Anuar awoke one day last spring in the front seat of his mother’s car outside the construction site where she worked. It was around 11 a.m. He was supposed to be attending his virtual, sixth grade English class, but the computer on his lap signaled that he’d been kicked out after falling asleep.
It felt, to Anuar, like another sign that remote learning wasn’t going to go well for him. After Philadelphia schools closed in March for the coronavirus, he’d dutifully logged in each morning to online classes on the laggy computer his mother got for him years earlier. But the distance between him and his teachers felt too great.
Friends sent him texts during online class, distracting him. He missed the boxes teachers had used to collect students’ cell phones back at school, to discourage their use. He knew that his seventh grade performance was critical in determining if he’d win entry to one of the city’s selective high schools, and he worried that if remote learning continued into the fall his entire future would be jeopardized.
“What bothers me most is if I fail seventh grade I’m going to go to a bad high school,” said Anuar, a student at Southwark School, the pre-K-8 school he’d attended since kindergarten. “I don’t want to be online, I want to be in normal class. I could be killing [it in in-person school], but if it’s online, I might fail.”
When city schools didn’t reopen in August, Anuar committed himself to trying his best in remote learning. In the spring, Southwark had devoted just four hours a day to class and adhered to flexible grading and attendance policies. But when the new academic year began, the school held live instruction from 8:30 a.m. to 3:09 p.m. in an attempt to approximate in-person school and avoid any learning loss. Anuar was home alone, logging in from his bedroom. He struggled to keep his camera on: It was difficult to motivate to get ready in the morning and fix his hair, and besides, the majority of his classmates kept their cameras off. He missed the friends he couldn’t see, and days in front of the computer felt excruciating.
“Before this year, I didn’t like school,” Anuar said one day this fall. “But now that I realize that this year is going to be like this, I love school.”
Even before the pandemic, obstacles were arrayed against Southwark and its students. The school is located in a chronically underfunded school district, in the poorest big city in America, and serves predominantly low-income students and a large population of English language learners. But in the last six years, Southwark had made strides in boosting academic performance and had even become something of a destination for its dual language program and the after-school activities and other services it offered as a community school. This fall, enrollment was on pace to top 950, a two-thirds increase since 2014.
“Before this year, I didn’t like school. But now that I realize that this year is going to be like this, I love school.”Anuar, seventh grader, Southwark School, Philadelphia
Then the coronavirus hit, tumbling Southwark’s fortunes, if not its ambitions. Once the Philadelphia school district decided to move forward with remote learning, Southwark staff distributed 747 Chromebooks to families and worked this fall to replicate much of the community spirit and support services that had once unfolded in its cavernous 109-year-old building. But, especially for many of the school’s oldest students, no amount of effort could eliminate the educational challenges created by the pandemic: how to engage kids, build trust, and make sure they’re learning when they’re separated from their teachers and each other.
The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for kids of every age, but for middle schoolers the isolation forced by school closures, stay-at-home-orders and quarantines has brought particular obstacles. The Hechinger Report followed four of Southwark’s families for more than six months to understand how the crises of 2020 affected kids of this age during one of the most vulnerable and critical times in their lives. In early adolescence, a period marked by rapid brain development, children are forming identities apart from their parents, relying more on peers and learning to pick up on social cues and navigate complicated social situations. Just at the time in life when the students needed their peers the most, they were secluded in their bedrooms and isolated in their homes.
In Philadelphia, seventh grade in particular is, for many, an important time for another reason: the grades students earn that year largely determine whether they will be chosen for one of the city’s admissions-only high schools.
“Middle school is difficult,” said Jessica Downs, the upper school coordinator at Southwark and a former English language arts teacher. “Aside from being 13 and insecure and impressionable and hormonal, a lot of our students face many other challenges,” she said. “Many of our students come from backgrounds where even their most basic needs are having a hard time being met.”
