What SPAN Has To Do With COVID-19
by Doug Ota

This article is being written to help you. Sure, I hope it's beautiful. More importantly, I hope it's generous. But most importantly, I hope it's useful. With the inconvenience, the unrelenting news, the mounting fear, the rushed repatriations, the quarantine, and the horrors of triage and lonely death, the COVID-19 virus is stretching society to limits we forgot were possible in the 21st century.

This article contains COVID-19 antigens. But I have to deliver them via an analogy. I'll use water. Just as the virus travels via tiny droplets, this article delivers its antigens via water vapor. Trust me, and read on, because water vapor always condenses. It leads to clouds, which produce rain, all of which pours into the mighty sea.

Let me first explain that Safe Passage Across Networks (SPAN) is a non-profit organization that aims "to offer a home to refresh, equip, and connect transition-care providers around the globe who are committed to healthy student, family, and staff mobility within and between schools."

In February 2020, I was confused when a school leader in Asia suggested that SPAN's mission is a direct answer to the COVID-19 challenge. What could our small start-up non-profit focused on mobility have to offer in the fight against a tidal wave of disease?

The suggestion that SPAN take the lead felt, at first, like a cold, damp mist. 

After all, first-order questions regarding safety struck first: how do I protect my family? COVID-19 virus was shaking schools in ways the world has never seen, in an utterly indiscriminate fashion. It mattered not if you were a kindergartner or the head of school, a teacher or a bus driver, a CEO mom or a stay-at-home dad. This virus wasn't reading resumes.

Second-order practical questions about education began emerging. How do we conduct the 7th graders' science lab online? How do I teach physical education without the physical kids?

The suggestion that SPAN take the lead gave way to large, foreboding clouds.

Third-order questions are now appearing. How do we, as professionals, cope with the isolation? Seeing 25 little faces on your screen is fun at first, but it turns teaching—literally—into a two-dimensional exercise, drained of the contact and interactions that make "school" school. Teaching and learning is difficult as it is, without COVID-19 angst under the surface.

The suggestion that SPAN take the lead started pelting our windows, like unrelenting rain on the glass of our collective isolation.

Novel fourth-order questions are now emerging, the likes of which very few students, parents, or teachers have ever experienced. Will I see him again before I move? Schools and universities have sent students home, leaving seniors around the world wondering, Will I ever celebrate graduation with my friends? Pan back to the global stage, and these nasty school-based questions turn noxious. She couldn't attend her friend's funeral. And he died alone.

Psychologically, closure is important. But people are not getting to say goodbye.

The suggestion that SPAN take the lead turned into a gale-force storm that smashed my windows of awareness and left me drenched in a reality I hadn't—until then—perceived. 

The COVID-19 virus is transitions. On steroids.

Just as COVID-19 is shaking entire schools and leaving no person unaffected, so too do transitions shake every member of a school community. We all need healthy human connection. The experience of moving or being moved away from affects kindergartners, superintendents, and support staff indiscriminately. With 7.5 billion members, the majority of whom are following developments daily, our species has never so consciously witnessed this volume of change. The COVID-19 virus first flies through the air; transitions follow in its wake, like a tidal wave that spreads into each school, each home, each heart.

Just as COVID-19 infuses a sense of angst into every day, so too do transitions introduce angst and uncertainty into the mind of the beholder. Why do we have to leave? Why does another friend have to leave me? Research has long established that people learn better and are more creative when they feel safe. Transition interferes with learning in exactly the same way COVID-19 injects fear, uncertainty, and even dread into the background of every attempt to teach and learn. COVID-19-borne worries aren't conducive to learning.

I've been saying the same about unmanaged mobility for years. But COVID-19 is far more efficient, and ruthless, in making the point.

The point is this: all individuals at any educational institution with turnover are exposed to, and affected by, transitions.

COVID-19 is ruthless in closing the doors of schools around the world—regardless of whether "international" is in the name above the door or not. While the symptoms and short-term consequences of COVID-19 may be more visible than those of poorly-managed transitions, it is becoming clearer that poorly-managed transitions have negative longer-term consequences that also quietly play out right before our eyes—be that via poorer learning or even possibly reduced attachment security.

So what can SPAN do about any of this? First of all, as the Founder and Chair, but also as a psychologist and family therapist, let me offer some immediate psychological first aid for adults and parents. Remember to attend to your own oxygen mask first!

