Op-Ed: Holding Onto Pandemic’s Best Lessons

It’s already begun. The joy I felt as an educator as pandemic-related restrictions were lifted, allowing us to return students to classrooms full-time, host athletic contests, organize proms and offer in-person graduations, is fading. What we gave our students and achieved as united communities is starting to wane, as the reality of what students may have lost — socially, academically, emotionally — is moving inevitably into the spotlight.

For many school districts, the summer of 2021 will be dense with data evaluation (made more difficult by the lack of end-of-year standardized assessments in many states) to attempt to quantify the learning lost.  Educational pedagogues, administrators and critics have already given it a name: it’s called The Pandemic Learning Gap.

And while I do not for a second debate the validity of those concerns (and I am confident they will be addressed aggressively come September), I worry that a myopic focus on the deficiencies and inadequacies of pandemic learning will overshadow an incredible opportunity for exit polling.

A longtime friend of mine runs a large, corporate HR department and she has been tasked with creating a survey that invites the company’s employees to share positive outcomes of the pandemic workplace shift. She came to me seeking language that would clarify that the survey’s respondents needed to share more than,”I loved being able to design Excel functions from my backyard hammock”  or  “Corporate casual needs to include sweatpants going forward.” Her executive board wants to compile a true list of process improvements and unanticipated advancements that could be implemented permanently as part of the new-and-improved-normal practices of the company.

It’s brilliant, I told her.  And it’s something schools need to be thinking about. Right now.

Here’s one small example from my experience this year:

Remote learning required that my district find quick, creative ways to get functional devices into every student’s hand, and help district families gain wi-fi access from home, so everyone could participate in electronic learning.

While this was a crazy complication administratively, budgetarily, etc. (and our leadership rose to the occasion remarkably), the positive outcomes were tremendous.

  1. Reduced paper use.   Fewer class materials needed to be photocopied.  Fewer parent communications needed to be mailed.  Fewer staff information needed to be circulated in memo form.
  2. Expanded curricular opportunities. I was suddenly able to present current articles and other reading resources immediately, by posting electronic links.  Additionally, real-time, in-class research blossomed. A class debate about the pros and cons of paying student athletes at the college level became a multi-pronged, higher-order-thinking opportunity. Don’t speculate on the number and amount of D1 scholarships awarded; look it up. Find us a legitimate statistic. Now share your screen to my SmartBoard. Let’s evaluate the validity of that source together. Now quick-link to the MLA materials I have posted in Classroom and practice citing it properly. And someone go to Classroom and find the appropriate transition phrase from our list. 
  3. Innovative methods of modification and access. Electronic texts allowed students to make use of text-to-voice technologies and increase the font size of documents, which benefited many students, but particularly my hearing- and visually-impaired students.  Electronic writing reinvented editing in all forms (self, peer and teacher) in addition to making color coding and other color-reliant reading and note-taking strategies simple and available to all.
  4. Improved school-to-home connection. Electronic posting of materials and assignments greatly simplified the process of providing at-home work when students were absent. Electronic gradebook access allowed parents to keep a close eye on student progress and missing assignments.
  5. Attention to socio-economic-based learning disparities. Providing full-school remote access increased communication, extra help, remediation and enrichment opportunities for all students. It also helped equitize materials access, provided multilingual translation tools and reduced the need for parents to be available to drive students to specific locations to complete research, or receive certain extra-curricular services.
  6. Screen-based reading strategy evaluation. Reading on an electronic device is drastically different from reading on paper; therefore annotation protocols like Kami and Google commenting must become critical tools that we teach young readers. I also learned important lessons about blue-light emissions, protective eyewear, and turning down the brightness on my SmartBoard, Chromebook and iPhone.
  7. Instructional and assessment shift discussion.  Remote learning shined a much-needed light on the pervasive nature of student cheating and plagiarizing. However, this creates an exciting opening for the reimagining of instruction and assessment in the American education system, where resource materials use is encouraged during assessments, rather than denied, memorization is less valued than synthesis, and collaboration is taught as an alternative to cheating.
  8. Synchronization and consistency of communication.  Parents and students alike struggled to monitor the varied platforms teachers were using to communicate information and provide materials in my district. Assignments and information could arrive via email, the Remind app, Instagram, Google Sites, and Google Classroom.  Even within Google Classroom, there were Assignments, Materials, Forms; and they could be found in the Stream or the Classroom or even in the Private Comments or Class Announcements. Our administration needed to unify the process and, even though some teachers hated losing the autonomy of their personal websites or Instagram accounts, conformity was necessary.

And this list represents just one teacher’s quick revisitation of her own experiences.

It is therefore critical that, before the moment is lost — before we indiscriminately return to “normal” teaching and learning — educational leaders capitalize upon the chance to survey their staff, parents and students to identify the good that is worth retaining.  Educational institutions have much to do to close the Pandemic Learning Gap.  But it is critical that we recognize the silver-lining positives that grew out of the last 15 months. We need to harvest them so they can inform and improve our processes, experiences and interactions going forward.

Of course, the respondents need to be honest, professionally-focused and non-agenda-driven.  And the leadership needs to be prepared to be open to policy changes, budget reallocation and grass-roots-level realities.  But the opportunity to build upon the remarkable resilience and innovation demonstrated by administrators, teachers, parents and students cannot be overlooked in the fevered charge back to so-called normalcy. Believe me, I welcome normal.  But some of the great successes and lessons learned about instructional delivery, policy management, collaboration and communication that we have celebrated in these last few months need to be uplifted and carried forward as we strive for gap-narrowing and revitalization.

Kimberly Eagen Latko is an English teacher at Walt Whitman High School in South Huntington and a freelance writer and poet.

 

 

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