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The first year of the Covid-19 pandemic was devastating: classrooms emptied, dorms shuttered, livelihoods shattered, millions of lives lost.

Then came 2021. “No matter who I talk to, they tell me: ‘This is the hardest year that I’ve ever had in education,’” one school leader told The Hechinger Report this fall.

The gaps between children with more and children with less cracked wider. Trauma, depression and anxiety among caregivers, teachers and students spiked. The financial burden of college became too much for too many students. The virus ravaged families and left behind hundreds of thousands of orphans. Climate change fueled fires, hurricanes and floods, sowing more chaos and disruption.

The Hechinger Report’s stories investigated the growing inequities, the deepening crises, the frustration and the divisions that made problems harder to solve. We also reported on the tenacity, creativity and hope that kept people going even in their worst moments. The following pictures capture the tragedy and resilience that marked 2021.

January

Debrin Adon, a senior at the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts. His male classmates “don’t think they’re smart enough” for college, Adon says. “They doubt themselves a little bit because of their life and what they’ve been through and what they’ve been seen as.” Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: The pandemic is speeding up the mass disappearance of men from college
Berta Romero is a counselor for English learners at Mary Harris Mother Jones Elementary school in Prince George’s County, Maryland. It’s a new position that was created before the pandemic, to help undocumented children. She says many have been through very traumatic situations. “Having those flashbacks all the time and living with that is not easy. It’s not easy.”  Tyrone Turner for WAMU
READ THE STORY:‘Backpacks full of boulders’: How one district is addressing the trauma undocumented children bring to school

February

A math teacher at Trevor Browne High School in Phoenix teaching online in an empty classroom. Phoenix Union High School District Credit: Phoenix Union High School District
READ THE STORY: How much will it take to reopen, catch up kids and save public schooling long term?
Black youth and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County lead a silent march of an estimated 60,000 people in June to show support for Black lives. Later that month, the Seattle school board voted to remove police officers from its schools. Neal Morton/The Hechinger Report Credit: Neal Morton/The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: If schools don’t overhaul discipline, ‘teachers will still be calling the police on our Black students’
Sol Forest School students play a game that looks like follow-the-leader in February 2021. Interest in outdoor schools like Sol has spiked since Covid-19 hit the United States last year. Adria Malcolm for The Hechinger Report Credit: Adria Malcolm for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Outdoor preschools grow in popularity but most serve middle-class white kids

March

First grader Nevaeh Korsmo reaches for hand sanitizer while doing an online lesson at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe learning center in Port Angeles. Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times Credit: Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times
READ THE STORY: To serve kids in the pandemic, a tribe and a Washington school district create a unique learning space
Nursing students at Sacred Heart University. The university has added certificate programs to teach people to be radiographers and CT, ultrasound, MRI and mammography technicians, who are in high demand. Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Beer making for credit: Liberal arts colleges add career tech

April

After a day of teaching kindergarten, Shari Daniels encourages her athletes as they run drills during volleyball practice. Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Rural schools have a teacher shortage. Why don’t people who live there, teach there?
Ciera Pritchett and her children Isaiah, 10, and Genesis, 9. Home of Hope provides activities and programming for children while parents attend classes on financial literacy and independent living. Matt Odom/NBC Credit: Matt Odom/NBC
READ THE STORY: A solution to the cycle of poverty?
Faculty and supporters from universities around the state outside the Hilton C. Buley Library at Southern Connecticut State University protesting a contract proposal that includes an increase in teaching loads. Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Some universities’ response to budget woes: Making faculty teach more courses

May

Freedom Brown-Faulk (white mask) is hugging Alyvia Davis in front of West Middle School on April 28. Credit: Kayana Szymczak for The Undefeated
READ THE STORY: As a district re-opens, one middle schooler returned to school and another remained home
Anne Fletcher, an adjunct professor in the English department at Austin Community College, works at her dining room table. During the pandemic she has had to be more persistent than ever about keeping in touch with her students. Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Troubled by students she’s not reaching — ‘that no one is reaching’