Suggestions to cope with school closures, isolation, and quarantine:

  • Cabinize. Frame the situation as a family vacation in a cabin together. Nothing bonds like a common adversary—be that rain, a blackout, or COVID-19.
  • Bond. Get out games, cards, family photo albums, and enjoy each other. See COVID-19 as a gift-giver that just gave what you always said you lacked enough of: time.
  • Limit. Agree on times when all screens and devices go off. Not only to bond, but also to manage exposure to angst-inducing news and developments.
  • Normalize. It's normal to argue and not get along at times. Especially when you're cooped up in a cabin. Edges will appear. That's normal.
  • Manage. Difficult family relationships will become more strained. It's OK to retreat now. Make use of private spaces. Respect such spaces. Breathe deeply, then speak.
  • Ask. If conflict at home is a problem, get help. Counselling is available virtually—especially now. If you see a storm brewing, don't wait. Be proactive.
  • Connect. Fight the virus on its level. As COVID-19 erodes social structures, rebuild!  Form a WhatsApp or Zoom group with neighbours you've never met.
  • RDA. Get your Recommended Daily Allowance of social interaction. Talk to people outside your family every day. 3+ people = optimal.  2 = sufficient. 1 = minimal.
  • Teleport. Shift social groups online. Establish official times to meet. Find creative ways to continue activities you share (exercise, bridge, book club). Make e-play dates for kids.
  • Accelerate. Raise your heart rate with aerobic exercise at least 15 minutes per day. Examples abound on YouTube. Doing so as a family qualifies as "bonding" too.
  • Hope. End each day reflecting together on something positive, or reading something that affords hope. Share your hopeful thought with those in your "cabin."
  • Sleep. Enough, but not too much. Get up at your normal time.
  • Repeat.
Secondly, SPAN is launching a new initiative to support educators who feel challenged coping with the changes and transitions unleashed by COVID-19.

By definition, coping of any kind is hard. Psychologically, the greatest magnifier of any challenge is isolation. Rather fiendishly, for us to defeat it, COVID-19 requires us to distance ourselves—at least physically—from the very thing we need to thrive: a sense of connection. We are asked to avoid interacting with others. But the greatest research traditions in psychology, spanning the last fifty years, indicate across all primates that social support is the greatest protective factor in coping with any threat.

Ultimately, or so goes the phrase, it is seeing that we are not alone in our experience that is healing. This experience of "intersubjectivity," as it is called, is what SPAN specializes in creating and offering.

That positions SPAN to inoculate educators—wherever you are—against the isolation tapping at your windows. While SPAN necessarily must delay our annual conference we wished to announce, we can—right now—open a virtual home to professionals in search of a place to get connected, equipped, and refreshed.  As COVID-19 jolts our foundations, as we fight to keep our educational edifices—and ourselves—upright and dry, we might all appreciate being able to turn to a place where we can share our stories and hear those of others. Who are you? How are you holding up? Do you have any ideas about keeping my school going, or about keeping myself going? Let's meet again!

It’s therefore my pleasure to announce SPAN’s new gathering called “The Nest," a 45-minute online meeting commencing on March 26th @ 7:00 AM CET and occurring every other Thursday thereafter. I’ll be the host for the first "Nest" events. For future Nest events, we’ll invite educators from around the world to sit at the virtual table with me and members of the SPAN Board, talk about how we’re coping with COVID-19, and share ideas. We’ll have this conversation for 30 minutes in front of a live audience, at which point we’ll take comments and questions from the audience. To keep things calendar and time-zone friendly, all sessions in "The Nest" will be recorded and uploaded to our site. 

If you'd like to be a guest for an upcoming "The Nest" session, please email us at If you'd like to be in the live audience (we can host 100 people max.) on March 26th @ 7:00 AM CET, please click the link below.

We will overcome this virus. As we do, though, let's maintain the analogical antibodies that COVID-19 is inviting us to develop: the awareness that transitions and mobility don't just pertain to "international" schools, but rather to any school with turnover. Right now that's every educational facility on the planet.

Good luck in your respective cabins. And I hope to see you soon in the warm, welcoming, dry place we're calling "The Nest."

Join SPAN in "The Nest" on Thursday, March 26th @ 7:00 AM CET using this ZOOM Link. No sign-up required.
Copyright © 2020 Safe Passage Across Networks, All rights reserved.

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