What were you doing when the world started to fall apart?
When coronavirus shut down American sports leagues, then the entire nation? When our lives devolved into endless PSAs promoting social distancing, flattening the curve, and sheltering-in-place? Where were you when the tsunami made landfall on the beach?
I was in the middle of driving across the country, as I wrote about at Standing Room Only. But many Americans were at work, wondering how their jobs would be affected by the coming pandemic. Some wondered if they would even have jobs to come back to once this was all over.
America’s teachers were doing what they do best; providing the best education they can for each and every one of their students. A monumental and crucial service, to be sure, but one that is too often underpaid, underappreciated, and under-supported.
The challenges posed to the fragile education system by the coronavirus pandemic have been monumental. Teachers have had to transition to educating students through online worksheets and Zoom lectures rather than in-person instruction. Grading scales, class structures, and standardized tests were jettisoned as attempts to shift over to distance learning were sewn together like Frankenstein’s monster. Above it all hangs the threat of funding cuts, the blade of the guillotine poised to clatter down with shuddering finality.
I spoke with four teachers across the Midwest about their experiences transitioning to distance learning; the challenges they and their students have faced; and the extent to which they’ve felt supported by their administrators and their district officials. I granted them anonymity so that they would feel comfortable speaking freely and, if need be, negatively, about their districts. Some aspects of the transition have been handled admirably, and many of the problems have been the result of the unprecedented situation more than administrative error. But across the board, as is so often the case in our education system, more can be done to support the teachers that give so much of themselves to support their students.
“That moment was the freakiest thing I’ve had to do…”
One of the most frightening aspects of the coronavirus pandemic was how fast the United States went from apathy to code-red. At the start of the work week on Monday, March 9th, there were severe outbreaks of coronavirus in Seattle, New York City, and a few cities in California, but for most Americans it was just a news story. That was happening over there, not here in our small towns.
By Friday, March 13th, President Donald Trump had declared a nationwide state of emergency; public gatherings had been cancelled with unprecedented alacrity; and schools around the country were hastening to develop a plan of action.
“For the staff, for the students, for the administration, it was all within less than twelve hours of, wow, this is getting serious, what’s going to happen, to: start preparing, we’re shutting down for a month,” said Rachel (not her real name), a special educator in an urban district in Wisconsin.
Steven (not his real name), a band director in a rural district in Michigan, also serves as the advisor for his school’s Drama Club. He and his students were preparing for an upcoming production of Willy Wonka as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. “I knew we were going to go have to cancel. I came up with a reschedule date, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen.
“Having to have that last rehearsal with [my students] on March 12th was just heartbreaking. Especially the seniors, who were not going to perform on that stage again…But, having talked to them on March 12th and in my heart knowing that that was it, it just broke me.”
By Friday, March 13th, most state governors had announced a temporary shutdown of schools to begin the forthcoming Monday. But while everyone knew they wouldn’t be going to school after the weekend, no one knew exactly what they would be doing.
“I was approaching classes of students who were asking me, ‘what’s going on? When are we coming back? What are we doing while we’re off?'” says Laura (not her real name), a math teacher at a suburban district in Michigan. “And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I’m a younger teacher anyway, but nobody knew. This is unprecedented.”
Questions abounded, and answers were scant. Would classes be taught online? How would distance learning affect students’ grades? What about classes like music, art, or gym that don’t lend themselves to online instruction? Will students still advance in grade level next year? What about all the fun, frivolous things that make high school tolerable–the proms, the sporting events, the fundraisers, even commencement ceremonies? What was school going to look like?
As Laura told me, “It was just all these huge, big things that nobody knew the answer to.”
“…Everybody’s doing it different.”
When state governors made the decision to close schools for the remainder of the year, districts were forced to reinvent the wheel. How were they going to take a system, imperfectly crafted over years of in-person instruction and assessment, and recreate it in a virtual environment? What emerged was an ad hoc system that often left teachers with more questions than answers.
