When the pandemic hit in March, it threw a wrench in everyone's schedule: wedding plans, travel plans, relocation plans—you name it, it was canceled. But, as frustrating as that derailment has been, those things can be rescheduled eventually. Education, however, cannot. The school year had to go on for teachers and students, regardless of how rocky the waters ahead were. The education system in 2020 is totally uncharted territory, and as "planners by nature," as Hayley Pratt, a high school teacher in Iowa, calls her peers, educators were at a loss for how to prepare for teaching while keeping kids—and themselves—afloat this year.
“We're starting from scratch,” Pratt, who is teaching high school biology and chemistry online, tells HelloGiggles. “Most teachers have a collection of lessons that they pull out each year and make slight tweaks to use from year to year. But in 2020, we can't just alter previous lessons—we're recreating the wheel."
Sue Bethel, who has been teaching for 18 years and is currently teaching second grade in Iowa, reveals that "veteran teachers feel like first-year teachers this year," as none of their previous experience could have prepared them for teaching during the pandemic. Educators in 2020 have taken on one of three teaching formats: solely virtual, solely in-person, or a combination of the two (hybrid).
“Keeping up with both in-class and online students to give both types of learners quality teaching has been challenging,” Mary Stumbo, a hybrid fourth-grade teacher in Iowa, explains. “We find ourselves staying for hours after school to make sure everything is set up for the next day for both sets of students. Sometimes it feels like we're doing two full-time jobs.”
Pratt agrees that teachers' responsibilities this year are overwhelming, to say the least. "Twelve to fourteen-hour days are not uncommon, and neither is working all weekend," she reveals.
"I've started taking Saturdays off for my own mental health," Pratt continues. "But every other day, I spend hours outside of contract time trying to make this the best possible experience for students."
As the number of COVID cases has risen in many states across the country, some teachers are thrown from one teaching model into another, leaving them in a constant state of uncertainty. “My team and I have been calling it the ‘yo-yo effect,’” Stumbo says. “We’re teaching in person, then virtually, then back to in person, and, most likely, we'll be virtual again. It's like yo-yoing up and down.”
And although working from home is appealing for many people, for teachers—who enter the profession to make meaningful connections with kids—the loss of face-to-face contact with their students is heartbreaking. But aside from adjusting to bonding with students through a screen, actually teaching lessons online reigns supreme as the biggest challenge for virtual educators.
"We've had to take everything we've learned about education, behavior, and psychology and completely flip it to something that can be done online," Dani Morris, a virtual first-grade teacher in Kansas, says.
While teaching online, countless technological issues have arisen, like students' home internet connections failing, educational platforms crashing—and trying to troubleshoot when students don't know the terminology to explain what's going wrong on their end. Plus, teachers don't know what's actually happening behind students' computer screens.
"We don’t really have a clear picture of their capabilities because we don’t know how much support they're receiving from older siblings or parents,” Katie Harmeyer, a third-grade teacher in Kansas, explains. “We also aren’t there to reinforce that they're working, so when they pop off of Zoom for independent work, they could really be doing anything.”
The hovering parental component has been a real challenge for virtual teachers—and, perhaps unknowingly for parents, it'll hinder their kids' education in the long run, too. "We're being watched by parents via Zoom and are having to grade work whether it's done by students, by parents, or not at all," Morris says.
In some schools, students aren't required to turn their cameras on, so teachers don't even know if anyone is listening to their lesson. "My district has many low-income families, and students don't have the most ideal learning environment, so we don’t require them to turn on their cameras," Pratt explains. "That results in no one turning on their cameras. Sometimes, students will use their microphone to ask or answer a question, but usually they just type in the chat."
"I feel like I'm just talking to myself most of the time, and talking to a black screen all day is not great for my mental health."
On the flip side, while in-person teachers express how grateful they are to have face-to-face communication with their students, in the COVID era, it also presents a whole new set of challenges. "Social distancing 7-year-olds and reminding them to wear their masks, use hand sanitizer, and not share materials with classmates all adds to the enormous pressure to provide a quality education and make meaningful connections with each student," Bethel says.
