Nothing about school during the pandemic has been easy for anyone. Districts suddenly shifted to distance learning last spring with little to no prior experience. Kids without access to WiFi and technology fell far behind their peers. Parents had to quit their jobs in order to be at home while their children “went” to school; others were able to work from home but had to oversee their children’s education at the same time — and they have been the “lucky” ones. For many families facing food or housing insecurity, virtual school has been virtually impossible.
The pandemic has made glaringly obvious the challenges American education, and families, face in the 21st century. While schools have always suffered from equality gaps, they’ve also done much to bridge some of our society’s broader inequities — and the collapse of that bridge means a reckoning for our country. “Any time you are in a super stressful situation, it lays bare where the weak parts are,” says Melanie Potyondy, Ph.D., a school psychologist at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colorado.
But crises also force innovation, and schools and teachers have adapted quickly and come up with ingenious solutions. We wanted to find out if any of those creative stopgap measures are likely to stick around and actually strengthen education going forward.
67% of parents now say they feel more connected to their child’s learning and 73% say they expect to be engaged differently moving forward.
What have we learned? And what do we want to keep doing long after we’re all vaccinated? This was the question we put to seven experts in education — some, like Potyondy, who have been on the ground pivoting moment to moment, and others who have brought this same question to parents and educators.
This is what we learned. And some of it is revolutionary.
Lesson 1: We need all communities to have internet access, for starters.
“The pandemic has quickly proven where under-resourced communities are struggling and where we need to support them,” says Yu-Ling Cheng, who works for the education innovation organization Remake Learning. Suddenly, policymakers were forced to acknowledge the 4.4 million children in America with no access to WiFi — and that 30 million children depend on school nutrition programs to get enough food to eat, and more than 1 million American children don’t have a stable home from which to learn. These disparities, like every loss that the pandemic has wrought, disproportionally affect families and children of color.
“I was happy to see Comcast step up to the plate to provide communities with free WiFi, and that’s great, but we need more of that,” says Cheng. “We’ve seen libraries make their WiFi available in the parking lot, which is great, but it raises the question, ‘Why do students have to drive to a library to get WiFi?’”
All of the experts we spoke to hope that this broader understanding of the inequities in public education will lead to real reform (see Lesson 6).
Lesson 2: There are so many ways we can talk to each other.
Now that many of us are versed in Zoom and Google Meet, those skills can help everyone in a school community from here on out. More ways to communicate with each other means more options — and more access…
When it comes to parents connecting with the school...
Pre-pandemic, any time parents needed to meet with teachers they had to go in person, which was often either really hard or impossible for working parents or those with transportation issues. Sure, a parent could jump on the phone, but it was a last-ditch option. Now that many of us are Zoom-competent, parents and educators can have “face-to-face” meetings in which documents can be easily shared and reviewed and real communication can take place. “Many of us have had much more contact with parents than we had before,” says Potyondy.
Kristin Moody, Ed.D., an empathy scholar who conducted extensive focus groups for public education advocacy organization Advance Illinois to find out what was working about remote schooling in the state, found that parents “really appreciated” being notified, via chat or text functions that didn’t exist pre-pandemic, about grades or when their children missed a class or assignment.
A direct result of that increased communication, says Cheng, is that parents will be more engaged with their children’s learning from here on out. According to a survey conducted by Learning Heroes, which advocates for parental involvement in education, 67% of parents now say they feel more connected to their child’s learning and 73% say they expect to be engaged differently moving forward.
… and teachers connecting with each other
“In the future, I think teachers can just jump onto a Google Meet and do something really quick in five minutes and not have to wait for everyone to get together in a big meeting,” says Jana Burrow, a gifted coordinator at the Globe Academy in Dekalb County, Georgia. She can also quickly share insights and information with her colleagues. “Before it was always, ‘Well, we’ll wait till the grade-level meeting to discuss it.’ Now if there’s something I want to teach another teacher, I can sit down and make a video of it in five minutes and send it out. Teaching has always been collaborative, but this experience has just pushed through any of the barriers to that.”
… and with their students.
Perhaps most important of all, say the experts: technology has empowered some kids who have never felt comfortable reaching out to their teachers. “For instance, a kid with anxiety who would never raise their hand and ask for help in the classroom now has no problem writing it in the chat or emailing to their teacher,” says Emily King, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in private practice in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I’m seeing more independence in the middle and high school environment when it can be embarrassing to have all eyes on you.”
Lesson 3: Dissolving some of the barriers between home and school is a good thing.
On the micro level, teachers and educators have been given a fairly in-depth look into the home lives of the children they serve. “It has been really neat to be able to see kids’ homes, get to see their pets, their younger siblings, their rooms,” says Potyondy, adding that this view also “gives us insight into some of the difficulties going on at home that are getting in the way of learning.”
That understanding can hopefully inform approaches to teaching that can reach a broader group of learners (see Lesson 5). It’s also a two-way street: a closer connection between home and school can empower parents to advocate for their children’s interests.
