From A Teacher: 6 Things The Pandemic Taught Us About How To Do School Better
COVID-19 has disrupted all of our lives, upending our routines and forcing us to do everything in strange and unfamiliar ways. As a teacher, I’m especially aware of how the pandemic has affected school. After the nationwide shutdown in the spring, some schools started cautiously opening up in fall 2020—but with a host of new protocols, new policies. Masks. Socially distanced classrooms. Remote or hybrid modalities. For the past five months, we’ve been yearning to see our students’ unmasked faces, to see them sitting together, working together, laughing together at a table in the cafeteria (and not six feet apart). In short, we are aching for the day when things will go back to normal.
And yet, as with any great disruption, along with grief and loss and fear and discomfort there comes the opportunity for learning. The fact that we swiftly implemented the necessary changes to make a safer learning environment in the face of a deadly virus is a testament to our strength and resiliency. Beyond that, some of these changes have actually led to valuable discoveries. As much as we long to throw those masks and Zoom links in the trash, maybe there are a few things we could keep?
For example …
Post Your Curriculum!
For the past 10-15 years, schools have been pushing teachers to put everything online. We use platforms like Google Classroom, Schoology, or PupilPath to post assignments, accept submissions, update grades, and announce upcoming tests and projects. But it has been tricky to get everyone onboard. As a teacher, I can tell you that some of us have been a little shy or a little lazy about posting our stuff: we’ll post a syllabus at the beginning of the term, and then maybe forget all about it until grades are due or conferences are coming up. Likewise, some students don’t bother logging in, preferring to get their assignments in class (or by texting a friend at the last minute).
Using remote or hybrid modalities in the age of COVID has (finally) forced everybody to adapt. When the whole class is conducted online, you can’t wait till later to post the assignment: if it isn’t posted, it doesn’t exist. Post-pandemic, we can expect teachers to be more comfortable with technology, and students to check their online classrooms for regular updates. That’s a win in my book.
Virtual Parent-Teacher Conferences
Social distancing has made us reexamine all the times and ways we put people together for indoor gatherings. When it’s really necessary to meet in person, we can do it—as safely and as briefly as possible. But when you can make the meeting virtual, that is obviously preferable.
In the COVID era, we’ve discovered that the parent-teacher conference is one of those things you can do virtually. Rather than spend the whole evening trekking through weather and traffic just to spend a few precious minutes with their child’s teacher, families can have their 15-minute appointment in—15 minutes, in between doing dinner dishes and bath time.
I’ve always felt it is nice to host parents in the actual space where their children learn, to let them see student work posted on the classroom walls, and so on. There will always be a place for that. However, it is good to know that we can also have quick face-to-face meetings with parents, at their convenience, without scheduling an entire evening.
No More Snow Days?
Gone are the days when we would have to lose a whole day of instruction because of inclement weather. Life in the pandemic has taught us we can stay at home and keep on schooling. Instead of snow days, we may now have “remote days”; you get a text alert saying the building is closed, so you roll out of bed and log into Zoom.
Is this a good thing? Most students (and teachers) look forward to snow days—an unexpected holiday, a chance to put down the school books and toboggan down a nearby hill or pelt a brother or sister with snowballs.
Again, we can have that too. School districts typically schedule 4 or 5 more days in a school year than they absolutely need, so it isn’t a problem if you need to cancel once or twice. So yes, we can still have snow days if the community wants to have them. The point is that unforeseen events won’t force us to lose a day. If we can’t open the building due to a blackout, weather event, or other disruption, the remote option is there and we know how to do it.
Sick Kids Stay Home
In the past, we basically let parents judge whether their kids were well enough to come to school. If they were sniffling, coughing, sneezing, whatever—we would pretty much take your kids as long as they weren’t actually puking in class. Now, of course, schools take a harder line on kids that are showing any symptoms of illness. That’s a long overdue change, and one I think will continue going forward.
Not only do I hope we will more readily advise parents to keep their sick kids at home, I hope we’ll also be more conscious of outbreaks in the community—not just COVID outbreaks, but also flu and other viruses. Parents, teachers, and administrators can do their own informal contact tracing: if we notice that more than one kid got sick after going to the same party or riding the same school bus, we can be on the lookout for more cases, and advise parents accordingly.
Keep Washing Your Hands!
Hand hygiene was already a part of the Pre-K curriculum (remember those little preschool-size sinks with hand-washing instructions posted above them?) but now it’s part of everyone’s curriculum. Kids of all ages have been firmly reminded to wash their hands properly and thoroughly. That training can and should continue, even when there’s no imminent threat.
We’ve established new, cleaner routines around snack times (no sharing!), water bottles (no more putting your mouth directly on those germy water fountains), keeping your work area neat and clean. Students now carry around their own disinfectant wipes, and they sterilize their desktops at the beginning and end of each period. We should have been doing these things all along, but in the past it might have been dismissed as hysterical and germaphobic. Now we rightly regard it as a life skill for the children to acquire along with the academic skills they develop in class.
“Social Distance” Isn’t All Bad
Kids know a little more now about personal space, too. Even when it’s safe again for them to gather around a conference table or congregate in the cafeteria, they may be less prone to breathing in one another’s faces, hugging on each other (or on their teachers), or tackling each other on the schoolyard. We have always talked to our students about “bubbles” of personal space, but now that everyone is an amateur epidemiologist, kids may take this bubble-talk a little more seriously.
We teachers can think about giving kids a little more space from each other too. For the past decade or so, we’ve tended to put kids in groups. The current idea in education is that students learn through the process of cooperating and collaborating with other students, sharing ideas and asking each other questions—so we almost reflexively structure every activity as a group project.
But we should also remember that kids have different learning styles, and different styles of personal interaction. Not every kid learns best in a group. Some kids have actually thrived in Zoom school or in the socially distanced classroom. For them it has been a break from the constant push and pull of social interaction, a chance to be more independent. Let’s pay attention to those kids and make sure they are allowed to study in the ways that work best for them. Sure, every kid should have a chance to interact with other kids sometimes, but they should also have a chance to sit apart from the group, to have a quiet moment and think things out on their own.
COVID-19 has been an unmitigated disaster: lives lost, livelihoods destroyed, the trauma and confusion of a disrupted year. Yet, having survived the disaster, we can go forward stronger and smarter. When I can finally step into a classroom again and greet a dozen or two bright-eyed unmasked faces, both my students and I will be bringing a whole new set of experiences. In education, everything is part of the learning. Processing what we’ve been through, and making full use of the tools and practices we’ve developed, is part of the learning too.