We are experiencing many pandemic anniversaries this month. As a law student, I am passing by days that mark one year since we switched to Zoom, one year since I cleaned out my carrel in the library and, soon, a year since I started my remote summer job addressing Covid-19 issues in special education.
Drawing on my experience as an online law student and teaching assistant for first-year law students this past year, I recently spoke with several other educators — teachers of second graders through college students — about what they have learned in this past year of distance learning. My main question: What lessons should we take with us as schools reopen? Here’s a summary of what I heard.
1. Doing less is more effective than you’d think.
Paring down substantive material in the curriculum has been the right move. One K-8th grade science teacher I spoke with explained that she has chosen to zero in on the importance of learning how to learn, rather than emphasizing the same amount of content she would in a typical year. She said that even in a subject like science, doing less has been OK, and that the focus across the board this year has rightly been on social-emotional learning.
“Kids are only ‘falling behind’ based on the standards we set,” said Andie DiBiase, a second grade teacher in Marin County who has also focused on social-emotional learning and relationship-building with her tight-knit smaller class this year.
Hannah Manshel is an English professor who has taken a similar approach. In planning her asynchronous online classes this year, she tried to figure out how to make sure her students were learning what they needed –– while not being overwhelmed by the workload. She decided to use an “ungraded” syllabus: Instead of grading her student’s assignments, if they do most of the work in good faith, they can count on a B grade. But they have ways to improve their grade with optional assignments. This removes grade-related pressure for students who may be overburdened or burnt out by pandemic learning and puts the focus on participating to the best of their abilities. Manshel still prefers face-to-face teaching, but has been pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement and depth of analysis she has seen from her students in their work and communication with one another.
2. Pandemic learning has worsened divides drawn by privilege and precarity.
The pandemic has caused concern that it may be widening existing learning and resource gaps among students. Those from wealthier families have had access to robust, functional technology and other educational supports. Meanwhile, for students whose families have access to fewer resources, learning loss is a real concern. The issue is receiving increased attention as schools reopen, as are shortcomings in school infrastructure. These inequities must be taken into account when students return to full-time, in-person school. Students in a single class may have had vastly different pandemic experiences.
Sarah Bloom, who teaches elementary school in Berkeley, California, has noticed that her students’ support needs have changed during distance learning from what they were before the pandemic. For example, Bloom has one student who sometimes must attend class on an iPad using cellphone data from her parents’ car. This changes the way that student can participate in class, and how much she needs to review material. Bloom said that some students have not necessarily progressed the way they should. She predicts that because of the many intersecting factors impacting student success this year — geography, precarity, family situations — some students will need a lot more support next year and will struggle if pre-pandemic expectations remain in place.
3. Communication and personal relationships with students are key.
Every educator I spoke with emphasized how critical one-on-one communication has been with their students during distance learning, no matter the format in which they are teaching. Second grade teacher Andie DiBiase pointed out that, online, “we didn’t get those silly moments during transitions, recess interactions or as many chances to build trust.” She found it helpful to have weekly, scheduled individual time with her students and to seek out other ways to have points of contact throughout the week.
Frankie Romano, a graduate instructor who teaches college English in a combination of independent work and weekly Zoom lectures, said she was surprised that she is still able to get an individual sense of each of her students in that format. While not as clear as in person, each student’s style, interests and needs shine through in breakout rooms, in-class discussions and their writing. Romano emphasized that teachers and students can build individual relationships over Zoom, and that the importance of building classroom culture and rapport has remained true across teaching formats.
My own experience as a law student reflects these findings. My most effective classes have streamlined material and fostered connections with breakout groups, individual appointments with the instructor and creative assignments. Many classes have taken advantage of the online format’s ability to host guest speakers.
One thing has remained steady during the pandemic: Educators and students alike are still showing up and trying hard to make learning work, no matter the educational setting. Flexibility, individual focus and emphasis on communication are what ought to guide the return to in-person learning –– whether it is in a university or a second grade classroom.
Amelia Evard is a third-year law student and teaching assistant interested in public interest law, disability rights and access to justice.
This story about lessons from distance learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.