COVID-19 changed education in America — permanently (part 2)

September 30, 2021

It’s been a school year like no other. Here’s what we learned.

Lesson 2: Online learning is here to stay

For weeks starting in January, from my home in Maryland, I sat in on a virtual course on American Indian education and policy at Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana. The professor, a woman named Michael Munson, had never taught a live (or “synchronous,” in the industry lingo), fully virtual course before. But her warmth helped make it feel like an intimate group of friends. Sure, something was lost because the students couldn’t chat after class or grab a cup of coffee. But something was gained in that they could join even if they were sick — as one did while convalescing with COVID-19 even if they were in their car taking care of some essential family matter, and even on the day in February when it was -5 degrees in Montana and the pipes burst in Munson’s academic building.

In virtual classrooms at all levels around the United States, teachers and students have been making discoveries like this. To be clear, online learning has been disastrous for many, many children, whether because the screen is a barrier to building teacher-student relationships, or because they lack a strong internet signal or a quiet place to work. After all, we’ve seen students logging in from the laundry room and doing class presentations in the bathroom. Alarming news about failing grades makes this abundantly clear.

But one of the most surprising lessons to emerge is that some students are thriving, and that includes quite young students.

A recent poll from POLITICO and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that 29 percent of parents want their child to be in remote or hybrid learning for the next school year, while a RAND Corporation survey of school districts found that by last fall, one in five were already planning or contemplating a post-pandemic virtual schooling option.

Experts believe that post- COVID-19, most students will be back in a classroom. But for a subset who face challenges ranging from social anxiety to the disproportionate rates of school discipline for Black students, remote learning may be a good option. Same for families where parents like some aspects of home-schooling, but still want a strong tether to a formal program. As physical classrooms adopt cameras, students who are often out of school due to a chronic illness will have an option to stay better connected. Schools disrupted by blizzards or wildfires will have a fallback. (Okay, ending snow days is not going to win any popularity contests.)

It will take vigilance, however, to ensure that options that arise to meet this new demand for remote learning are of high quality. As RAND noted in reporting its survey results, based on pre–COVID-19 research, “students enrolled in online schools have had poorer outcomes in math, reading, science, writing, and history achievement when compared with students in traditional schools.”

Even when they are teaching in person, many teachers will continue drawing on lessons they learned from having to teach online. After she was forced to cancel all four of her annual choral concerts, Kate Lee had to radically rethink what to teach as director of choirs at Maine East High School in Park Ridge, IL. She asked students in her heavily immigrant community to choose and perform a song that was meaningful to them, and was blown away by video performances that included a folksong from Nigeria and an Assyrian funeral hymn. Lee decided that going forward, she won’t just assign music and teach students how to perform it.

“Now, I want to give my students more of a voice, so I can learn about them, and they can learn about each other,” she said. “And they can also learn about themselves, right?”

Lesson 3: Technology is a basic need

With the possible exception of the earliest grades, it’s now clear that in a post-pandemic America, every student needs their own device and a reliable internet connection. There is just too much good happening today in the digital environment for students to miss out. Even when school is fully in-person, digital access will allow students to more easily form study groups and do homework together, get involved in coding or digital art projects, or practice patient care in a simulated hospital while training for health care jobs.

Consider what Precious Allen has done this year with her second graders at Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago. The students have been blogging, making games and animations in Scratch, a coding language for kids, and holding a book club with students in West Virginia, Argentina, Turkey and Moldova. Allen, a county teacher of the year, is raising donations now to fund electronic circuit kits. Attendance and passing grades in her class, dismal early in the pandemic, are now quite strong.

As with many other teachers, the virtual school environment also transformed Allen’s relationships with her students’ families. Though we had telephones and video apps pre-COVID-19, the pandemic has forced a pronounced shift towards more communication. Going forward, parents with rigid work schedules will be better able to meet with their kids’ teachers if they can jump on Zoom during a break instead of having to trek to the school building.

“I thought I was building that relationship with my parents [in years past], but I realized that I was just at the surface,” Allen said. This year, it has been helpful “knowing who was getting divorced, who doesn’t have child care, who needs extensions on assignments. It’s something that I definitely want to carry over.’”

States including Texas and California handed out 1 million devices each, primarily laptops and tablets. But providing devices is simple compared to the difficulty many students faced in accessing reliable Internet connections, especially in rural areas. Even after all the measures taken during the pandemic, as many as 12 million schoolchildren remain disconnected or “under-connected,” according to a recent report from Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group and the Southern Education Foundation. Students left behind by the digital divide are disproportionately Black, Latino and Native American.

Continued next week: Lessons 4 and 5

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