When the pandemic arrived — forcing parents into unemployment or to leave their children at home alone while they worked essential jobs — that was even more true.
A sharp, goofy kid, appreciated by teachers for his wit, Anuar spent late spring and summer in a funk. The world had shrunk to the size of his house, he was bored, and his mother was riding him to do chores all the time, he said. Video games filled much of his time. Eventually, he started meeting friends outside for basketball.
When the school year began, his mother, who’d emigrated from Mexico about eight years earlier, had him in bed by 9 or 10 p.m. so she could get him up by 6 or 7 a.m. before she left for work. But, each morning, the thought of online school left him discouraged. It was so much more difficult to absorb information via the computer screen than in person.
In class, he’d never had to work very hard. Sitting behind a desk in a quiet classroom, surrounded by other students, he’d taken mental notes or written in a notebook. In online instruction, there was no room on his desk for a notebook and no one to ask for a refresher if he needed one. “I really don’t feel like I’m learning anything, to be honest,” he said.
Math and English, his best classes, still felt compelling, but he had a hard time caring about his other classes. Deadlines for assignments in social studies in particular were tight, and he stopped handing them in.
For teachers, it was sometimes a mystery why certain students were succeeding in remote learning and others floundered. It was hard to know if a child was having internet trouble, losing focus or experiencing a crisis at home. Tragedies unfolded so often they became almost routine.
Marc, another seventh grader, had faced a series of personal difficulties even before the virus arrived. His mother had been out of the picture for a time, but Marc was close to his grandmother and great-grandmother. Then, in sixth grade, his grandmother died. That winter, his father had to quit the struggling limo business he’d run with a friend and draw unemployment.
Like Anuar, Marc was determined to get into a selective high school: In his case that meant CAPA, the city’s high school for the creative and performing arts. He wanted to be an artist, though his father encouraged him to consider science too. Maybe he could draw animals for biology textbooks, his father mused.
Like most of his peers, Marc didn’t worry much about the virus. “I don’t think about it because how could I get sick?” he said lightheartedly one day last summer. “I’m a main character. The main character never dies.” But the idea of falling behind in school left him feeling anxious.
In September, online learning got off to a rocky start. The first week, the school’s Zoom was hacked and a teacher mistakenly blamed Marc, he said, confusing one of the hacker’s names with his. It rattled him. He didn’t know his teachers yet and they only knew him as a face on a screen. Why should they believe him?
The school days felt endless. “It’s like full school hours, 8 to 3, and it’s forever,” he said. “I don’t think I can do this for a while. I just want to go back to real school.”
But even though Marc found online learning boring, he said, “I’m learning a lot.” In some ways, it was easier than in person. He could type his assignments, so he didn’t have to worry about his handwriting. With math, he could turn to an online calculator for help. In art, his favorite class, he’d hold up his drawings in front of the computer camera, or take a picture of them and submit them for review in Google classroom.
His father had a theory about why Marc was so adept at pouring himself into online school. “It’s escapism,” he said.
The list of things to escape from kept growing. In October, Marc fell ill with the coronavirus. His great-grandmother became infected too, and died. His family held a small service for her at a church one weekday morning, forcing Marc to do what he’d been trying so hard to avoid: miss school. He sent a message through Google classroom to his math teacher, Jaeun Lee, saying he might be absent. But about halfway through the class, Marc surprised her by appearing on the screen, back home in his bedroom.
“Marc, I’m so glad you were able to join us, even if it was late,” said Lee. She instructed him to enter a breakout room with a co-teacher, who was explaining how to find the radius of a circle. “Thumbs up if you understand,” she said.
Instead of a thumbs up, Marc raised his hand in a high five. Lee laughed.
Later, when the class reconvened in one Zoom room, Marc peppered Lee with questions in the Zoom chat about how he might finish the slides he’d missed. Lee told him not to worry, she was sure he’d grasp the exercise. Then, to the class, she said, “Some of you private-messaged me saying that it was difficult. I just want to say that if you found it difficult, you are not alone … If you found it difficult, that’s normal.”
