By: Emily Torres

Back To School, Not Back To Normal

“What’s NOT going through my head right now?” texted my sister-in-law, who’s starting her second year of college this fall. Since I’m many years removed from my last first day of school, I reached out to her to get a temperature check on how she feels about remote learning and updated safety measures.

“I think the biggest red flag that stands out for me and a lot of my peers is that nobody is in their element,” she explained. “You go to college for the education and the experience of learning from your professors, but we’re all in this weird zone right now where nobody knows what to expect. Nobody knows how classes are going to go, and a lot of people are concerned—myself included—about their grades.”

If you’re heading back to school, you’re might also be trying to balance your to-do lists and that same sense of uncertainty about what the world will look like moving forward. Below, you’ll find some best practices that can help distance learners feel more organized, productive, and successful this school year. Whether you’re taking a single class as part of a personal enrichment plan or embarking on your freshman year of college or high school, there’s support for you here.

1. Mental & Emotional Preparation

The traditional support system of in-person friendships and predictable class schedules looks a bit different this year—so it’s important to get really in touch with how you’re feeling.

“It’s easy to feel consumed by negative and anxiety-provoking thoughts when you are navigating unknown territory,” says Sage Grazer, LCSW. “Staying in touch with how you are really feeling creates an opportunity for you to care for yourself and get your needs met so that you can function optimally in your relationships and with your schoolwork.” Naming your anxieties and worries can help you properly identify where you need the most support.

“Staying in touch with how you are really feeling creates an opportunity for you to care for yourself and get your needs met so that you can function optimally in your relationships and with your schoolwork.”


Grazer, the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of the mental wellness network Frame, suggests a therapeutic technique called “resourcing” to help you navigate stress and uncomfortable emotions. “Resourcing is identifying things in your life that are uplifting, calming, or enjoyable as a way to connect to internal sensations of wellbeing that are pleasant or neutral,” she explains.

“You can ask yourself: what is one thing that doesn’t hurt or feel bad right now? And then allow yourself to fully flesh out that thought/memory in your mind and envision yourself in that moment, allowing yourself to imagine being in the calming or pleasant sensations that your memory evokes.”

As you head into the uncertainty, focus on the things you can control—like how much sleep you get, your hydration levels, and your screen time outside of class hours. Moving your body and establishing a gratitude practice can help you feel grounded and present. Plus, creative nourishment also counts as self-care; are you offering yourself a chance to be creative instead of just productive? Invite play and free time into your schedule, if you can.

2. Physical Preparation

“How we physically show up to our virtual classes can make all the difference.”

Pens? Check. Planner? Check. Blue light glasses? Check! How we physically show up to our virtual classes can make all the difference. Figure out what works for you. I schedule calendar alerts a day before a deadline and use physical planners and task-based programs to breakdown larger projects and timelines. Padlet, TreIlo, and Evernote are all useful for staying organized and keeping notes handy (drop your recs in the comments below 👇). I also keep track of what I have completed, because that list is always helpful to review when I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything.

Establish pre-learning rituals like lighting a candle, wiping down your desk, and turning your phone on silent. Drink coffee from a travel mug if you must—anything to help you feel like you’re in the classroom. Not everyone has access to a quiet, separate learning space. That’s okay! Do what you can with what you have, and be sure to let your teachers know if you have conflicts with class participation.

3. Make a Plan, Stan

Picking out the semester’s upcoming classes was always a thrill for me—but in a pandemic, the game has changed. Reflect on your past school years and familiarize yourself with your learning style. Will it be best for you to schedule your favorite classes now, to stay engaged? Or, is it better for you to get the less-exciting prerequisites out of the way? Chances are, it’ll be a balance of both—just understand why each class makes sense for you this semester. 

“Commuting directly from bed to laptop might just be a recipe for disaster.”

Plan to give yourself a little time before early AM classes to wake up, drink a cuppa, and orient yourself for the day. Commuting directly from bed to laptop might just be a recipe for disaster.

