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Schools and the pandemic – what we learned one year later



Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay
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“I just remember the awful feeling of ‘Wait! I didn’t even get to say goodbye!’. It broke my heart to realize I’d sent them home without telling them how much I loved them,” recalled Amanda Kirkley, an assistant teacher at Redwood Elementary. “There was so much more we needed to learn, more goals to reach, more memories we needed to make together.”

For Courtney Kelley, a first grade teacher, the story was very similar. “Everything just happened too fast. On Friday, I was talking and laughing with my kids about their plans for Spring Break. And just a few days later, it hit me that I hadn’t told them how much I loved them and just how special each of them really are.”

It wasn’t just concerns about how to continue teaching them, but teachers were left to worry about how they would provide the other things their students need.

Kelley remembered, “I had anxiety thinking about how I was going to make sure my kids were safe and happy and okay everyday.”

That was one year ago. In March of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced a near-total shutdown of school buildings and with just a couple of days’ notice, people were left scrambling to figure out how to ensure the educational process continued.

Looking back on this unprecedented event, some very clear takeaways have been drawn about the historic disruption the nation’s schools faced.

1. Schools are capable of adapting quickly to necessary change.

When the coronavirus struck and buildings were shuttered, educators had to reinvent their schools in record time. Administrators and leaders raced to get working computers and chromebooks in the hands of every student, and the district’s  technology department worked tirelessly to get internet connections to even the most remote areas of the county. Those in charge of curriculum researched the most effective online platforms, and teachers immersed themselves in learning how to best utilize these new methods of instruction.

Suddenly teachers went from standing in front of students to logging into Zoom and Google Classrooms and all of the other learning platforms in a matter of days. Creativity and improvisation are still clearly on display in every facet of schooling.

2.  Parents are also capable of and willing to change.

Parents earned a new title overnight – educator. For parents, especially those with young children, school closures meant taking on new responsibilities for their child’s education – ensuring devices are charged, internet is reliable, homework is done and lessons are complete.

Anna Jones, a parent to twin second graders and an eight grader, said, “At first, I was kind of excited about the prospect of not having to fight my kids to get them up and out of the house in the mornings. That quickly turned into fear when I realized that I was going to have to help teach them.”

Jones said she basically had to become a student herself. “I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to my kids’ work. They always managed to do well and make good grades. I quickly became aware of just how great their teachers must have really been. I had to go learn the math and ELA (English and language arts) skills myself first before I could help with their work. I had to learn to use their devices. I had to totally overhaul the way I’d been doing things.”

3. Schools provide much more than just academics, and that will unlikely ever change. 

Widespread school shutdowns made it clear that many children rely on school for healthy meals. Before the pandemic, public schools in the U.S. provided about 30 million free or reduced price meals a day. With the economic hardship of the pandemic, even more families need help keeping kitchens stocked. Schools have stepped up by providing meals to all students, even delivering them to students’ homes. This is no surprise given that studies have shown the connection between hunger and academic achievement.

It also became evident that even those students who claim to “hate school” loved the people there.

According to Jones, “One day one of my daughters told me she missed her ‘morning hug’. I offered her a hug and she said mine wasn’t the same as the one she got from her school’s custodian when she got off the bus every day. She called it her ‘have-a-good-day hug’ and said every kid on her bus got one before going inside to eat breakfast.”

Jones said her oldest child often cried over not being able to sing with her friends in choir and told her she missed the way the school secretary said hello to her every day in a “goofy voice”.

 4.  Communication and positive relationships are critical for success, and those bonds should never change. 

When schools closed, the majority of the population found themselves feeling worried and depressed. Prolonged isolation can have an awful impact on mental health. Students found themselves missing social interaction and parents and teachers alike found themselves full of questions and unsure of where to turn for answers. Social media provided an invaluable solution. Facebook groups quickly emerged as a place for people to ask important questions, find answers and voice their concerns. Unlikely bonds and friendships were made as people were relieved to find others who were experiencing the same fears and misgivings.

Jones said, “As things begin to get back to normal, I hope these new, improved relationships continue to thrive. Teachers have learned just how much they can count on parents, and parents were able to see that teachers really do just want the best for their children. I definitely have a new appreciation for all of the people and the work that goes into my kids’ schools. From the cafeteria workers to the bus drivers to the secretaries and assistants. I hope these new levels of respect and appreciation for each other continue.”

Courtney Kelley with her student Halle Grace Bonelli

It can be hard to draw lessons from a crisis when you are still in the crisis, and we are still in the midst of it a full year later.

Some students are still learning from home or on a hybrid schedule. Schools are still limiting students’ activities. Faculties and staff are still wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Echos of “please put your mask on correctly” can still be heard up and down hallways. Kids are still discouraged from playing together too closely on the playgrounds.  Water bottles still litter classroom floors and drinking fountains are still covered.  Hand sanitizer is still being used in abundance.

But we can rejoice in the knowledge that hope is on the horizon. An end, the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel”,  may actually be in sight.

And though we may not know the long-term effects of the pandemic on students’ academic gains or growth, we do know that there are heroes with Herculean strength all around us  refusing to let something like a little global pandemic prevent them working to give each and every student their all.


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