It was a message that seemed to extend to just about everything this year, and one students couldn’t hear often enough.
Teachers at Southwark felt like they were working twice as hard to be half as successful. On the eve of every school year, Laura Schad, in her sixth year teaching social studies to seventh and eighth graders at Southwark, experienced anxiety dreams. This August, those dreams had twisted around the new reality of online learning. She was seated in front of her computer, trying to teach, but none of her students could hear her speak.
They sent her frantic messages: “Ms. Schad I need you, where are you?”
“I need your help, I can’t figure this out.”
Then one by one they gave up on her and their faces dropped off the computer screen.
The first day of school reassured her a little, despite a litany of technical issues — students who couldn’t find the right links to her class, microphones that wouldn’t turn on. Some of the magic was still there. Kids had dressed up in their nicest outfits, even though they wouldn’t be leaving the house. When students saw friends appear on screen, they’d smile and wave.
But soon virtual teaching became a grind. Each morning around 6:45 a.m., Schad biked from the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her fiancé to the quiet of her mother’s house where she cordoned herself off in her childhood bedroom. Work filled 12 hours a day from 7 a.m. on. First she opened her email: She usually had dozens of unread messages from parents and students and colleagues. Then she taught live classes from 8:30 to 3 p.m. Then she called students who were absent or needed help. Then she graded assignments and planned lessons for the next day.
The seventh grade curriculum started with a study of the Aboriginal people, but Schad liked beginning with the ancient Egyptians instead. She found students were drawn to learning about mummies and pyramids, and she liked introducing her students to the achievements of people on the African continent in a curriculum that was otherwise Eurocentric. She grew comfortable with the remote-learning technology, but basic teaching strategies, like work in small groups, were barely possible on this platform.
Asked how she thought it was going, Schad didn’t have a ready answer. “I’ve been able to teach history, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a sign of success in these times,” she said. “There are so many ways we as a school, as staff, help students that are just very hard to replicate on that online platform.”
Now she often felt powerless to help. In the spring, when she’d learned a student’s brother and father were ill with Covid-19, she’d baked trays of brownies and taken them to the student’s home because it was the most direct action she could think to take. She worried about her students’ and families’ health, their emotional well-being, whether she was doing all she could to help them develop critical thinking skills through the online platform. But what left her truly agonized were the students she’d barely seen at all.
One was Jackie. An eighth grader, Jackie had transferred to Southwark in sixth grade. Her previous school was less diverse, and wealthier, and she’d felt judged for silly things like not having the right sneakers. Looking back, Jackie realized that in every picture taken of her at that school, she was unsmiling.
Southwark was different. She felt valued there, and her confidence bloomed. When her brother was bullied recently, she’d spoken up. “Now when something doesn’t seem right to me,” she said, “I let people hear my voice.” She also loved the school’s diversity; like Jackie, whose mother was from Honduras, lots of kids had parents who were immigrants, or were immigrants themselves. They came from all over — Central America, but also East and South Asia and Africa and the Middle East. Jackie recalled how, pre-pandemic, a friend had introduced her to pho, the Vietnamese soup.
Like Marc and Anuar, Jackie wanted to attend a selective high school. Although she preferred social studies to math, she thought she might like to be a doctor, the kind “that delivers babies.” She explained: “You get to witness a new life.”
But ever since the schools closed, life had become much more complicated. Jackie was the third oldest of six children. Her mom worked from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. at an Italian restaurant, and her older siblings were busy with high school and held jobs too. Much of the caregiving for her younger siblings — ages 10, 5 and 2 — fell on Jackie, she said. In the spring, during the last quarter of her seventh grade year, she got some failing grades. (The school awarded grades that semester, but didn’t hold the marks against students if they fell below their average before remote learning.)
