Teachers, parents and students have faced an unprecedented year in school. How will this past year affect the future of education?
Since public schools shuttered their doors in March of 2020, kids have met the challenges of pandemic life head-on. So have their parents, and so have their teachers. Some kids have thrived, others have not.
We asked four Maryland teachers to reflect on the last twelve months of teaching and comment on the journey that their students have been on. They were candid about the challenges that their students faced and where virtual learning has fallen flat.
Kenneth Benjes of Baltimore County Public Schools says of his students, “I think they’ve adapted pretty well. My students showed up on time for the most part, and attendance was similar to in person instruction.”
But there is more to the picture. Ben Tuck, a public school teacher in Anne Arundel County says that there is a divide. “There are some students who have adapted very readily to digital learning. These tend to be students who have a fair amount of experience with technology, who are motivated and competitive with other students, and whose parents were involved in their education. They tend to be students from upper class or middle class families,” Tuck says. “Other students are struggling to stay free of distractions like social media, online gaming, or even watching anime. There are also students who have to take care of their siblings. There are students of mine who work jobs and listen to class on their cell phone at their jobs.”
One Montgomery County private school teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, emphasized that the students who were struggling before the pandemic are struggling even more now. “Any kid who had already had executive dysfunction reported it was really hard to focus in front of a computer screen.” The teacher stated that less work was turned in and at a lower quality.
The Test of Online Learning
Online learning has tested students in ways that they haven’t experienced before. Students generally did well with common online platforms like Zoom or Google Classroom. A public school teacher from Montgomery County (who also asked to remain anonymous) agreed, “technology is the easiest for most students to pick up.”
But there has been a lot to struggle with for students. In spite of students’ success with online learning platforms, multiple teachers mentioned students having a hard time with computer skills, “kids still struggle with computer basics like saving, folder organization, and simple troubleshooting,” says Benjes.
Teachers from Montgomery and Baltimore counties noted the challenges of “learning when no one is there to make sure you are working,” and “completing work outside of class.” And of course, we are living in tumultuous and stressful times. “Resilience and mental health have been big struggles for students. The big events happening outside of school have created a lot of anxiety and depression. Many of the students aren’t fully equipped to cope with the stress,” says Tuck.
All of the teachers we talked to overwhelmingly stated the lack of social interaction as the number one thing students are missing out on. “I think kids have missed out most on socialization, learning how to get along, making friends, being part of a group.” says Tuck.
“Some students are really feeling the pain and getting depressed,” according to a public school teacher from Montgomery County. This was the one topic on which all of the teachers we spoke to were completely united. Kids need physical interaction and not having it is taking a toll on their mental health and development.
On the Education Gap
Teachers had different perspectives on how they thought this year has taken a toll on the education gap. According to Benjes, “I don’t think it has; I think people just want to pay attention to it now. The gap is just as big. But I do have more students working jobs, often missing class, to help pay the bills at home. I think the lack of cash funds to supplement job loss etc. is where I am directly seeing more students ‘drop out.”
According to teachers, “the education gap is bandied out quite a bit by parents and government officials who want students back in the classroom without any concern for safety. There will be students who need more help to bounce back after we have resumed a degree of normalcy,” says a public school teacher in Montgomery County, “but the thoughts should be how to identify those students and create a learning platform for them to succeed.”
“I think it has exacerbated the education gap,” says Ben Tuck. “Poorer students and students of color who struggle are struggling even more. Families are coping with unemployment, eviction, food shortages, and abuse. The support system that students have of teachers, pupil personnel workers, social workers, guidance counselors, coaches, Alt Ones, and principals have trouble supporting students via distance and through screens,” he says. “It’s hard to build trust and build relationships with students if you’ve never seen their faces.”
“The pandemic has made about ninety percent of my students—including the low-income students—constantly stressed and fatigued,” says a private school teacher in Montgomery County. “We have had some low-income students do very well last year. It really depends on how safe they are at home.”
When Will Students Catch Up?
When we asked teachers how long it will take for students to catch up on what they have missed this year, answers varied from a tangible ‘one to three years’ to more philosophical answers that take into account systemic racism and American insatiability for forward progress at all costs.
“I don’t accept the viewpoint that anyone has ‘fallen behind,’ ”says Benjes. “We can’t act like we need to catch everyone up during a global pandemic. This idea that students have to reach a specific point to have value is rooted in white supremacy.”
According to the Montgomery County private school teacher, a catch up would take, “the rest of our lives! I don’t think that our culture is going to accept a catch-up period. Colleges were already complaining about remedial classes ten years ago.”
These teachers have pointed out how the pandemic has shown a spotlight on the flaws of our current education system, particularly for lower income students, students with learning differences, and students of color. “Of course, we know that school is more than just students. It is a community composed of teachers, administrators, counselors and building staff, who are all working hard to keep their students learning, happy and safe. This village is working hard to make sure that students are learning as much as possible,” notes one of the teachers we spoke to, “and that their school experience is as full as it can be.”
Next: How the Pandemic has affected our mental health.