Heading into the second half of the 2021-2022 school year, teachers around the country are collectively in agreement:
Distance learning may be in the past, teachers and students are back in the buildings full time, but this is not school as we once knew it.
When we began the school year, hopes were high that with vaccines for adults and teenagers available and vaccines for children 12 and under on the imminent horizon, school could once again resume a pace and cadence of normalcy and familiarity.
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In some ways, I reflect on this with a wistful appreciation for how hopeful we were, how promising the school year ahead felt. And in other ways I can only shake my head: how could we have been so naive?
In the same way, we had no idea in March 2020 we were walking out of our classrooms as we knew them for the last time, we had no idea in August 2021 what we were walking back into. Maybe we should have. But maybe we couldn’t have.
Education in its current iteration is a liminal space, an in-between. With safety measures and mitigation efforts in place and the constant disruption of newly-arising variants, we are not yet in the post Covid “after,” but nothing about school or society or life looks the way it did in the “before.” This strange and undefined middle ground we currently occupy is unknown and frustratingly unknowable — to administrators, to teachers, and to kids.
At the beginning of the 2021 school year, many of us were hopeful we were making a return to the known, only to find the return has been anything but. We returned, instead, to an unknown that continues to shape-shift, asking all stakeholders in education to be endlessly nimble, resourceful, adaptive, and resilient.
There’s a line in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones where the narrator — a young, dead teenage girl — watches her younger, still-living sister from heaven and realizes her sister is growing up and having experiences she herself never will.
“At 14, my sister sailed away from me to a place I’d never been,” she says in a moment of understanding the split their two paths took.
I think of this line often. It’s not that the kids we are teaching are “two years behind.” It’s not that we can simply subtract two grade levels from their current age and place their emotional and academic age there. They’re not behind. They are having experiences we, the adults, never had as children and cannot fully identify with or comprehend.
They’ve sailed away. They’re beyond.
But what happens when a system that is upheld by and exists to serve kids hasn’t changed with the rapidity with which the kids themselves have changed?
What happens when a system remains locked in the past even as the people it serves have sailed beyond?
The education system has been unable or unwilling to adapt at a rate and pace that keeps up with the ways the students themselves are now changed and different.
In many ways, today’s students are canaries in the Covid mine: a visible and undeniable representation of the costs and long-term effects living through this time has had on human behaviors, psyches, and development, and the ways that society must adapt to meet those new needs or risk leaving behind our most vulnerable members.
Though teachers (and some parents) tend to say, “this year is even harder than last year,” it can be hard to pinpoint just what we mean by that. What is making this school year so hard?
To shed some insight on what school in 2022 looks like and what the people who exist in schools are experiencing, I want to share some of the observations and understandings I’ve gathered in the months since full-time in-person school has resumed.
I’ve paid close attention to the interactions, conversations and viewpoints, choices, and behaviors that I have witnessed in students.
Sharing space with today’s kids has been illuminating, informative, and at times heartbreaking.
Each student brings their own unique struggles, needs, strengths, and difficulties into the classroom; none of what I have observed applies to all students, but because they all share space with one another and exist in environments with one another, all students are impacted nevertheless.
I see disconnection in students: from each other, from teachers, and from school.
At a broad level, much of what we’ve seen in students this year is an unsettling level of disconnect: from one another, from their teachers, and from the institution of school itself.
This shows up in a million different ways, both large and small.
It can look like teachers who pride themselves on easily forging deep, meaningful relationships with their students scrabbling for a foothold to make a way in.
It can look like students being more focused than ever on their phones — in the past a mere distractor, but now, after 18 months of disrupted schooling and disconnection from their peers and social networks, a vital form of connection and communication to today’s students.
Many students have faced separation from family members who they haven’t seen in nearly two years. For them, their phone represents connection with their loved ones: a touchstone and a reminder that when one reaches out, the other is still there.
With their worlds shrunk to hours of Zoom classes on a Chromebook screen in their bedroom for much of the 2021 school year, students retreated to video games, apps, social networks, and group chats to maintain connection with their friends and classmates.
That tendency holds even now when they are physically in spaces with one another but still tend to rely on virtual forms of communication to engage with each other. The connections typically formed between classmates and peers have taken longer to establish this school year than in years past, and remain, on some days, even now, gossamer-thin and tenuous.
One of the most difficult realizations of this year has been noticing the arms-length many students are keeping from forming an emotional connection to school itself — an unwillingness to build attachments and relationships and participate in or create the traditions that imbue school culture.
What feeds that disengagement is what eats at me: the sense they have that school went away once and it can go away again.
Jean Piaget identified that humans develop object permanence in their infancy — the understanding that a person or object who leaves their sight still exists and will return.
In many ways, school, as an institution, a place, an idea, has long held a position of object permanence for American schoolchildren. School was a certainty; a pillar of childhood, inevitable and permanent.
With the sudden shutdown of schools in March 2020, many students remaining virtual through 2021, and an ever-imminent possibility of a return to virtual due to rising community spread or staff absences due to illness, the illusion has shattered. Lacking this vital object permanence in the minds of students, school no longer feels as steady, reliable, and immutable as it once did.