Jackie’s friendships grew distant too. Before the pandemic, she’d met friends at the library or Geno’s Steaks or for soccer in the park. She could still communicate with her friends via text or Discord, the messaging app, but their replies to her dwindled.
Going into the fall, she wanted to make online learning work. But, if anything, it got harder. The first day she couldn’t find the right links to log on to her classes. The mic of her school-provided laptop didn’t work. The camera stopped working too. She tried to log in on her phone, but that wasn’t working either. To earn money, she’d taken on some babysitting, so her house was filled not just with her siblings but two other kids as well. With so many school-age kids competing for Wi-Fi, it was difficult to get online at all.
Official weekly average attendance rates, based on whether kids showed up to homeroom, were only a few points below the rates pre-pandemic — 90 to 92 percent — but that revealed only part of the story.
Jackie felt comfortable emailing Schad about her troubles, since this was their second year together. But with her other teachers, whom she’d never met, she didn’t like opening up.
A week went by without her logging in much at all. Then another, and another. Meanwhile, the Nov. 6 deadline to apply to selective high schools loomed. Jackie felt sure she’d finish the applications, but Schad was worried. “If we had been in person I could have literally held Jackie in lunch or during her special period or after school and done it with her,” said the teacher. “But without that it’s been so much more difficult for Jackie and other students like her.”
About a third of Southwark graduates attend admissions-only and magnet high schools, while another third attend the feeder school, South Philadelphia High, and a third attend a nearby school known for its English as a Second Language program. Without strong attendance, it was virtually impossible to crack one of the admissions-only schools.
Early on in the school year, it became clear to Andrew Lukov, the school’s principal, that Southwark’s strategies for tracking attendance weren’t working. Official weekly average attendance rates, based on whether kids showed up to homeroom, were only a few points below the rates pre-pandemic — 90 to 92 percent — but that revealed only part of the story. Students might log in for one class, but skip the rest of the school day, or show up for class, but never hand in an assignment. For elementary kids, who were more likely to have caregivers overseeing their learning, attendance tended to be strong. But it tapered off for sixth, seventh and eighth graders, who were typically in charge of their own learning and often serving as caregivers to younger siblings.
The school formed a plan to give out prizes to the grade with the highest attendance. Teachers developed a system for better communicating with each other and encouraging students to transition from one class to another. Administrators designated “attendance captains” for each grade and refined a system of interventions if kids didn’t show up. A single absence triggered a phone call home, three triggered a home visit, and 10 resulted in a referral to a community organization that worked on an attendance plan with the family. “We want to do everything we can before a student is formally referred to truancy,” said Lukov.
As of December, 46 students had been referred to the community organization and a dozen had been referred to truancy court, he said. The number of referrals district wide was not available, but the share of students who were chronically absent was slightly higher than at Southwark, according to Christina Clark, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia school district. Despite Southwark’s efforts, though, there were still plenty of kids at risk of missing months, or a year, of academic content.
“It’s not like I don’t want to go to class, I’m trying, but there are a lot of difficulties. If I were to do it, it would be humiliating and unfair. Not everyone has access to Wi-Fi and computers.”Jackie, eighth grader, Southwark School, Philadelphia
There was no clear plan for helping these students catch up. Teachers felt torn: Graduating kids who’d missed a year of content felt like a terrible option, but so did retaining students. That would leave those students vulnerable to social challenges and put them at greater risk of dropping out — due to circumstances far beyond their control. Lukov also resisted the idea of retaining students, viewing it as an equity issue: The kids hit the hardest by the pandemic were those most likely to be kept behind. He wanted the district to try just about anything — Saturday school, extending the academic year — before requiring students to repeat the same grade.
Jackie, too, couldn’t imagine the school would punish her by making her repeat eighth grade. “It’s not like I don’t want to go to class, I’m trying, but there are a lot of difficulties,” she said. “If I were to do it, it would be humiliating and unfair. Not everyone has access to Wi-Fi and computers.”
She added: “My mom would probably kill me.”
