What was gained and what was lost in education
A Minnesota elementary school teacher reflects on her experience in 2020 and 2021
Written by: Matthew Schuelka
Almost exactly one year ago, Jenny was a 4th grade classroom teacher in a suburban school district1 near Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota (i.e. the ‘Twin Cities’). We all know the story by now: in March of 2020, the world changed. With the Covid-19 pandemic roaring into being in the early months of 2020, schools in Minnesota abruptly shut-down and started back online to finish the school year. As Jenny says, “We felt very unprepared. We ended up with two weeks to transition [to online learning] … when it happened it kind of came out of nowhere.” In this issue of Education Popularis, Jenny will share her experiences in the past year, first as an elementary school teacher and then her transition to being a Distance Learning Coordinator, a newly created position in her school district in response to the reality of schooling during the pandemic.
Building the plane while flying it
With two weeks, it was a scramble to prepare for an entirely new way of education. Jenny was fortunate to be in a school district with a generous education technology budget that allowed enough iPads for every child even before online distance learning. However, the school district had never sent any electronic devices home with elementary-aged students before. Every iPad needed to have individual cords and chargers – difficult to locate when they were most often kept on school technology carts – and each iPad had to be individually set-up with the right apps, learning platforms, and be made safe and secure to be sent home.
One of the most challenging aspects of online learning was that the school district did not have a single learning platform that everyone used. “What we ended up doing was that we had a lot of teachers using Seesaw, some teachers using ClassDojo, and others using Schoology. We had all kinds of different learning management systems,” says Jenny. They took what families already knew from what the teachers were already using. “Specialists weren’t using anything, so we said that they would be using Seesaw. We didn’t have a paid account at the time. We had to literally take every single iPad and enter a code for every class they were in. We ran around and entered codes into hundreds and hundreds of iPads in that two-week window.” Jenny continues, “Just in elementary we had hundreds of IT ticket requests in the first week alone. In the beginning it was just trying to get the technology to work and trying to get the teachers to understand how the technology worked. It was all-encompassing and exhausting. Being at home with your own children at the same time was really challenging. My daughter would sit there and be doing her work and I would be sitting there trying to do my morning meeting at the same time.”
A lot of the teachers also had a steep learning curve when it came to using education technology and software. While a lot of the teachers had been using some form of an online virtual learning environment, most were only using it to supplement what was happening in the classroom or just to provide information to parents. As Jenny says, “They had never used some of the platforms. People kept teaching them how to do it, but they were kind of like ‘nah, I teach in my room with paper and books and that’s all I need.’ We had to quickly train them to get caught up.” Some teachers tried to do more of their teaching synchronously through live sessions, but this overwhelmed families trying to manage it all at home and so all of the teachers eventually settled into a model of a live morning meeting, giving asynchronous work during the day, and offering up a lot of office hours.
For Jenny, there was slightly less pressure in terms of the curriculum. “Because of state testing, we had already covered most of our required curriculum by the time we went into lockdown. We were like two weeks away from finishing our required curriculum because of testing. We were lucky in that we could focus hard on those last couple of standards and then we had hit what we needed to hit. Some grades still had a ton of stuff that they needed to cover.” This might have been an advantage in this particular instance, but it is still a very curious and problematic system. As Jenny argues, “It’s a crazy system that we test kids for everything that they know on our state tests in April, but we’re not done with the school year until June. So you’re kind of forced to make sure you cover the curriculum before April, and then you spend the rest of the year doing some of those bigger projects that you haven’t been able to do.”
Everyone managed to get through the spring and end the school year in June. Summer came as a big relief to education professionals and students alike, although there was a lot of uncertainty and anxiety in what the autumn and the next school year would bring.
An educational balancing act
Even with only a few weeks before the 2020-2021 school year started, the plan to return to school remained unclear and unresolved. Jenny says, “I was really anxious about going back into the classroom in the Fall. As a family, we even considered whether or not I even go back at all. We decided to do distance learning with our own kids to reduce our chance of exposure by sending three kids to three different buildings.” Jenny’s school district decided to allow early childhood and elementary school-aged students back full-time, while the upper grades would be hybrid. Every family was given the option of in-person learning or learning completely online.