This naturally creates a hesitancy in some students to form attachments or hold expectations or make plans — the fragility of school and its guaranteed place in their lives is still too fresh in their minds. It may take years to fully rebuild.
I see difficult readjustments to in-person learning and “normal” school routines.
In a multitude of ways, students are experiencing difficulty readjusting to the “normal” routine of school.
For some students, the opportunity to learn at home and participate in their education from the comfort of a safe and familiar environment was a welcome respite from the noise and chaos of a busy school building.
Given that minoritized students and students with disabilities are disciplined at rates higher than those of their white and non-disabled peers, a number of these students thrived during virtual learning, participating in school from a space that felt safe and affirming while allowing them to disengage from harmful situations or persons.
Almost universally, students agree that the freedom and comfort of home is something they miss about virtual learning, and who can really blame them?
Having the ability to roam their space freely, account for their own time, make a meal while listening to their teacher give a lesson, and not feel pressured to look a certain way to show up for others are many of the perks that adults whose jobs pivoted to work-from-home also enjoy. Returning to a school environment devoid of that autonomy isn’t an easy ask.
Conversely, many students struggled to maintain academic progress in the virtual learning environment.
Students who experienced difficulty in their months of virtual learning commonly report that they had difficulty focusing on school while at home, had a hard time keeping track of online assignments, struggled to learn without face-to-face interactions, and missed the social and extracurricular aspects of school.
In the face of what felt like overwhelming barriers to learning, and an awareness that the help we tried to provide still wasn’t enough, kids who match this profile tended to “check out” of online learning. For these students, coming back to school, regaining momentum, and re-engaging with academics has proven to be a process that has taken time.
The pace and expectations of a return to full in-person learning have been overwhelming for some kids who faced the most challenges engaging with virtual learning.
The struggle to readjust to school looks different for different kids. It can have the appearance of disinterest or unwillingness on the student’s part to fully engage in the learning experience or complete assignments.
It can show up in avoidant behaviors, such as skipping classes or missing days of school.
It can show up in verbal or physical displays of frustration, or a reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms, which result in disciplinary action.
All of these behaviors, at their core, reflect that the readjustment period for a number of American students has not been easy, and the effects of this ripple out and affect classmates, teachers, and the school community.
For example, in fall 2021, Reynolds Middle School in Oregon temporarily closed for 3 weeks, citing the need to “’develop safety protocols’ and ‘social-emotional supports’ to address student fights and inappropriate behavior,” They were one of many schools forced to quickly react to the emergent needs of a student body in distress.
I see conflicting interests and needs, especially between what students and teachers need and what they’re expected to do.
Compounding the pressure students face to return to the rigorous pace of school and learning is the competing pressure teachers and administrators feel to “make up for lost time,” or counteract the perception of “learning loss.”
Grade-level content standards that were written in pre-Covid school years for students who never faced 1.5 school years of disrupted learning are still the norm.
High-stakes end-of-course testing that took place in spring of 2021 will also be taking place in spring of 2022, despite ongoing staff and student absences caused by quarantines and illness and the need for periodic pauses of in-person learning as communities attempt to manage spread.
The ongoing disruptions and unpredictability can make consistent upward progress toward pre-determined goals and standards for all classes and students feel impossible.
What many teachers yearned for as we embarked upon a new school year was the space and time to focus on the mental and social-emotional well-being of the students before rushing full-speed into content. Nevertheless, grading policies and requirements and the looming pressure of high-stakes testing for which we knew our students would be assessed largely remained in place as before.
The dueling and competing needs of the people in schools (students, teachers, administrators) are often misaligned with the more rigid demands and requirements placed upon them by state and federal departments of education. This year, the incongruity feels especially noticeable.
In this vein, the precipitous rise in Covid cases due to the Omicron variant surging throughout the country has reignited the “open vs closed schools” debates that dominated 2020-2021, with the lines on each side firmly entrenched.
In January 2022, Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot remained deadlocked in negotiations for a safe return to in-person school or the provision of a remote option for families who needed it.
In other districts around the country, demands for schools to remain open in the face of rising community transmission competed with demands for a return to remote learning or the provision of virtual learning options. Students in New York City and Chicago staged walkouts protesting unsafe in-person learning conditions and expressing their desire for a remote learning option.
The cross-purposes of safety and well-being and education have never felt so impossible for schools to navigate.
I see the impacts of ongoing trauma and instability.
One glaring facet of teaching in the not-yet-past Covid era is that students are coming to school while undergoing the effects of ongoing trauma.
Consider that according to the National Institute of Health, approximately 1 out of 500 children in the US has experienced the loss of a caregiver due to Covid. As of June 2021, more than 140,000 children had lost a “parent, custodial grandparent, or grandparent caregiver who provided the child’s home and basic needs.”
With the arrival of the Delta and Omicron variants in the time since that report, and deaths in the United States topping 800,000 by the end of 2021, this number has only risen.
