The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the education system, like many industries, upside down. As many schools scrambled to transition to a virtual learning environment, students, and educators were forced to adapt to an entirely new way of life. Educators faced many challenges, providing education to their students in light of great disparities of equity and access to virtual learning. Reflecting on the last year, it is clear there are many ways this pandemic has taken a toll on students, their families, and educators.
With the structural changes of the classroom, many teachers have needed to modify their traditional teaching plans in order to be effective. Ian Wiggins ’14 teaches sixth grade English/language arts at Iluminar Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island. He describes his teaching style as being student centered, participatory, and structured around the inclusion and promotion of all unique learners. According to Wiggins, “the biggest adaption that was required of me was transferring this model to the digital realm without losing the students’ voices in the process.”
Other schools have needed to make large scale alterations to their educational curriculum. Ara Brown ’00 is the assistant head of Whittle School & Studios in Washington, DC. His school relies heavily on the surrounding DC area for experiential learning—utilizing free museums, the Liberty of Congress, and the Capitol as an extension of the classroom. “What we were doing in person does not easily translate online,” Brown states. “This year required reimaging how we were still going to use these resources, without being able to visit in-person.”
The pandemic has also led to an impact on social activities. Nola-rae Cronan ’01 is the middle school head at the Langley School in McLean, VA. Her students have sacrificed their longtime traditions and experiences such as fieldtrips and community get-togethers. In attempts to fill these gaps, her school has implemented weekly virtual activities for the community. However, Cronan states this year has really “missed the heart of what the school year feels and looks like”.
Navigating the education landscape in the past year has presented numerous challenges. Many teachers have been tasked with teaching students both in-person and virtually. Ursinus College’s 2021 Henry P. and M. Page Laughlin Educator Award winner Cynthia (Babcock) Green ’94* teaches eighth grade English at Hempfield School District in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Her school district has given parents multiple options for schooling this year (face-to-face, virtual, or asynchronous). Green decides to teach face-to-face and virtual students simultaneously.
According to Green, “There have been challenges at every turn it seems.” Some of these include concerns about safely going back in person and teaching the in-person and virtual groups simultaneously in an effective way. She notes, “I never know who is going to appear [virtually] because of students needing to quarantine. The back and forth has been really tough for both the students and the teachers.”
Utilizing online learning also forces educators to depend on technology in order to have a functional learning environment. Students’ access to virtual learning has been an obstacle across the country in the past year. Being reliant on technology also leaves classrooms subject to periodic technological difficulties, as Brown states, “No Wi-Fi in the world is 100% stable. So, when Wi-Fi would crash or the sounds would suddenly stop working, we needed to modify our plans in the moment.”
Educators are also faced with the challenge of navigating the multi-impacts the pandemic has had on students. As Wiggins explains, “Many of my students are not only the children of working parents, but they are also the primary caretakers of their younger siblings while in home for remote learning. This means that they are frequently distracted and under tremendous stress to support their family members throughout the day.” Green adds that many of her students have been financially impacted, questioning, “How can I convince a student that this English assignment is important when he/she doesn’t know if there will be a place to live tomorrow?”
The educational disparity also leaves many questioning where students will be at the end of the pandemic. Cronan and Brown discuss that their schools have been able to offer virtual-learning options for any student who prefers not to come to campus in person, as well as allowing teachers to teach virtually if they do not feel comfortable coming back to campus. In order to safely allow in-person options, their schools implemented temperature checks, mandatory daily surveys, and weekly COVID tests for all students and faculty. Cronan is very proud of what her school was able to accomplish but recognizes that being in-person safely has only been possible due to the resources that her school has. She states, “One of the hardest things to reconcile is that many other teachers and students are not having the same experience.”
There is no question that the pandemic upended the education landscape. Through these challenges, students and educators have shown extraordinary resilience. Brown states, “No one signed up for this. Teachers want to teach, but teachers also want to be safe.” Wiggins reminds everyone, “It has been hard for everyone involved. Each and every day teachers feel as though they are failing their students because they are holding themselves to pre-COVID standards. But, more importantly, these children have lost a formative year of their life, and the memories, friends, learning, and living that comes with it. Now more than ever, the youth of the world need our patience, our love, and our understanding.”
* Educators have a special place in the Ursinus community. Every year, we honor an educator with the Henry P. and M. Page Laughlin Educator Award, which recognizes an individual who has made outstanding contributions in the field of education. This award is named for Henry P. and M. Page Laughlin based on their commitment to education and Ursinus College. This year’s recipient, Cynthia (Babcock) Green ’94, will be honored for her accomplishments. Her full feature, along with her article of support, signed by nearly 80 of her UC classmates will be published here.