Meanwhile, not every kid was struggling in remote learning. In fact, a small handful of students were doing better now than they had in person. One of them was Lee, who is being referred to by his middle name to protect his privacy.
Lee’s parents had long worried about how he was faring in school. Since pre-K, Lee had received extra help for his speech, having barely talked until he was 5. Starting in fourth grade, he’d also had trouble focusing. A psychologist diagnosed him with ADHD, and his parents, immigrants from Indonesia, brought the diagnosis to Southwark in the hope Lee would receive extra support, beyond speech services. But they were told he fell into a gray area and other kids needed help more, his parents said.
Then, when schools shut, the unexpected happened. Sitting next to him by the computer, Lee’s mother noticed he was quick to answer teachers’ questions in the chat. He stayed alert through class, typing his responses without hesitation. By comparison, in the school building, he’d rarely felt comfortable raising his hand.
“I don’t even have to remind him to do the work,” said his mother. “He’ll just do all the work by himself, and he’ll finish it early.” Jennifer O’Shaughnessy, Lee’s sixth grade English language arts teacher, noticed the change too. “He just came alive during online learning,” she said.
It helped that Lee’s mom was home with him. His father was too, but only for a few weeks, until the sushi restaurant where he worked reopened and started doing a brisk takeout business. Financial worries they’d experienced early in the pandemic subsided.
When classes started this fall, Lee’s new teachers knew him as just another kid who was showing up on time, participating in discussions via Zoom chat, and handing in assignments. He was a little quiet, yes, but a good student about whom they didn’t need to worry.
He was even finding ways to build connections with teachers remotely. One day in October, he excitedly shared with teachers in private chat messages that it was his birthday. They made a little fuss about it, wanting him to feel supported.
Lee’s dad worried about his son going too long without the socialization that came from school. But he liked to imagine that once the pandemic ended and Southwark reopened, Lee would be a different student than he’d been in sixth grade. “When the time comes for him to go back to school, probably, maybe, he can adapt, since he’s older now,” said Lee’s dad. Asked if he wanted to go back to the school building, Lee had a one-word answer: “No.”
By mid-October, any expectation of the school year achieving some semblance of normal had evaporated. Meanwhile, outside events continued to intrude on instruction. On Oct. 26, Walter Wallace, a Black man with a history of mental illness, was fatally shot by police in West Philadelphia, some six miles from Southwark’s building.
Jaeun Lee, the math teacher, decided to dedicate most of her homeroom class to discussing the killing. It was the second time students had been forced to process such a tragedy in isolation. In May, when George Floyd was killed, Schad had spoken with her students about the events, nudging them toward a broader understanding of what they were witnessing beyond the looting that had unfolded in some of their neighborhoods.
In her class in late October, Lee cued up a video in which kids of different races discussed the police shooting of a Black man. Students typed in the chat:
“Is racism repeating itself or was it always here?”
“Prob repeating itself”
“It was always here it just got worse”
Later, when Lee asked the students if they knew what day the following Tuesday was, their answers spilled out onto the screen:
“First female president”
“What would first lady be if the president had a husband”
“Why do people hate Trump?”
When the election arrived, it sent people into the streets once again and planted Philadelphia in the crosshairs of a defeated president who tweeted angrily at the city. For some kids, the election felt personal, emotional; for others, it barely registered. Anuar had Googled the results and was surprised to see that Trump was winning Pennsylvania, but later he read that his city had tipped the state to Biden. Philadelphia, he said, “has some common sense.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic raged. Virus cases in the city reached the highest rates on record. The Philadelphia school district’s plan to reopen schools for kindergartners through second graders on Nov. 30 was put on hold.
After weeks of nonstop planning for reopening, Lukov, the principal, was dismayed. Despite the safety concerns with Southwark’s aging building — windows that didn’t fully open, a janky heating system, longstanding worries about lead — the idea of welcoming back the school’s youngest learners had given Lukov a sense of hope.