This statistic only accounts for the death of loved ones to Covid, but not the other traumas children have endured as a result of the pandemic, such as fear for their health or the health of loved ones, concern for immunocompromised family members, illness, unemployment or underemployment their caregiver may have faced, and food and housing insecurity.
The pandemic has wrought a world of instability, and children cannot thrive without consistency and stability. When children arrive at school carrying worry and concern for those they love, they cannot be expected to be their whole selves or to academically thrive and succeed.
To the extent that the whole child can ever be cared for by the public school system, the complex needs of children living life in the time of a pandemic are simply unable to be adequately met by already overwhelmed, understaffed schools and the very real human beings who staff them: people who are, in their own ways, coping with loss and uncertainty and fear in this time.
Schools and school districts have attempted in their own ways to close these gaps: by providing free meals for all students, implementing SEL into the curriculum, and working to provide support to families and students who are in crisis.
But the fact remains: far too many American families are in crisis, and children whose families are not well and thriving cannot be expected to show up at school whole, well, and thriving.
This is not the fault of the families, nor the children, nor the schools, but the lack of societal safety nets and ongoing, substantive aid provided by the federal and state governments in a time they were desperately needed.
Schools have been tasked for decades with meeting more and more of the basic needs for students and families that our government fails to provide. With the arrival of Covid, it feels as if education has reached a tipping point.
I see a lack of capacity in all of us, a limit to the resilience we’re constantly forced to display.
At the bottom of these myriad factors complicating the school year is the bare truth that many of us (parents, teachers, students, administrators, school board members) are experiencing a lack of capacity.
We’ve now been immersed in pandemic life for two full years.
Two years of heightened fear and anxiety.
Two years of unknowns and disruptions and pivoting and adapting.
Two years of life that looks nothing like life as we knew it and feels impossibly interminable, with no end in sight onto which we can pin our hopes.
Families have been burdened with juggling emergency childcare needs with the requirements of their jobs, navigating quarantines and exposure with family members too young to be fully vaccinated, and helping their children through an emotionally and mentally strenuous two years.
Administrators have been tasked with leadership decisions and calculations that extend beyond the scope of their usual practice. They’re managing student, staff, and family needs and concerns while also, in many cases, taking on the additional burden of contact tracing and adhering to constantly-shifting public health standards.
Teachers are working to meet students where they are, trying to target each child across a vast span of needs. They worry for the health and safety of themselves and their families, their colleagues, and their students.
Teachers are tasked with moving through the curriculum even as a rotating carousel of students are out for staggered days and differing amounts of time due to illness or exposure; they then face the challenge of getting each of those students caught up on instruction they missed while out.
Students are navigating all of these very real issues as children, making their way through the most formative years of their development amidst chaos.
Every one of these stakeholders is trying their hardest, and each of these groups desperately cares and wants to do their best. And yet … capacity. It is hard to keep pulling from your resilience when you’ve used it all up. From where do we get still-needed resilience when the resilience well runs dry?
I see this sometimes in the kids and it is the part that is hardest to bear.
For most of the day, all I see of their faces above the masks are their eyes. I look at a lot of eyes and in the last two years of looking only at teenagers’ eyes, I can tell you: tiredness and weariness can look the same at first glance but they are two very different things.
And more and more I see the weariness in the eyes of my students. Weariness at what they’ve lost; weariness at what they’re going through; weariness at what lies ahead which, to them, doesn’t feel very hopeful or optimistic.
That is the hardest part as their teacher: to see their youth, their whole precious futures ahead of them, to know they don’t deserve to carry any of this, but that they have and they are and they will. It isn’t even about what they’d give to have a normal life back, to get to be carefree kids again. What haven’t they already given? What aren’t they still giving?
I see glimpses of hope and optimism, and windows into what our kids and schools can be like when it’s finally time to rebuild.
I’ve devoted a lot of words to my attempt at untangling the knot and defining with clarity and precision the myriad issues impacting education and those invested in it; I’m still not satisfied I’ve done the topic justice.
It is hard to be realistic about what schools look and feel like without slipping into despondency or toxic positivity; to be honest about the challenges without conveying hopelessness or retreating to comforting platitudes.
For every difficulty we face this year, there are also those bright moments that shine through: when, despite the absences we notice but have to teach past, despite the frequent reminders to pull up a mask, despite the tough terrain we’ve traveled to get here, school does feel … normal.
Or at least whatever the current definition of normal is.
For every time I can recall placing my head in my hands and wondering if I’d ever feel like an effective, good teacher again, I can remember another when I joked with a student and for the first time saw the crinkle of a smile peek up above their mask.
The bright moment appears when a lesson I tried in online learning that failed soars in my in-person classroom, and the spark of recognition and new knowledge once again appears. I know this isn’t forever.
I know one day we will reach the “after,” and begin the process of rebuilding in place of merely persisting.
In the meantime, we will do what we must to try to catch up to the children we teach who’ve moved beyond, hoping that in the process they help move schools and education into a better and brighter tomorrow.
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