Just Another COVID School Year
Our incoming ninth graders gathered on the school's front lawn, blinking in the warm September sun. Some mingled in tentative groups, others made a beeline for the entrance with their new teachers cheering them on. There was awkwardness, excitement, and nerves– all refreshingly normal feelings for a first day of school. As I surveyed the stream of humanity the likes of which I hadn't seen in over a year, I felt the buzz of a low-level sense of shock. Exchanging looks with one of our school counselors, I saw a similar emotion in his raised eyebrows. This was finally happening– were we ready?
The 2020 - 2021 school year was weird and depressing. Hallways were quiet and classrooms mostly empty. We had to continuously adapt to changing circumstances. But the main challenge was to my identity as an educator. I felt like I was going through the motions of teaching: always grasping for new approaches but seeing minimal results. I was a farmer sowing seeds in a windstorm.
So there was fresh promise in the full hallways and noisy classrooms this September. When school opened, remote learning was no longer an option (unless a student was on a Department of Health mandated quarantine). I reveled in the experience of getting to know students quickly without the halting anonymity of teaching remotely. But as the year has progressed, it became clear that I had underestimated the magnitude of the injury inflicted on young people since March 2020.
Disengagement is poison to an enterprise that runs on connection and relationships, rapport and negotiation.
Disconnection and disruption have been the defining characteristics of this pandemic for anyone who works with children. Educators were forced to rapidly change long-held practices and then adjust again as our decisions warped the educational landscape in unanticipated ways. In pre-pandemic times, norms– not hard and fast rules– allowed us to meet our responsibilities to our students and our community. Disconnection has thoroughly eroded these norms. Disengagement is poison to an enterprise that runs on connection and relationships, rapport and negotiation.
Even in normal times, American public schools balance a dizzying number of roles. We are bulwarks against hunger, sanctuaries from chaos and violence, and an early warning system for abuse, neglect, and mental illness. As with police precincts and emergency rooms, the latest abdications and sicknesses of our society demand our attention daily. Oh– and we're also supposed to teach algebra, chemistry, history, and a variety of other subjects to a diverse group of young humans in a safe and nurturing environment. All of these responsibilities have intensified during the pandemic and we have seldom been provided with new resources commensurate with the increase in need.
Much has been written about the challenges that students, educators, and school staff are facing, so I will simply note some of my observations at the halfway point of this year– easily the most difficult of my career so far:
There is more conflict in our hallways and classrooms. Some students have forgotten how to deal with a subtle slight or a common disagreement without harsh words or even physical violence. The last normal school year our current ninth graders had was their sixth grade year, so it's possible that they never really learned this skill (at least not to the degree that it would be needed in the high school environment). People have speculated that students are saying things to their peers in person that they would have only ventured to say in the digital realm before. This makes sense given that students have relied heavily on virtual means of communication in the last two years. It also mirrors a trend towards more extreme speech in our larger society.
Challenging behaviors escalate and propagate rapidly. I have always tried to use progressive consequences in the classroom (e.g., issuing a verbal warning before a more serious consequence). That has been difficult this year because initial behaviors are often so extreme. My co-teacher and I tried a formal warning system in our ninth grade class but we dropped it after only one day because we simply couldn't keep up with it (even with two of us). We haven't figured out a truly proactive way to manage daily behaviors because most systems can't hold up when multiple crises in a single period push us quickly into survival mode.
Students are defiant and refuse to follow basic instructions. Schools don't have a rule or a procedure for every situation– that's where norms come in. Basic manners are one such norm and, while adolescents were never known as paragons of polite society, we are seeing levels of entitlement and rudeness that are regularly offensive. Students openly argue when they are asked to do something they don't want to do, however minor. They mistreat school property and expect it to be replaced for them. I know that some students had little supervision during remote learning last year and grew accustomed to doing whatever they wanted– it's no surprise that returning to the relatively regimented school routine has been a rude shock for them.
Children are relearning how to learn. Learning these last few years have been strange, even for the most motivated students. Instruction has been less demanding, grading has been lax, and feedback on learning has been different under the best circumstances (and absent under the worst). Some students realized that they could get by with doing very little or even abandoned certain classes altogether. Many students who basically did not attend eighth grade were advanced to ninth grade. The normal learning process, with all its challenges, collaborations, and eventual results, has become foreign to students who barely attended school last year (or did so mostly virtually). These students hear feedback as criticism and react poorly when faced with any setback.
Teachers and parents are exhausted. Our school has several essential unfilled positions and we regularly do not have enough substitutes to cover these. The result is a daily scramble to ensure there is a staff member in every classroom. Managing the outsized behaviors described above is exhausting, especially when we are short-staffed. Administrators are only able to be reactive when it comes to enforcing school rules. Parents are understandably weary of dealing with challenging behaviors too and regular quarantines have caused endless confusion and headaches.
These conditions we are experiencing took over a year to create and I believe that it will take significant time to repair the damage, even if we have no more major disruptions. But the stability and patience that students need from adults right now may not be possible as long as staff shortages linger. It is a cruel reality that understaffing exacerbates existing problems and makes the school environment even more fraught, leading more educators to consider leaving the profession. Anti-teacher rhetoric and legislation will only amplify this effect. In my own district, a stalled contract negotiation is leading to growing frustration among our staff. Many teachers seem like they are approaching a breaking point.
Social emotional learning (SEL) has been offered as a way to help students adjust to being back in school. I am familiar with SEL competencies such as those from CASEL and I believe that teachers should take them seriously. I had a role in writing a school-based SEL curriculum this summer and the lessons we created have the potential to spark some helpful conversations. However, I've come to believe that the most impactful SEL happens when students have a trusted relationship with multiple adults who have time to patiently work with them and listen to them. Because of this, our most vulnerable students absolutely need smaller classes and more adult attention. Unfortunately, we are struggling to fill existing staff positions and most of our ninth grade classes are at capacity or beyond.
It's impossible to know what the next few months will hold for schools like mine. Perhaps things will feel brighter in a few months. But in the clutch of winter near the crest of Omicron, it's hard to be optimistic.