The first major hurdle was access; classes were going to be available online, so to ensure an equitable education system every student had to have access to the internet. Darren (not his real name), a high school history teacher in a rural district in Ohio, says his district looked at technological access immediately. “When we went on this break, one of the things we were required to do as teachers was call our first period classes, and we had to do a wellness check and analysis.”
The analysis consisted of a survey of four questions for the parents. The first two questions: “Do you have access to technology at home? Do you have access to internet at home?”
While access to the internet has proliferated enormously over the past twenty years, accessibility is not universal. In 2019, Pew Research Center found that roughly seventy-five percent of Americans had access to broadband internet at home. That number drops, however, in urban and, more significantly, in rural areas. Three of the four teachers I spoke with said that internet accessibility was a problem in their district; only the teacher at the suburban district encountered no challenges.
Bandwidth also posed a problem, particularly in Steven’s district. “There are some families that really can’t even get on the internet because their mom or dad works, and they’re working from home. Or they have brothers and sisters who are in high school — you can’t have everybody on these devices all at the same time.”
Internet access is one thing; having a device with which to access it is another. Many of the teachers I spoke to have access to Google Chromebooks in their classrooms, allowing them to integrate online learning into their standard curricula. When schools transitioned to online learning, most districts distributed their Chromebooks to students who lacked devices of their own at home, meaning (in theory) that every student should have access to the internet and a device with which to access it.
Another major concern for district officials was ensuring continued access to free and reduced lunch for students in need. According to the School Nutrition Organization, schools across the United States provided some 20 million free lunches to students every day. Each teacher I spoke with said that their district continued to provide free and reduced lunches to students throughout the pandemic, for which districts and their support staff should be commended.
While district officials focused on providing internet access and nourishment to students during the closure, teachers were responsible for designing the structure of their online classes. That distribution of responsibility was intentional; one of the best parts of being a teacher, Laura tells me, is the independence that the job offers.
“A big perk of the job is the amount of freedom teachers have to set up their classroom the way they want, and as long as the students are learning the curriculum assigned, you have the freedom to do that however you choose.”
That independence comes with a potential downside; there can be a wide variance of educational methods across classes. During normal in-person instruction, that variety is refreshing; when applied to online learning, it can be confusing. Some teachers are relying on Zoom lectures; others are posting worksheets for students to complete. Students adjusting to new methods of learning have to come to grips with multiple models at one time. “It’s very sporadic,” Laura says.
The bigger problem is not a lack of consistency, but a lack of unity in educational purpose. What are students expected to learn in each of their classes? Normally those objectives are clearly defined by district and state curriculum guidelines. But to what extent have those guidelines been discarded during the pandemic? Are students still supposed to be learning new material? Or are these online assignments just enrichment activities meant to keep students engaged?
“My whole career is project-based learning. Every concert is a project,” Steven tells me. “So it’s ironic to me that now we have all these ‘enrichment projects’ which to me really aren’t projects at all, they’re just something to say alright, we tried to present some curriculum for you.”
Clarity was even harder to come by for special educators. “I wasn’t really given any instruction,” Rachel says. “We were just trying to get them to pass their classes and not overwhelm them with more work.” Her and her colleagues focused on holding meetings with their students mandated by the students’ IEPs (individual education plans), but the material covered wasn’t in service of specific educational goals. “It was just supposed to be enrichment work,” Rachel says.
When district officials did step in to make decisions, they sometimes flew in the face of ad hoc measures adopted by teachers at the point of crisis. When Darren’s school shifted to online learning, the history teachers at his school agreed to create a Google classroom for all the history students. “The theory was that all of us can monitor it to answer kids’ questions, so the kid could get rapid feedback,” he says
A few weeks later, the district decided to use a different educational platform–Schoology–as the primary platform throughout the district. The entire history department would have to shift over and retrain themselves on Schoology.