“Myself and my colleagues, we’re working more hours than we ever have in our lives and it never seems like I’m doing enough. That’s not a good feeling.”Andrew Lukov, principal, Southwark School, Philadelphia
He felt encouraged by some things: the changes to the school’s attendance system, for example, and the fact that only 28 fewer students had enrolled than expected. But other plans he’d harbored for the year, like improving remote learning strategies, had been set aside for much of the fall. The son of Philadelphia school teachers, Lukov couldn’t shake the sense that the students needed him much more than even his own children and that he wasn’t delivering. “Myself and my colleagues, we’re working more hours than we ever have in our lives and it never seems like I’m doing enough,” he said. “That’s not a good feeling.”
By November, Anuar was feeling close to defeat. His grades were lousy. “I’ve never gotten an F or a D,” he said, “but this semester I’ve gotten both of those.” If he could just get back to school by his birthday, Dec. 12, he felt the year might be salvageable. But now that seemed unlikely.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said one afternoon in November. “I need to see people. I need to see the teacher. I can’t learn without seeing them.”
“I can’t do this anymore. I need to see people. I need to see the teacher. I can’t learn without seeing them.”Anuar, seventh grader, Southwark School, Philadelphia
Still, he was making an effort to keep his camera on. One day that month, he was late to social studies class, as usual. But when Schad called on him to define a vocab word, he unmuted himself and spoke assuredly. Twenty minutes into the class, he turned on his camera and kept it on for the entire class. “I want my teachers to know I’m here,” he explained.
When Schad asked him to weigh in on a character in the book they were reading, “The Red Pyramid,” by Rick Riordan, Anuar said he believed that character could be trusted. Schad pressed him on why.
“People can change,” Anuar said as he sat in his dark bedroom.
“People can change. How optimistic,” said Schad. “Thank you, Anuar.”
Jackie made it to class that day too. As an eighth grader, she was studying the Constitution with her class, and today they were covering the First Amendment.
Another student, wanting to pair up with her on an assignment, typed in the chat: “Jackie? Is she here?”
“Yes, Ms. Jackie is here,” Schad said aloud. “She’s logging in from her cell phone so it might take her a while to see your chat.”
Jackie had managed to fill out her applications to high schools, she said. To help stay focused, she’d used her babysitting money to buy a desk she’d assembled in the bedroom she shared with her older sister. She felt her applications would have been better if she’d received more help from her mom and from her teachers, as her older siblings had. But at least she’d submitted something.
Marc, meanwhile, had spent the last month recovering from the virus and the loss of his great-grandmother. His father’s problems mounted: His unemployment benefits had run out and his savings were dwindling. On good days, he felt sure he’d find work soon. On bad days, he worried he’d lose his house and his son.
“Money is important, but it sucked when my grandmom died. So I wouldn’t want anyone going back to school yet. Maybe for a long time.”Marc, seventh grader, Southwark School, Philadelphia
“It’s all been hard on him,” said Marc’s father, who experienced his son’s pain as his own. “This kid is my best friend,” he said. “I do whatever I can for him.”
But somehow, except on the day of his great-grandmother’s funeral, Marc’s attendance had been perfect. His grades were straight A’s, for the first time in his academic career. His teachers marveled at his determination to log into class even when he was sick.
Part of him wanted schools to open. But a bigger part of him didn’t. At this point, he could barely imagine what it would be like to return to the Southwark building on South 9th and Mifflin Streets. Would he even recognize his friends? On screen, he could see some of them had suddenly sprouted facial hair.
He’d read an article about parents who wanted to send their kids back to school because they could no longer afford child care and internet bills. “I just found that stupid,” Marc said.
“Money is important, but it sucked when my grandmom died,” he said. “So I wouldn’t want anyone going back to school yet. Maybe for a long time.”
Sarah Garland and Marguerite McQuire contributed reporting.
This story about middle school was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.