Most importantly, keep a proactive mindset. “It’s not easy, but students should be as proactive as possible, opening doors where they can,” says Seema Thomas, an Adjunct Professor at the University of the District of Columbia. Thomas recommends virtual internships, which are an increasing reality for many students, as valuable ways to network and hone their skills. Keep an eye out for industry events that you can find connections in, too, such as webinars and panels. 

“I encourage the students to develop a professional brand…. Now is an incredible opportunity to be creative.”


No luck finding opportunities that work with your schedule? Take things into your own hands, says Thomas: “I encourage the students to develop a professional brand—blogging, developing their professional online presence. Now is an incredible opportunity to be creative (start your own podcast, start sketching a business plan of a rudimentary idea, etc.).”

4. Ask Your Teachers And Academic Advisors For What You Need

If there’s something you need, ask! Everyone’s taking things one day at a time right now, and extra communication can be helpful as we’re all figuring out what works and what doesn’t. 

“Teachers and professors are a great resource and most love to mentor students, so if something in class interests you, reach out to see if they have recommendations for how you can learn more,” recommends Jamie Pack, an independent college counselor in North Carolina. “Those conversations are how student/teacher relationships develop into more mentor-like relationships.” And those relationships are key for when you need letters of recommendation for your next steps. Pack adds, “These are the people who can attest to a student’s character, resiliency, and adaptability during this strange time.”

“If something in class interests you, reach out to see if [teachers] have recommendations for how you can learn more.”


Some examples of what you might need include transcriptions, extended deadlines, fewer discussion assignments, and on-demand recordings of lectures. You can connect with your academic advisor about your needs, or perhaps you need to find someone different who’s more suited to your goals. Your peers can be resources, too. Ask how they’re balancing their time and staying organized, and share and compare notes in advance of an exam.

Most importantly, get familiar with the resources you would have had in-person. If you’re in a music program, consult your school (or a local business) about instrument rentals and loans. If a computer, internet, or printer isn’t available to you, it shouldn’t be the end of your academic pursuits. See if there are grants through your school or ask your teachers about allowances to ensure everyone has the same access and resources while learning at home.

In a perfect world, accessible accommodations are proactively provided and well supported. Unfortunately, they’re not always a priority. Ask for them if you need them, but also ask for them to support the students that do. Nobody should be left out of the transition to online learning.

5. Create A Social Curriculum, Too

Community is an antidote for the uncertainty that surrounds us right now. Ask your academic advisor to direct you towards student organizations that are meeting virtually. And if your classes offer discussion boards, consider organizing a study group over Zoom.

“Ask your academic advisor to direct you towards student organizations that are meeting virtually….Ask [resident advisors] how they’re planning to connect with the students.”

If you’re in college and would have been living on campus, reach out to the office of admissions or housing to find out if you have a resident advisor. Ask them how they’re planning to connect with the students and see if they can host a Slack channel for conversations or run virtual events. If not, try to reach out to students further along in their course of study to see if they have any advice—or just to ask how they’re navigating this uncertainty, too.

Virtual learning for the masses is a completely new landscape; it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and uncertain. In many ways, it’s just an amplified version of what high school and college years are all about: staring at a blurry map, trying to figure out the path forward.

And when you feel like your mind is in a spiral, take a pause. “It’s important to validate your feelings but also recognize that feelings aren’t facts; feelings are personal truths, not universal facts,” reminds Grazer. “So when you find yourself worrying about nightmare “what if” scenarios or feeling like you’ve failed at everything in life, ask yourself is this a feeling or a fact?” The fact is this: you are doing your best, you are deserving of support, and you are capable of navigating this season.

I promise you there’s time: time to make friends, to explore your career, and to reinvent yourself a hundred times over. Life feels so urgent when it’s pared down into semesters, but the real urgency lies in caring for yourself, your loved ones, and the community that surrounds you.

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