“We didn’t have any direction,” Darren told me. “There was nobody telling us this is the platform you need to use [at the beginning].”
District officials focused all their efforts on making sure that students had equitable access to education. These are important concerns, to be sure. But too little guidance was provided to teachers on what type of education the students were going to have access to. Left with no answers, teachers developed their own solutions, leading to divergent methods of online instruction and–more problematically–different learning goals.
“They just dropped off the face of the Earth. I don’t know what’s going on.”
When schools shifted to distance learning, local districts and state governments alike wanted to ensure that students would not be unfairly penalized during the transition. Online learning is challenging; students would be in an environment often unconducive to learning, and technical difficulties were going to be unavoidable. It would not be fair for a student’s grade to suffer due to the educational and personal challenges presented by the pandemic.
The solution? Do away with grades.
Every teacher I spoke to adopted a version of a pass/fail grading system. GPAs would be locked; whatever grade the student was receiving at the time of the shutdown would be the grade they received for the remainder of the year. Students who were failing classes at the time of the shutdown needed to complete the online work to raise their grade to a pass.
Students who were already passing, though? They were guaranteed to pass. And with GPAs locked (at least at the high school level), they had no incentive to complete any of the work.
“There’s not really a carrot that we can offer them,” Laura told me. “Some of [my students] have just said, ‘I’m not planning on doing the work,’ and I’ve said, ‘Okay. I can’t make you.'”
Laura is lucky. In her math courses, she’s seen around 90 percent of her students participate. She’s also managed to make contact with all but one of her students.
Other teachers haven’t been as fortunate. Rachel was able to work with just half of her students. “The kids who are passing just reached out and said ‘I’m good, thank you, I’m doing okay,'” she said. “But the kids who were failing were extremely, extremely difficult to get a hold of.” I could hear the frustration in her voice as she told me that. Teachers devote so much of their time to students, trying to inspire them, educate them, and help them succeed; it’s demoralizing when the students who need the most help aren’t even in the classroom.
“We can’t force them to do the work,” Steven says. As a music teacher, so much of his instruction is based on in-class participation. He set up a Google Classroom for his ensembles–choir, concert band, and jazz band. “I got probably sixty percent that actually accepted the invitation, but then once I got that I’ve been getting about twenty-five percent of the work. You’re talking about maybe fifteen kids in concert band, out of sixty.
Deadlines can be a powerful motivator, as Darren found out. Ohio adopted a slightly different structure; they still opted for a pass/fail system, but students who did not complete enough online assignments would receive a grade of “incomplete;” if the work remains unsubmitted by September 30, the grade will change to a fail.
“I wasn’t getting any of the assignments until the deadline. They were just procrastinating,” Darren told me. “I had eighteen or nineteen percent completion two days before the quarter ended and it jumped about twenty percent because all of a sudden kids just started logging in.”
“The last two days of school I had one hundred and fifty-eight assignments turned in.”
The adoption of the pass/fail grading system was a smart accommodation in the midst of an unprecedented crisis in education. Most states eliminated standardized testing for the upcoming year, and public universities including California State announced that standardized test score requirements would be suspended for forthcoming application cycles. Such changes may signal a much-needed shift in emphasis away from grades and test scores as primary evaluators of student potential and mark the start of a more equitable and holistic means of assessing a student’s learning ability.
However, teachers and students alike need some sort of incentive structure. “They’re having a really hard time being motivated,” Steven says. Encouraging students to learn can feel like a fruitless, thankless task. The adoption of a pass/fail grading system removes both the carrot and the stick that teachers can use as a motivator for students, making their jobs even more challenging.
“I feel like I’m working more than I ever have when I was standing on the podium…”
The coronavirus pandemic has forced all of our houses to become more than homes. They have become our offices, our conferences rooms, our gyms. For teachers and students alike, their houses have become classrooms. It is a role they were never meant to play.