June

Stephanie Presley, program lead for the Seward-Bear Creek Flood Service Area, points at a map of Seward and the location of Seward’s schools, which sit near Japanese Creek in Seward, Alaska. Young Kim for The Hechinger Report Credit: Young Kim for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Climate change threatens America’s ragged school infrastructure
Alex Harris is among the millions of students who can’t obtain their academic transcripts from colleges to which they still owe money — making it harder for them to get the jobs they need to pay it back. “It’s crazy,” Harris says. Meredith Nierman/GBH News Credit: Meredith Nierman/GBH News
READ THE STORY: Colleges fight attempts to stop them from withholding transcripts over unpaid bills
Eighteen-year-old Nyché Andrew sits with other members of the class of 2021 at her socially distanced, outdoor graduation in Anchorage. Brian Adams for The Hechinger Report Credit: Brian Adams for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Schools bar Native students from wearing traditional regalia at graduation

July

Bilingual teacher Veronica Alvarado leans over Ayden Nava Zamora, 6, to help him print out the names of sea animals, like dolphin, in Spanish (delfín), during a dual-language summer program at Lot Whitcomb Elementary School in Milwaukie, Ore. Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report Credit: Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Summer school programs race to help students most in danger of falling behind
For Maggie Anderson, a part-time job teaching Spanish at central Montana’s Greenfield School blossomed into a full-time post as a grade 6 teacher. But even obtaining a provisional license proved significantly challenging, resulting in an accreditation deficiency for Greenfield in 2020. Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Teacher licensing rules are one reason small schools don’t have enough teachers
All of Lincoln Park School’s buses are outfitted with infant car seats so that girls can get to school with their babies, who attend the school’s free daycare. Emily Kaplan for The Hechinger Report Credit: Emily Kaplan for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Child care, car seats and other simple ways to keep teen moms in school

August

One of Sadie Perry’s grandsons stands in front of a utility pole that reaches only one of the houses on their property, though not Perry’s home; an additional pole would cost the family $5,000. Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report Credit: Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Rural areas have been slow to connect to broadband. More public funding could speed things up
Katie Humphrey, the seventh grade counselor at Columbia Middle School, tries to normalize the idea of asking for mental health support to both children and parents. “I tell our students, it’s like tutoring,” she says. “If you need help in math, you go get a tutor. You go to your teacher for help. We’re kind of your tutors for mental health.” Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: When kids pick their ‘trusted adult,’ it pays off
Increased absences and substitute shortages meant administrators often filled in to teach classes or cover recess duty during the 2020-21 school year. Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: A principal leaves his beloved school after an intense year
Monalie Bohannon’s mother tries on a shawl that is a family heirloom before her daughter’s graduation from Hamilton High School. Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Leaving a reservation for college, but also staying close to home

September

On a sticky 86-degree June day in Detroit, Maybury Elementary School’s sunbaked windows stand open in the occupied classrooms in the non-air-conditioned building. The 112-year-old school hasn’t been renovated in generations, and, according to district estimates, will require $5.6 million in restoration. Elaine Cromie for The Hechinger Report Credit: Elaine Cromie for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Federal money is the only hope for school districts that can’t raise local funds for facilities
Cante Skuya Lonehill-Stover, who is Oglala Lakota, compares photos of herself and her father as they each headed off to college. Arlo Iron Cloud for The Hechinger Report Credit: Arlo Iron Cloud for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: 3 Native American women head to college in the pandemic. Will they get a sophomore year?
Cpl. Israel Vicencio, Air Force Reserve medical technician Joy Maina and Danbi Kim work together in a lab for chemistry class at Pierce College at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The military has restricted or attempted to reduce funding for education for active-duty service members. Katie G. Cotterill for The Hechinger Report Credit: . Katie G. Cotterill for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Getting educated while on active duty is getting harder as military rolls back benefits
Amanda Belony of Brooklyn, N.Y., was sued by the state attorney general’s office for $3,705 for classes she said she never took; traveling to Albany to appear in court would have been expensive and, she feared, could have jeopardized her job. Without a degree, she had to work low-wage jobs to pay off the settlement of $2,900, which she was finally able to do in 2019. Thalia Juarez for The New York Times Credit: Thalia Juarez for The New York Times
READ THE STORY: Why does New York state sue its college students?

