathering will now be held virtually, with CASEL facilitating development of a plan for supporting social and emotional wellbeing of students, families, and staff for the reopening of school in August. 

Several township districts have collected data from staff and families on their experiences with remote learning. At NSSED, the survey asked both staff and families to suggest ways to improve remote learning. The data show that families and staff alike are missing personal connections and the rapport developed through daily interaction. Respondents spoke of the importance of the teacher-student relationship, and also of connections among staff members and with families. These comments center on social and emotional wellbeing, indicating that a transition plan focusing on social and emotional learning and health will benefit all learners. NSSED administrators will report the survey results to the cooperative’s Leadership Council, which includes one member from the school board of each of the 18 member districts, and three member district superintendents. NSSED administrators will also use this data in their work with CASEL and the other districts.

An important outcome of the summer work will be a common vocabulary and alignment toward the shared goal of supporting student social and emotional wellbeing. The collaborative summer institute focuses on creating a specific plan grounded in the idea that SEL wellness is the basis for success in classroom activities. Districts want to empower students to think that they have the skills to communicate their emotions and that they have an outlet for their feelings and people they can turn to for support.

School board members can learn from this township effort in several ways: 

First, social and emotional wellbeing is essential for students, families, and staff. Where there is an opportunity to be involved and speak to this at a board meeting, school board members can provide a foundation for success for their districts. Sharing this message is an important public relations responsibility for an elected school board member.

Second, alignment across districts on this important issue can build strength in communities, bringing together educators, families, and community members around mental health concerns. School board members can encourage alignment of vocabulary and goals. 

Third, school district communications staff can provide a means of gathering data, and also reinforcing messaging about resources and support for students and staff. School board members can learn about the public relations work going on in their districts and work to allocate resources for that work.

Fourth, CASEL is a highly regarded national organization, based in Chicago, and is a valuable resource for all Illinois schools. School board members can visit the CASEL website for more information on social and emotional learning during the pandemic. CASEL is curating resources and providing weekly webinars on leadership, resilience, and SEL at home, among other topics.
Mary Morgan Ryan is Chief Technology, Communications, and Data Services Official for the Northern Suburban Special Education District. Resources associated with this column can be accessed at