Online learning is hard in the best of circumstances. The lack of structure and guidance requires students to become self-disciplinary, and if any questions arise teachers are not readily available to provide assistance. Online learning while at home multiplies the difficulty. Daily structure disintegrates like moist cotton candy, and distractions cry their siren songs to students disinterested in another droll worksheet. The absence of the little social interactions that provide a break from the monotony make those distractions all the more alluring.
“The high schoolers can adjust a little more, because they’re already on social media, they’ve got devices,” Steven told me. “But the younger kids who don’t have phones and don’t have all that access, it’s got to be tough for them. You’re stunting their social growth right now by not being able to interact with anybody.”
Laura has similar concerns. “They don’t know what to do, they’re feeling lost, their parents are asking them to do things, they don’t have any energy. And it’s not them. It’s a very social age.”
“I don’t think they connect the dots to it, but I think at least in some of them that’s kind of a sign of depression.”
The teachers I’ve spoken with have been doing their best to reach out to students, conduct wellness checks, and ensure that their students are at least staying healthy, if not happy. “Obviously in person you can be a little more goofy or a little bit more sarcastic,” Rachel told me, “whereas over the phone or in email especially, you don’t want to cross that boundary. It’s just like any other relationship or friendship: in person is always better.”
It is wonderful that teachers are checking up on the students; but who is checking up on the teachers? According to Darren, no one.
“I never got asked once by an administrator, ‘Oh, how are you doing during this time? How’s your family? How are you coping? Are you getting to the store okay?’ Not once.”
With the shift to online learning, teachers had to completely reimagine how to perform their jobs. Younger teachers grew up with access to technology and exposure to early initiatives towards online learning, making the transition a bit easier, though certainly not seamless. Older teachers, however, have been teaching with pen and paper for years. What professional development these teachers have done was meant to use technology as an augmentation to their standard curricula, not as a replacement.
Overnight, teachers were expected to become proficient in online learning platforms. Such a steep learning curve is a tall ask even for the best of teachers. “The teacher is supposed to be the expert,” Laura told me, “and their kids would be coming to them with all these questions and they wouldn’t know the answers.”
The switch to online instruction has foisted added stress onto special educators. They are, by law, required to meet the proscripts of each of their students’ IEPs. In a standard school day those requirements are manageable; trying to track down multiple students during a pandemic to fulfill their IEPs, however, requires added diligence. “They actually added more paperwork for us to do, of course,” Rachel told me. If students don’t meet the educational requirements enumerated in their IEPs, their families can sue for compensatory services. Nothing like a lawsuit to add panic to a stressful situation.
Other teachers have struggled to adapt to the structure of online instruction. Teachers are used to working in the classroom from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. In the evenings, they often have to grade assignments. Some also advise extracurricular activities like athletic teams and arts groups. The line between work and personal life was always a bit blurry; now, it’s evaporated entirely.
“The hardest thing has been the kids aren’t working during the school day,” Darren told me. “I would log off for the day at 3, and then right around dinner time I would be getting messages and emails from kids and parents wanting help from me on their work.
“It was an ethical dilemma: I need to help them, but I also need to be done for the day so I can get my mind off work.”
Laura had a similar experience. “It’s not our normal routine,” she told me. “When are we supposed to be working? When are we supposed to be responding to emails?”
Pressure mounted when emails from parents went unanswered. As Darren explained, “A parent or a kid would email me around 9pm, and I wasn’t checking my email; I was asleep. And I would wake up the next morning to an email from the guidance department saying that this parent says you didn’t contact them back.
“There’s this expectation, this idea that we’re going to be helping them at all hours of the day, all hours of the night.”
Amidst all the pressures and the added stress, the feeling that came through across all my interviews was how much the teachers miss their students. “There’s no live interaction with these kids,” Steven said. “And when you’re in a medium that’s entertainment, and you can’t be in front of those kids…it’s very challenging.”
