Could the education system emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever?

Here’s what educators have learned from teaching during 2020

When elementary schools in Dallas, Texas, switched to remote learning in the spring, teacher Shontée Branton couldn’t just ask her first grade students to pick up an iPad and figure out how to use self-guided learning programs.

Instead, she filmed herself completing each assignment, showing her 6- and 7-year-old students how to circle nouns and count money. She even drove to their houses and delivered paper packets, personalized to the child’s ability, for families that had a hard time with the technology.

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This year, teachers have struggled to navigate pandemic teaching. They’ve put in hours of extra work to master unfamiliar technology, often juggling teaching in-person students and remote students at the same time. Parents are desperately trying to help their children stay on top of the workload, but despite all these best efforts, some students are slipping behind.

First grade teachers Melissa Hadley, left, Susan Winters, Cherie Penrod and Jill Shaub hold bottles of hand sanitizer as they sing a line from the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” with a COVID-19 twist, for a holiday video at Snow Springs Elementary School in Lehi on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A review of national test data from 4.4 million students in grades 3-8 by testing nonprofit NWEA showed that student learning has suffered slightly. While 2020 kids performed similarly in reading to same-grade students in the fall of 2019, they were about 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math. The study also notes that students “most vulnerable to the impacts of the coronavirus” are likely missing from the data.

Although there may be some catching up to do, Rebecca Winthrop, a senior fellow and co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., says there’s an opportunity for the education system to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever. The question is whether educators and community members will take what they’ve learned from this experimental year and use it going forward.

Schools can’t be everything

Branton, 36, is proud of her school for providing iPads and wireless hot spots at the beginning of this school year to every child in need of internet access or technology. As a teacher, she did everything in her power to help her kids be successful, by using her own money and personal donations to buy them all water bottles, lysol spray, tissues, wipes, school supplies and more. She said she believes schools should take responsibility for ensuring all kids have equal access to education, whatever that entails.

But Justin Reich, a professor who studies educational technology at MIT, said it’s unfair to ask schools to teach kids, feed kids, be the frontline for monitoring kids’ health and well-being, and to be the supply chain for distributing internet and technology.

Reich said school leaders are voluntarily doing so because of their extraordinary level of commitment, but it’s too much to ask of educators, who are not experts in broadband technology or supply chains.

“There have to be institutions other than schools at the municipal level and state level that can connect people,” said Reich.

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Winthrop said that in an ideal world, entire communities would be set up to support the school system, not the other way around. It’s a concept called the “Community School Model,” where businesses and government departments serve as resources to schools and provide learning experiences for kids. Winthrop has seen elements of this model taking root in communities across the country that have been forced to come together during the pandemic. For example, several community organizations in Pittsburgh worked together to create a hotline for families to call if they had any questions about education.

Today, there is more recognition of the role schools play in our society, said Winthrop, not just for academic learning, but for daytime child care and children’s well-being.

“Schools really are the beating heart of our communities, and there’s nothing quite like having that taken away,” Winthrop said. “Public education support could grow faster after the pandemic, and that’s positive.”

Principal Jory Schmidt and fifth grade teacher Jody Kyburz talk to other fifth grade teachers in an online meeting at Snow Springs Elementary School in Lehi on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Technology crash course

Teachers like Jody Kyburz, a fifth grade teacher at Snow Springs Elementary School in Lehi, have spent significant time figuring out how to use computer programs like Google Meet, Loom videos, Kami and Lexia, which could come in handy if there’s ever another reason to close schools. While there was a tricky learning curve, Kyburz says she is grateful for the crash course, and she intends to incorporate technology more in her everyday work in the future.

“The whole converting things to technology has been a positive change. I love the collaboration that has come about, and the growth we have experienced by being flexible,” said Kyburz.

For kids, technology can make learning more fun through “gamification,” said Winthrop. Technology can provide more opportunities for students to practice things they’ve learned and also build valuable skills that they will need in higher education and the workplace, she added. But technology can also be a distraction and take away from valuable tangible exercises or interactions with other students.