October

Contreras with children in Gummy Bears’ new location. Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report Credit: Noah Willman for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: The racist and sexist roots of child care in America explain why the system is in shambles
Teacher Hope Bell leads her class of 3-year-olds in a breathing exercise at the beginning of circle time. Bell uses an approach called Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) to build trust-based relationships with children, which can help mitigate the impact of trauma. Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: We know how to help young kids cope with the trauma of the last year — but will we do it?
Nikki Musser, an education assistant, monitors first graders attending class at Witch Hazel Elementary remotely. The school operated on a hybrid schedule last year. “Everyone here is just trying to do the best they can,” she said. Lillian Mongeau for The Hechinger Report Credit: Lillian Mongeau for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Why 2021 could be the start of a radical change in how Washington influences local schools
Sheila Matthews, the operations director at Open Door Preschools, plays with Kennedy Garris, an infant, on the playground at one of the school’s locations in Austin, Texas. “It’s really said that it took the pandemic to make them go ‘oh yeah, we do need those teachers and they’re professionals, they’re just not babysitters,’” Matthews said. Jackie Mader for The Hechinger Report Credit: Jackie Mader for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: Vaccine mandates could make it harder to find child care workers
Adamalis Vigil, 33, watches as her daughter Adelyn, 13, prepares for her birthday party. As a parent, feeling like she cannot protect her child from anti-trans laws and rhetoric is “the worst feeling ever,” Vigil said. Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Hechinger Report Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: ‘Just let me play sports’

November

Students practice reading using whisper phones during center time in their first grade classroom. Jackie Mader/ The Hechinger Report Credit: Jackie Mader/ The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY:‘The Reading Year’: First grade is critical for reading skills, but kids coming from disrupted kindergarten experiences are way behind
Taos Municipal Schools collaborated with community partners, like Prisca Winslow, who led a movement group, to offer a range of sessions focused on developing staff members’ social-emotional learning. Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report Credit: Kelli Johansen for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: With teacher wellness “hanging by a thread,” one district tries walking and smoothies
Students and staff share space in the Roux Institute in Portland, Maine, one of several largely unnoticed new higher education institutions popping up around the country. Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY: As enrollment falls and colleges close, a surprising number of new ones are opening
Amanda Amtmanis, the PE instructor at Macdonough Elementary, hands a fifth grader a card with a QR code for tracking her mileage. Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY:How PE teachers are tackling ‘physical learning loss’
Instructor Penni Barbeau of Southern Maine Community College teaches Vanessa Moody how to weld, one of the skills she’s learning in the hope of getting a job with good pay, benefits and a pension at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works shipyard. Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY:A surprise for America’s many career switchers: They need to go back to school 

December

Ernesto Rubio waits for a bus on his way home from Rio Hondo College. Without the free bus pass the college provided this fall, he says, he wouldn’t have been able to continue his education. James Bernal for The Hechinger Report Credit: James Bernal for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY:A surprising reason keeping students from finishing college: A lack of transportation
Therese Arvisu, an English teacher in the Phoenix Union High School district, leads a Chicano literature class she developed with fellow teachers. “That was the first time, in a professional setting, where we were able to talk about the literature that we grew up with, that had a lot to do with our identity and our love of literature,” she recalled. Brandon Sullivan for The Hechinger Report Credit: Brandon Sullivan for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY:To increase and maintain teacher diversity, listen to teachers of color
Erica Cisneros’ child care program in Pueblo, Colorado. For more than a decade, Cisneros only made enough money to cover her basic needs. Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY:A little-known program could be a model for how to spend billions in federal money on childcare
Lisa Grant, superintendent for the Centralia school district, makes her monthly rounds in a fifth grade class at Fords Prairie Elementary School. The school district welcomed all elementary students back for in-person learning in early December. Katie Cotterill for The Hechinger Report Credit: Katie Cotterill for The Hechinger Report
READ THE STORY:A year in the life of a small-town superintendent shows the federal bailout won’t be enough

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Camilla Forte supports the Web Editor and Multimedia Editor with daily posting and photo selection. Prior to joining the Hechinger Report in 2021, she worked as the director of photography for the Columbia...

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