He went on to share a story of two of his high school trumpet players. The annual Memorial Day parade in town had been cancelled, but they wanted to perform Taps at the local cemetery to honor America’s fallen soldiers. They went out of their way to contact the Village Council and conduct a ceremony, while still respecting social distancing regulations. “That just…you know…that just made me so proud.
“It’s those kinds of little things that I really miss. I miss giving out all the awards, I miss hearing those kids play for the last time, I’ve missed recruiting for fifth grade band…So, yeah, I guess the word I would say is its heartbreaking.”
The best part of teaching–working with the students day in and day out–has been taken away from educators. In its place is added paperwork, endless technical difficulties, and angry late-night emails from parents wondering why their teacher isn’t awake at two in the morning. One of the hardest jobs in the world has only gotten harder.
“…I don’t know if we’re going to be completely free of cuts.”
The economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has taken a machete to government budgets. Revenue streams have gone dry, and requests for bail-outs and relief funding have drained the rainy-day funds. Teachers know that education cuts are almost certain.
“If you talk to the administrative side,” Steven told me, “they’re very doom and gloom. ‘District’s going to burn down, can’t pay anybody’ — same old dance.”
In Michigan, where Steven works, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been supportive of educators. Their salaries were guaranteed through the remainder of the school year, and they’ve worked hard to avoid massive cuts to education. However, some of the decision is out of their control; unless the federal government provides an additional stimulus package to the states earmarked for education relief, some downsizing in the budget seems inevitable. Dire projections could see state funding per pupil fall from $8,000 to as low as $5,600.
Whitmer protected the school’s budget for this year. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine took a different route, slashing $300 million from the K-12 budget. Importantly, the cuts applied to this year’s budget; school districts like Darren’s had to scramble to find ways to cut money that they had already allocated. Further cuts to next year’s education funding are expected.
Education funding has long been a political hot-potato. The benefits of a good education system aren’t often felt until long after the politicians responsible for the decisions have retired or been voted out. That short-termism coupled with years of conservative governance inspired by Tea Party ideologies has left education gutted in many states. There are no more easy cuts to make; we’ve long since trimmed the fat, and are now hewing straight to the bone. The threat of the coronavirus to both educational structure and funding may rattle American education to its very core.
“Do what you have to do to survive.”
June is often a celebratory time in the academic calendar. This year, though, it rings hollow with the ghosts of graduation parties not held, commencement ceremonies not celebrated, and goodbyes unsaid. Teachers are decompressing from a stressful end to the semester, each of them wondering: what is this going to look like in the fall?
Unfortunately, they receive few answers there either. It is hard to say how coronavirus will progress over the coming months. Every state has started to reopen in some form, though coronavirus cases have risen at an alarming rate since stay-at-home orders were lifted. States have put together task forces of bureaucrats, administrators, and–thankfully–teachers to develop plans to address the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Three plans are in circulation: one calls for a full return to in-person learning, though with social distancing protocols; one calls for a hybrid system, where students would be in class two days a week, and engage in distance learning the remaining three days; and the final calls for a continuation of full-time distance learning.
But as with so many issues in the era of coronavirus, the solutions are almost more problematic than the original dilemma. Take the proposal to return to in-person learning. That would remove the challenges of online learning, to be sure, but it would raise a host of questions related to social distancing. The teachers I spoke to expressed myriad concerns related to a return to normalcy.
“There’s no guarantee that we’re going to have enough cleaning supplies, toilet paper for the bathrooms,” Darren told me. “How are kids going to move through the hallways to ensure social distancing? How are we going to let kids go get a drink from a community drinking fountain?
“There’s just so many little things.”
Laura had similar concerns. “Gym class, you can’t do team sports because you’re sharing equipment; choir, you’re projecting your germs; band, they share instruments. They’re talking about the hallways, if kids can use their lockers, because they’re so close to everybody else.”
And what of communal lunches? What of shared desks? What of enforcing social distancing in classrooms, in hallways, in bathrooms?