Plus, for students with learning disabilities, staying put at their desks all day to maintain safety measures greatly hampers their educational experience. “I think it's been hardest on my ADHD students," says Grace, a fifth-grade teacher in Iowa. "They're used to moving around or choosing flexible seating, but this year, they’re trapped in their desk all day. That’s not a good learning environment.”
Another aspect of pre-COVID education that's impossible this year? Collaboration. "So much of pre-K is learning to share and work collaboratively with classmates," Tori Murphy, a pre-K teacher in New York, tells HelloGiggles. "So it's saddening to have to constantly remind my students to stay a safe distance from each other." Bethel agrees that "students thrive when they work on projects together," but conducting group work is off the table this year.
And young students, like Murphy's pre-kindergarteners, don't understand the severity of the pandemic, which Murphy says makes it "difficult to balance" informing them while still keeping them calm. "It’s challenging to discuss COVID and germ spreading without scaring my kids," she reveals. "It's clear that they're anxious about the virus and feel very out of control. They get really upset when they see a friend whose mask is pulled down."
"I want them to be aware of how to keep themselves and their community healthy, but I don't want it to prevent them from enjoying school and making friends."
Learning social skills is an enormous part of education for young students, but with safety measures in place, it's difficult for kids to socialize with their peers. "My students are only allowed to play with their classmates at recess," explains Cathy Dominguez, a third-grade teacher in Kansas. "They aren't allowed to play with the other third graders who might be their friends on the playground. This is limiting for kids, especially if they haven’t bonded with any of their classmates."
But despite the countless challenges that the 2020 school year has presented to teachers and students, they've managed to find some silver linings within the chaos, like watching their kids persevere and become more independent.
"Sometimes, kids develop a learned helplessness because teachers or parents answer all of their questions and solve all of their problems for them," Grace explains. "This compounds a real lack of problem-solving skills as they grow up. But when they're independently learning at home, they have to figure it out themselves, which I think is both frustrating for them yet incredibly helpful for their future."
Plus, in a digital society, learning to use technology—no matter how exasperating it might currently be—is preparing students for real-world endeavors. "Our district purchased enough technology resources for all students and teachers to have their own device for virtual learning, which was not the case pre-COVID," Stephanie Economos, a fourth-grade teacher in Iowa, says. "This has allowed students to better prepare for the real world as they grow in their digital literacy skills."
And while the entire class—teacher and all—learns new skills together, Harmeyer says that her students have been eager to help when she or their classmates struggle with technology. “It’s been a great learning experience for students to see that adults make mistakes, too,” Harmeyer says.
“We’ve talked a lot about having a growth mindset, grit, and empathy for others—and I’ve truly seen these qualities blossom in my students."
As many of us have realized during the turmoil of 2020, it's essential to take care of our mental health; otherwise, we simply cannot thrive anywhere else. "We have to check in with our mental health before we can learn things," says Ivy Gardner, an eighth-grade language arts and middle school theater teacher in Texas. "I hope that's something this generation carries with them from the pandemic."
Economos has also been prioritizing incorporating emotional learning into her lesson plans, as "it’s necessary for all students and teachers right now," she says. “I’ve been able to engage in daily mindfulness exercises and activities with my students to take care of their mental health. This hasn't been as large of a priority of mine in past years, but it’s something I’ll continue to prioritize after the pandemic is over, because my students are more focused, calm, and positive as a result of this work in the classroom."
While teachers and students navigate the rocky waters of school in 2020, many have found their communities embracing a "we're all in this together" mindset.
"Our school is more connected because we're all in the trenches right now," Hunter Sherretts-Woulfe, an elementary special education teacher in Kansas, tells HelloGiggles. "We're all trying to keep our heads above water, and people are really taking the time to assess their own mental and physical health rather than just focusing on work."
Like everything in 2020, the education system is moving with the tide in order to make the best of things. And while it might feel impossible to swim at times, teachers and students are lucky to have each other when they need to be thrown a life preserver.