Jenny’s district is suburban, but on the edge of the Twin Cities metro area. It is an extreme at both ends, in that there are very wealthy families but also a significant portion of families that are struggling economically. There have been an equal number of students from both extremes in both in-person and at-home learning. Jenny’s district has become a much more diverse community – racially and ethnically – in the last five to ten years. This has also been equally proportionate between in-person and at-home learning.
Jenny received a phone call two weeks before school started letting her know that the school district was hiring a Distance Learning Coordinator and they asked if she would be interested. At first, the school district thought Jenny would be a teacher for three grades across two schools for those children that were completely learning from home. “Then it became evident that once children started registering that a lot of parents were choosing the distance learning option – about a fifth of our school wanted to be distance learning. There was no way one teacher could take on that many people.” Jenny would oversee that teaching, rather than be the primary teacher.
Very few teachers had ever taught synchronously to both in-person and online students. This was a brand-new idea for most elementary school teachers. As Jenny reports, “It worked well, but it’s really stressful on the teachers. The teachers are trying to help online kids, and they’re trying to help kids in person, and they’re dealing with just the stress of the virus. And then you have kids that are leaving and coming because of exposure or symptoms. Just because you have 5 distance-learners one week, you might have 7 the next.”
In terms of her new role as Distance Learning Coordinator, Jenny does a lot of technology support and providing expertise in terms of helping teachers think about how to engage the at-home students while at the same time teaching students in-person. They found that it worked out well to have the at-home learners engage with their peers one-on-one or in small groups, and to participate in social activities such as lunch and indoor recess. This allowed the at-home students to maintain some semblance of a social connection to their peers.
Inevitably, some students really struggled to keep connected and to keep up with their schoolwork if they were not physically in the classroom. Jenny elaborates, “As part of my role, I offer office hours and I meet with a couple of kids every day to try to keep them moving. The problem is that they don’t have the support at home. Maybe parents are still going to work and older kids may be watching, but they have their own school to do.” Jenny spends a lot of her time working with parents – providing tech support and connecting them to the right resources. Going into her new role, she had no job description and has just had to find the places where she felt she was most needed. “If you end up having to quarantine an entire class – which we’ve had to do numerous times – my whole day is taken up with notifying those families, making sure things go home to those families, getting them set-up … all of those pieces. Who needs a hotspot? You know, those kinds of things.” Jenny also coordinates with the school nurse, the special education team, and other specialists.
The school district has a system called Response to Intervention (RtI), which is a more systemic and inclusive approach to special education that works to support all students in the classroom, not just ones that legally qualify for special education. In a normal in-person learning environment, this works well in that various specialists, supporting teachers, and other learning professionals can pull any group of students into a specialized lesson when it is needed. Students can engage in small groups more dynamically, and their learning can be better monitored and assessed in real-time. An appropriate use of an assistant teacher (or teacher aide, support teacher, or paraprofessional) would be to utilize them as an extra person in the classroom to check in with those kids that are struggling. When the students are learning at home, and they do not have a special educator that is specifically assigned to their case – like in Dana’s story in the March 1st edition of Education Popularis – this can be challenging. As Jenny states, “The kids that didn’t qualify for that extra support [in special education] have struggled. We have found ways to try to fill those holes by utilizing people like me [as distance learning coordinator] and others in the building to connect with those kids online.”
Learning from this experience and moving forward
And then it happened again. With covid cases spiking, Jenny’s school district went right back into full, online, distance learning from November to January. Now they are back, again, to full in-person learning with a distance-learning option.
With a lot of enthusiasm for a return to normalcy in 2021, Jenny does foresee her role going away or being restructured after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror. However, she had this to say, “I think we’ve opened up how education can be done. I have a feeling that we’re going to have families that are going to want this. For some kids, this has been the best thing that has ever happened to them. They may struggle with social things. For some kids, this has been the worst thing that has ever happened to them … We’ve learned that there might be a need to offer distance learning in the future. It might be a small group of kids, but what does that mean going forward? How does a district address that? We haven’t come to a conclusion as to what that looks like yet.” She does have the option to go back to 4th grade teaching, “I desperately miss being in the classroom and working with kids.”
