As COVID-19 changed our landscape, K-12 students saw their world shrink to the confines of their computers. Because so many districts in Illinois were unprepared for remote learning, students’ grades in the last quarter of the 2020 school year could not have a negative impact on their second semester grade for that year. Many students then had no incentive to work. For those happy with their grades, coasting for the rest of the year was a no-brainer. Kids whose families struggled to make ends meet replaced school with work, and education was placed on the back burner — a different “normal.”
Students in dual credit classes had a different path. While nothing could negatively affect their high school grades, dual credit classes continued. Since colleges and universities moved quickly to a remote learning environment, high school students enrolled in those classes moved forward as well. This didn’t please my dual credit kiddos.
While their fellow students had the perceived choice to work or not, these kids, if they wanted to earn a decent grade for the college portion of the class, had to give 100% to their dual credit courses. It wasn’t perfect, but students kept working, learning and putting effort into their education.
Students struggled in the 2020-21 school year too. Many schools remained open, often seesawing back and forth between in-person and remote instruction. Some schools focused solely on remote learning; other schools used a hybrid schedule. School administration officials and teachers worked to find a solution that helped students yet still followed ever-changing COVID-19 guidelines. And while they tried their hardest, students bore the brunt of COVID-19.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, finally acknowledged that remote learning was not successful for students. I was in a unique situation because I taught in a remote setting and took classes during COVID-19. My experience as a learner mirrored my students’ experience: Instructors did most of the talking, and students chimed in at the beginning and end of class only. The same scenario happened in many high school classes. If a student didn’t feel comfortable with or know a teacher, he or she didn’t talk during class and often used excuses like poor internet for not joining the conversation. Getting students to participate or feel comfortable in a remote environment was close to impossible. COVID-19 took a small classroom issue and created an obstacle difficult to overcome.
Another issue that hindered remote education was a lack of computer training. Since many schools weren’t one-to-one with computer technology prior to March 2020, some students remarked that there was little training on new devices schools implemented at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Finding assignments and completing them, trying to contact a teacher and other obstacles made remote education difficult for students.
Moving forward, how can we address the substantial learning losses? U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently told a roundtable in Tennessee: “It’s time for us to think outside the box and try to create more opportunities for students and the best way to do that is to listen to the students directly.”
But what do students say? For many, COVID-19 meant the loss of educational opportunities. It also meant the loss of social interaction, the loss of teacher and class choice, the loss of a full learning experience and the loss of a depth to education, which has eroded their foundation. And while many blame COVID-19 for the struggles they are facing today, some say the pandemic created an environment that allowed them to choose to not work at their highest level. Those students now wish they had thought more about the consequences of not fully embracing remote learning.
This year’s seniors feel the brunt of their learning loss. Some students navigating dual credit classes are struggling with higher-level assignments. Studies have shown that students who take dual credit courses often attend college at a higher rate than their high school peers. However, in a post-pandemic world, enrollment in dual credit courses has decreased. Students used these courses as a head start to college; some now see them as a hurdle to graduation. Where goals used to be lofty, lower expectations based on educational and foundational losses have taken hold.
This year, how can students be brought up to grade level? COVID-19 eroded any progress students made in reading and math over the last 30 years. The most recent scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows students in grades four and eight dropped an average of six points in math and three points in reading. Former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett has called for a K-3 Marshall Plan that would focus solely on K-3 students to help stem the country’s educational downfall.
The U.S. Department of Education has identified five tools to help address COVID-19′s educational impact. The tools include using high-quality assessment and effective tutoring; addressing students’ social, emotional and academic needs; closing gaps; and helping students transition to each level of education. Whatever path we take, we need to keep students and their goals of becoming independent people in mind.
Some students feel the “different normal” means lowered standards — from students, teachers and the education system. Others feel cracks and crevices in their educational foundation, and still, some students feel that the passion for education was lost in the sea of COVID-19.
Whatever students feel, their frustration, antipathy and uncertainness about the future are evident.
Katherine Prange is a high school English and accounting teacher in Gillespie, Illinois. The views in this piece are the author’s alone and do not represent those of her employer.