“There are pros and cons,” said Winthrop. But one of the greatest advantages of technology is parent engagement, Winthrop said. Going forward, it’s not sustainable to ask parents to act as substitute teachers at home, as many are now, but kids benefit immensely from their parents being engaged in their learning experience, Winthrop said.

The parents of kids in Kyburz’s class have loved virtual parent-teacher conferences. Regular SMS or WhatsApp messages can help parents stay connected in a minimal way, Winthrop suggested.

“The takeaway is to engage parents differently in ways that fit into their schedules,” said Winthrop. “Regular communication that builds a trusting relationship is really important.”

Fifth grade teacher Jody Kyburz, right, shows future student teacher Julie Roberts around her classroom at Snow Springs Elementary School in Lehi on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. Roberts will begin student teaching in Kyburz’s classroom in January. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Focusing on the basics

The pandemic has also forced teachers to pare down curriculums and find creative ways to assess what students have learned. Educators like Fritz Peters, interim superintendent for Blaine School District in Idaho, say there is a benefit to focusing on the basics.

This year, the Blaine School District decided to implement something called “standard-based grading.” Instead of students being graded on an accumulation of homework and other small assignments, students’ grades are based primarily on larger assessments that measure whether students have mastered the most important skills from a unit. If a student doesn’t do well the first time, they have a chance to counsel with their teacher about what they missed and retake the assessment. While there have been significant growing pains adapting to this new learning model at a time when teachers and students are overwhelmed with other COVID-related changes, Peters believes it works.

“Instead of trying to teach many things a little bit, we teach the most important things deeply and richly,” Peters said.

Kara Stoltenberg, a language arts teacher at Norman High School in Norman, Oklahoma, has had to do something similar since she hasn’t been able to cover all of the typical coursework with her sophomore students.

She is currently teaching in-person, while teaching kids on video livestream at the same time and also recording lessons for students taking the course on their own schedules. But with less material, she feels that this year more than ever, her students have mastered the rhetoric skills she focused on throughout the semester.

She’s also had to look for creative ways to let the students show what they have learned. Rather than administering a multiple choice test for their final, she is having students, who just read Shakespeare’s “Julius Caeser,” choose another senator from the play and create a campaign persuading the class that their candidate is best fit to lead the country.

“We have a wide range of students with different skill levels and life circumstances. We are teaching to a spectrum, and this year that feels amplified,” said Stoltenberg. “Any way we can reward them for what they have learned — that’s the angle I’m trying to take. And that’s something I hope I remember going forward.”

Fifth grade teacher Jody Kyburz meets with future student teacher Julie Roberts at Snow Springs Elementary School in Lehi on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Working together

Teachers like Kyburz, Stoltenberg and Branton are happy to see faculty, administrators, parents and students coming together and expressing more compassion for one another.

Without lowering standards for teaching, Kyburz said administrators at her school have been more understanding of teacher stress levels and more kind regarding their personal needs.

“There’s a heightened awareness of the social and emotional well-being of not only the children in the school, but also the adults,” she said.

“I’m a real person. Yes, I get stressed. There’s a big work load, but it’s easy to see how everyone is trying to do the right thing,” said Kyburz. “Overall, our appreciation for what each person does in the community has grown: whether it’s a stay-at-home mom, a health care worker, another teacher, an administrator and also the kids themselves. I think in some ways it’s been a strength to our community to go through something like this.”

Branton said parents of her students have been very supportive. Even though most kids are back in school, Branton must maintain 6 feet of distance between herself and the first graders in her class. Where she used to be right behind them, using her hands to show them how to cut paper and write with pencils, she now coaches them, from a distance, in an entirely different set of skills: logging onto their Google email accounts, using other iPad apps and learning basic coding. For some students, it’s been a confidence builder to know they can navigate the technology on their own. For others, it’s been a massive struggle.

She hopes teachers, administrators, stakeholders and lawmakers will step up together to help the kids build on what they’ve gained, and gain back what they’ve lost.