Jenny’s district is fairly small. Her own children attend a large and well-resourced school district that was able to offer an entire online academy with dedicated online teachers for each grade. She is not sure that her district would be able to support an entire online academy. Her district had smartly built an emergency fund for years, so they were well-resourced in preparation for such as emergency as Covid-19 proved to be for education. The district bought technology, classroom dividers, personal protective equipment, and faceshields with teachers’ names on them. Every child had a faceshield. Every child had masks provided. However, the emergency fund has been mostly depleted and the school district is facing cuts to keep the budget solvent. As Jenny plainly states, “The district made safety a priority.” With the CARES act that provided some financial support for school districts across the United States, Jenny’s district was able to offer every teacher $200 to buy their own PPE equipment for their classroom such as air purifiers, for example. The American Rescue Plan will provide much needed financial support for school districts like Jenny’s that did okay during the worst of the pandemic, but have come out the other side in pretty bad shape.
Jenny reports that her school and district leadership have done a good job, although were challenged by shifting policies from the state level, and those challenges were then also placed on the shoulders of the teachers. “There were a lot of very frustrated educators,” says Jenny, “In the governor’s defense, I think that he was waiting on data to make a lot of decisions. However, there wasn’t enough time for us to do anything well. I don’t think that was our district’s fault, it was just how it was communicated from the state.” Later, the governor decreed that all teachers in Minnesota be given more prep time in order to deal with everything, and so now students go to school a half-day on Friday (in elementary) and teachers take the afternoon to prep for distance learning. The Teacher’s Union was involved, and had a say in the district policies. However, the state has eliminated some of the central planning and decision-making back to the district level and so Jenny’s district is now trying to make its own rules and policies.
In terms of lessons learned from the experience, Jenny reported that synchronous learning worked better than asynchronous learning when the teachers were working with both in-person and at-home students. Teachers were very resistant to having those synchronous teaching sessions recorded to be watched later. However, as Jenny notes, “not a single family had asked for the recording. When there’s no need, why create more work.” Some teachers do pre-record certain lessons to show both in-person and at-home students, which allows the students to then work together in digital break-out rooms based on the same materials.
The big take-away for education in general, says Jenny, is this important sentiment:
“We’re more flexible than we thought we were. We’re more adaptable than we thought we were. I think in education it feels that things move very slow sometimes; change happens very slow. This forced us to have change and it’s been challenging, but some great benefits have come out. Now all of the staff are at the same level with technology use and understanding … That is something that won’t go away. The idea that we can zoom in different people to our classroom… Now I can have any expert in the world come into the classroom and meet with my kids. Some of that understanding that our world doesn’t just have to stay within our classroom … that’s a huge piece that we can take-away from [the pandemic].”
This experience has allowed teachers to really see inside students’ homes and to understand where they are coming from. “We have a much better idea. I think that builds deeper relationships, and helps us have more understanding about their contexts and the inequities that are already there in society.” Exacerbated societal inequality has been an unfortunate effect of our pandemic education year, but schools can be a crucial part of the solution in the post-pandemic future. As Jenny and I finished our conversation, she had this poignant observation:
“I hope that as a society we realize that we need to fund our schools. I think it’s become more apparent that schools are not just for teaching your kids the ABCs and 123s. We’re the ones providing mental health services, providing families resources, we’re feeding people. Schools do so much and when we were in those full-scale lockdowns people realized how much they actually do for our society.”
There is a lot of conversation these days about learning loss and trying to ‘catch children up’ after the pandemic. Governments are discussing summer schools and increasing instructional time. However, does research and evidence support this as an effective strategy? We’ll explore this in the next issue of EdPop.
This article was written using American educational terminology and phrasing. Here’s some helpful rough equivalencies for our global readers:
school district : local education authority (LEA) : education area : school net
elementary school : primary school : junior school : grade school : école primaire
grade : class : level : standard