“When you start thinking about it,” Laura said, “you think, it’s never going to happen. But then, in reality, it needs to happen. It’s just when, and how safe is it going to be.”
Hanging over it all is the spectre of disease; what if there’s a coronavirus outbreak in the building? Will schools get shut down again? How will students be kept safe? How will teachers?
The hybrid plan offers its own challenges. Splitting the student body into two groups would solve problems of social distancing in classrooms and ease the burden of social distancing in common areas. But they create additional educational challenges, for which the burden always falls upon the teacher.
As a band director, Steven has a unique dilemma. “I probably can’t have the whole ensemble together at any given time,” he predicted. “And who knows if they’re going to let me perform? Who knows how many kids they’re going to let perform at a time? So maybe I have a Band A and a Band B, I have no idea.”
Splitting up core classes seems more realistic than splitting up a concert band, but that suggestion puts an massive increase on the workload for teachers. “Say you have three different classes,” Laura explains, “you now have three different classes in person, and three different classes sitting at home that same day. So, somebody that taught three different classes, in a way, teaches six.”
And what would be gained from this hybrid system? Not a whole lot, Darren suggests. “I can’t do a group project. I can’t do pair-and-share, talk to your neighbor. All I can do is videos, lecture, independent work.” Teaching methods, in short, that are already available in online formats.
Which leads back to the beginning: online distance learning. More Google Classrooms, more Zoom meetings, more late-night emails from irate parents. Teachers might have to endure more distance learning, but it shouldn’t mean they have to endure a system that doesn’t give them the support they need.
“It’s not about you, it’s about the kid.”
Education systems weren’t built with global pandemics in mind. The fact that districts across the country rapidly shifted to online learning, worked to ensure equitable access for students, and provided at least some form of curricular activity should be applauded. That does not, however, mean the ad hoc systems instituted in this panicked state of unrest should become the standard forms of education. Too often, teachers bore the brunt of the crisis without receiving an adequate amount of support.
Administrators should ensure that their teachers remain healthy and secure in their roles. They should communicate clear educational goals so that teachers have a roadmap for designing their own curricula. A grading system should be reinstituted, one that ensures fairness for the student yet gives teachers a motivating incentive in their assignments. Most importantly, teachers need to be a part of the conversation in constructing a new online educational system.
Unfortunately, in Darren’s district, that does not appear to be happening. “The [teacher’s] union has not been engaged on any of those conversations,” he told me. “We don’t know if the grading policy is going to be the same, we don’t know what the load is going to be, we don’t know what any of this is going to be, we have not been approached.”
Special educators, too, need to be brought in from the cold. “SPED is rarely mentioned in staff meetings, SPED is often not taken into consideration for professional development,” Rachel says. “I didn’t really expect them to prioritize SPED, because SPED is never…”
She trailed off in frustration, before continuing. “It just really brought to light how little the district really wants to see their most challenged students thrive.”
“I know they want to make changes on the teacher’s side,” Laura told me. “But if they add too much, I don’t know if a lot of our teachers can sustain a lot more put on us.”
Darren told me a story from a district near him, about an interaction between a teacher and an administrator. The teacher raised concerns about having to migrate all of their work from the online platform into paper formats for students who needed to attend summer school. The administrator responded to the complaint curtly, “It’s not about you, it’s about the kid.”
Education is about the kid — that is the main purpose of a healthy and strong education system, to inspire students with knowledge and give them the tools to become thoughtful and engaged members of our future society.
But isn’t one of the best ways to do that to support the teachers who give so much of themselves to support the students? Think back to your time in school. Remember that teacher, or coach, or advisor, who pushed you to do your best? Who inspired you? Who you could turn to when you needed advice, who helped you grow up and become the person you are today?
A viable education system needs equitable access; it needs students who are in class, whether that class be in the school or in their own homes. But a great education system, an education system that produces thoughtful and engaged students–that requires good teachers. Teachers are the best asset a district has; it’s time we support them as such.