Last spring, Heather Clarke, a Black mom of two and early childhood specialist and advocate in New York City, reached out to her kindergartner’s teacher. “I said, ‘Juneteenth is coming up, and we are going to celebrate it as a family. Can we include this into the curriculum?’” The teachers had to check with the “powers that be,” says Clarke, but they came back and said, ‘Yeah, NYC is going to officially designate this anyway,’ and so they included it. It was really great for my son to see that something we were doing in the home was also discussed in class.”
That kind of interaction between a child’s home environment and school is something Clarke wants to see on a wide scale (see Lesson 6). “A cultural connection to learning is really key for students,” says Clarke. “You are showing them that their lives, their stories, their culture is important. I see so many teachers doing this through remote learning and it needs to be continued when schools open up again.”
Lesson 4: Social and emotional learning is a must.
“Facilitating opportunities for students to talk and connect with each other and teachers was the greatest challenge this year,” says Moody. Knowing that the shift to remote learning (not to mention a global pandemic) was going to be hard on students, many schools incorporated this kind of social-emotional learning into their curriculum. Parents have been happy about it, and in classrooms where teachers implemented creative ways to build interpersonal connections, “students had the greatest interaction with the material and with the content,” says Moody.
“COVID has just made staff members think more flexibly. It’s made us think outside of the box, explore new strategies that we haven’t before, and that’s a good thing.”
They did this in a number of different ways, from calling students on the phone, to pairing students up with a buddy, building in time for kids to get to know each other, and creating smaller groups for kids who were uncomfortable interacting in big ones. One parent shared with Moody how her daughter’s teacher created Zoom lunches with smaller groups of kids and taught them how to have conversation together. “Her daughter ended up building skills around lunchtime conversation that she felt were really important.”
Lesson 5: With a little creativity, we can meet the needs of all kids.
Distance learning has opened up new ways of reaching different groups of learners as well as individual children. “COVID has just made staff members think more flexibly,” says Potyondy. “It’s made us think outside of the box, explore new strategies that we haven’t before, and that’s a good thing.”
Kids who are English Speakers of Different Languages (ESOL)
The switch to virtual tools has been eye-opening for Jessica Elgin, an ESOL teacher at Fernbank Elementary in DeKalb County, Georgia. “Kids that don’t feel so confident in speaking out loud in class” have been using technologies like chat features or FlipGrid that allow them to record videos to share with the teacher or class. Elgin has “seen more confidence” in some of her students as a result and plans to keep using these tools when she’s teaching in person again.
Kids with Intervention and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)
We know that children with education plans who rely on intervention classes and services have really suffered during distance learning, with some of them receiving almost none of the services they are legally entitled to. That is a tragedy that no silver lining cancels out. However, educators have gathered insights that might be useful when face-to-face learning resumes. Moody has talked to parents whose school districts offered outdoor accommodations and interventions. “Their children were making incredible progress because it was this special time carved out of the day,” says Moody. And “the level of understanding they had about their kids’ services was so different now that they actually saw the providers giving them. That really equipped parents to go home and reinforce those skills.”
Kids who need school counseling in a different form
Potyondy says that teletherapy has helped her reach kids who are habitual non-attenders or who have social anxiety. “Some of them have signed up for every online counseling appointment, and it’s the first time they have been getting their mental health care in school.” Potyondy is excited to now have that as an option for a child who is absent or hasn’t been showing up. And those kids may be the ones who need her support most.
Kids who have a hard time with in-person school
“For kids who have serious emotional disabilities, the school milieu alone can be really triggering,” says Potyondy. And some of them have had tremendous success learning from a distance. Potyondy’s district offers a separate online school for kids who had difficulties in the traditional model. Now, they are planning for a hybrid option where students can learn remotely but also be able to be a part of the student body. “That’s a cool positive to come out of this,” she says. “We’ve got some kids this is working for and now we are thinking about how we can keep them as a part of the student community.”
Lesson 6: It's beyond time to do away with a one-size-fits-all — or even most — approach.
In her focus groups, Moody did not find any one approach that was universally successful for schools grappling with distance learning. “It really came back to the idea of teachers and schools being flexible enough to have strategies that were authentic to the culture of the classroom and the students and teachers that were there.”
This takeaway is one that many experts hope can finally smash the mold of standardization and open us up to new ways to teach kids and assess how they are doing. “From a state and administrative level, could we at some point consider that the same curriculum is perhaps not appropriate for everyone?” asks King. “Could we be more flexible and not give all kids the same amount of time to complete something? Is there a better way kids could show mastery of their education to earn a diploma?”
Students are not blank slates or empty vessels when they are 3 or 4. They come in with a vast array of knowledge and experience and when they see that reflected in the classroom experience, they thrive.
Cheng even wonders if we need to keep the same school hours. “If you can do learning asynchronously, does that open up time for kids to do other things like taking a virtual foreign language class if their school doesn’t offer it? It makes you rethink when learning can happen.”
Advocates like Clarke say this kind of innovation in education, and others like the universal design movement, can make it possible for all students — not dependent on their IEPs, culture, immigration status, or gender — to flourish in the classroom.
“Students are not blank slates or empty vessels when they are 3 or 4. They come in with a vast array of knowledge and experience and when they see that reflected in the classroom experience, they thrive. Right now, the school is in their home, so we should bring the home into school. There’s so much opportunity there to abolish the old system and move forward to an equitable system for all.”