How Will We Address the Social-Emotional Learning Loss from COVID-19? Lessons from Camp Common Ground

By Zach Bell

This blog post is the second in a two-part series from Zach Bell reflecting on the Youth-Nex 2019 conference and SEL loss from COVID-19. If you want to learn more about the other researchers and practitioners who inspired this post, read the first post here.


  • Zach Bell is the Co-Founder of Camp Common Ground and a Physical Education and Social-Emotional Learning Teacher in the Oakland Unified School District in California.
  • With COVID-19 and distance learning, students are experiencing more social-emotional learning loss than ever before. 
  • In the second and final post of this series, I further explore the “Four Factors for Youth Moral Development”: (1) safe-environment, (2) well-trained facilitators, (3) experiential pedagogy/youth power, and (4) accessible to most students. I use this framework to evaluate different interventions for doing social-emotional learning work in our current education environment.
Source: Color War Simulation from Zach Bell & Camp Common Ground

“I don’t know if my school is really a safe place to do this work,” I admitted to the 2019 Youth-Nex conference chamber, referring to the Color War simulation we run at Camp Common Ground.

In this simulation, campers experience inequality in an embodied way through a day-long competition where students hold positional privilege or disadvantage based on their assigned color team. Youth must navigate their emotional reactions towards their peers, and towards the authority figures (me and the other staff members) who are enforcing this inequitable system – and make hard choices whether to “rebel” and face consequences. For the full talk about Color War, watch the video here.

What I didn’t realize at the time of the conference was that school might be the only place in 2020 to do “this work” of developing our youth’s social-emotional skills, moral development, and dialogical abilities because in-person programming for Camp Common Ground (and so many other related programs) were cancelled this year due to COVID-19.

Camp Common Ground, is a two-week overnight summer camp for a diverse cohort of Bay Area middle schoolers, was co-founded by myself and current Executive Director Ron Towns, both Oakland educators. The camp includes carefully scaffolded skill-building workshops that lead up to integrative simulations, like Color War. Our program has led to statistically significant boosts in empathy, perspective-taking, self-esteem, and cross-cultural friendships. To learn more about the organization and our impact, click here.

As a middle school math teacher at an experimental bilingual public school in Oakland Unified School District during distance learning, I found that even the “normal” social-emotional learning this year was largely disrupted. I tried to engage students with “virtual restorative justice circles” and daily check-ins, but it simply was not the same. I found that the students who were most active over Zoom and Google Classroom were more likely to be affluent and with a quiet space in their home, and not necessarily the students who were in the greatest need of social-emotional support (though, all students need social and emotional support and development).

So how can we address this social-emotional learning loss from “distance learning” and cancelled summer and after school programs?

Can we use the disruption of COVID-19 as an opportunity to think more broadly about how to reorient our “education system” (or perhaps “holistic child development system”) to prioritize non-academic skills?

If so, where, when, and how do we implement this “re-prioritization”?

What I learned from the 2019 Youth-Nex conference is that for moral development, dialogue, and social justice education to be effective we need the following in place. I’ll refer to these as the Four Factors going forward.

  1. Safe environment with bonds of community, belonging, and trust, so that youth can be vulnerable.
  2. Well-trained adult facilitators who can responsively adapt their work to the developmental and identity intersections of their youth. 
  3. Experiential pedagogy and power structures that share authority with youth so that there is authentic co-construction of rule-based systems with meaningful stakes (e.g. hiring staff) and space for critical reflection and praxis.
  4. Accessibility to most students. In hopes of being realistic given the often under-resourced state of public schools and structural inequity that exist in our systems, I want to add one “realism-check” category so that we’re not just finding solutions for affluent youth.

Below are avenues I see to explore options for doing social-emotional learning work, and admittedly cursory evaluations of each option’s potential:

To read more about the pros and cons of each of these venues please see this downloadable PDF.

At the end of the day, a diversity of tactics is likely the approach we’ll need to take to address this overwhelming need – now more than ever – to teach our youth to be moral actors with a strong foundation of social-emotional and dialogical skills.

The gaps can be daunting; when I recently searched for “gender education nonprofits” there was not a single hit on the first page of Google that mentioned boys or men, so we have a long way to go on providing truly holistic identity development for all of our kids.

But as many of us take a step back during the COVID-19 pandemic to evaluate our current systems, it may be time to think imaginatively and critically of concrete ways that we can support all students in becoming moral actors, in whatever context they are in.

Let’s look at our educational practices with that lens. Rather than just asking “can they score a point?”, let’s ask, “are they grappling with what’s a fair rule?” and “are they deciding how to score the points, and if they even want to?” May we approach these challenging tasks with playfulness and a love of learning (see the Calvin & Hobbes comic in the downloadable PDF).

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Zach Bell is a public middle school P.E. and social-emotional learning teacher in Oakland, California. In 2015, he co-founded Camp Common Ground, an inter-cultural overnight summer camp, where he co-designed and facilitated a curriculum about empathy-building, conflict resolution, and gender norms. Earlier in his career, he was a freelance writer and co-founder of an online magazine for youth activists, before working in business development at an ed-tech start up. More recently, he has deepened his work as a gender educator, including as a middle school basketball coach, running a boy’s group, and founding Real Men Share, an online magazine for men to share vulnerably. He is also writing a film about masculinity, listening to a lot of Ram Dass, and going to the beach.