This week, we look at the educational system during the COVID-19 pandemic. We talked to teachers, Niki Whaley and Kimberly Adams, to get perspectives from each country's side. They share professional opinions of the pandemic's effect on misplaced students and changes for teachers. The abrupt business closures left consumers to rely on food deliveries and online shopping. Still, classrooms can't be replaced via delivery. The immediate effects of closures took a toll on over 50 million American students and parents. Niki and Kimberly's different experiences share a commonality in the challenge of maintaining normalcy for students.
Kimberly is an English teacher and Dean of Humanities (English and Social Studies) at her charter school in Brooklyn, New York. Charter schools have smaller classrooms at 30 kids average but, depending on schedule, can be as low as 15 kids per class, which Kimberly acknowledged as low considering other schools like Niki's. Niki teaches high school A.P. Lit., A.P. Language, A.P. Seminar, as well as Speech and Debate at a public school in the Clark County School district of Las Vegas. Teachers in Las Vegas can have 100-300 students overall, roughly 40 per class. Still, both educators teach at what is known as Title One schools, mostly African American and Latino students, with a large percentage falling within the low-income bracket.
Schools nationwide, either ending or planning for spring break, were stuck in a grey area as they remained open until late March. Everyone tried to navigate safety protocols, cleaning regimes as school shutdowns were debated.
Kimberly recalls that her building still had a lockdown drill, which wasn't smart because it required everyone to huddle together. She remembers that it was a confusing time for many schools trying to maintain class schedules while introducing Coronavirus protocols. Kimberly recalls that her building still had a lockdown drill which required everyone to be huddle together.
"We were waiting to hear from the Department of Education.", Kimberly says, "and it kept not happening, and this was the point where the students were starting to get freaked out."
Once the immediate dust settled, students and teachers settled into cyber schooling. The new norm became learning and teaching within the curriculum from home. Teachers with various levels of tech-savvy faced challenges of mastering new technology to conduct online classes. New programs emerged to help students and teachers navigate this new world. "I have to teach technical techniques while teaching regular curriculums and students are learning how to use technology differently.", Kimberly jokes, "They can use their phone for good rather than evil."
Kimberly's school did a parent and student survey led by their restorative justice group to find out who needed laptops. They also held parent webinars, which gave parents a chance to air grievances and ask questions more importantly.
In Las Vegas, students like Niki’s can apply to receive free wifi from COX internet. Still, the application process often takes time and initially was only in English, which alienated the large Spanish-speaking population in Las Vegas. In Niki's opinion, "If at-home learning was equitable, and we were providing good education, it wouldn't matter between in-person and online."
The Clark County school district tried what they called a 'Bus Routes' program. The buses, equipped with wifi, would stop for over an hour at 13 stops, often close to apartments so that people could access service from home, but it also wasn't without its flaws. "They sent out this map of bus routes and where they would be to provide wifi spots for kids, and I looked at that map and was like, whoa this is overwhelming, I can't even understand this," Niki says.
Many platforms gained popularity in attempts to make teaching virtually easier, like Google Meets and Zoom. There are also online curriculum programs like Google Classrooms and Edgenuity, but it's a learning process for everyone. Niki explains how her workload doubled with lesson plans now that they’re required in multiple formats. She also explained how the first few days were teaching kids how to use different devices. "After last week I now know how to 'right click' on like, several different types of technology.", Niki told us.
Watch this video from CNBC Make It about how a millennial company is reinventing the growing online learning.
For Kimberly, who leads a team, it's also more work. She has a system of screenshotting each step for colleagues. "We're teaching adults how to use it while teaching ourselves, and also teaching students," she says. She often oversimplifies her approach to students by asking for a 'thumbs up' reply after each click. Kimberly, however, is also embracing the technology's opportunities to make courses more fun. "There are very cool ways for kids to engage and participate if they don't feel comfortable speaking on Zoom necessarily.", she says.
Niki uses Canvas, an app to organize courses and connect with students. No system is perfect as she finds issues with occasional crashes and a recent security breach in her district. Still, with this, she noticed just like in-person schooling, each child learns differently and has different challenges. She explains, "Kids with bad wifi; they have to keep entering in the meet..and it's just like a classroom where they'll be like, 'I stopped paying attention can you repeat that?'"
Challenges For Students
tudents' obstacles depend on their life circumstances, age, demographic, and income. Lower-income families see the most adverse effects of school closings. Younger children's need for peer playtime is imperative to growth. The CDC posted the benefits to children's mental well-being with in-person school:
Other components affecting students include:
Lack Of Socializing:
Ironically, young children are less likely to contract COVID but more likely to have adverse social development by missing school. According to The Department of Health, schooling helps shape a child's personality. A 5-year-olds school play is as essential to social skills as the Senior prom is to teens. Pre-teens learn to manage friendships, handle competition, and, along with teens, develop hobbies and talents with extracurricular activities and sports.
Abuse At Home:
Unemployment and fear of sickness cause increased stress and substance abuse. Some students are exposed more to this double-edge sword of violence and depression. We learned last week in our chat with Dr. Goulston about how stress increases cortisol. This increased stress hormone can often fuel aggression making one more volatile. The United Nations Populations Fund predicts 15 million additional domestic violence cases during COVID-19 quarantines. School is a relief for children living in abusive situations.
Missing School Meals:
Over 30 million American kids rely on free or reduced-price school lunches. The already existing "summer nutrition gap," where students struggle to get balanced foods during summer break, is magnified since school closures.
Stress and Depression:
Not all children have homes with space for at home classrooms or privacy for an undistracted environment raising frustration and depression.
Adults aren't the only ones stressed by the virus. Some students may have already lost loved ones or fear death. Isolation at home decreases support from peers.
Usually, teachers could spot a disgruntled or depressed student and pull them aside. Niki expresses concern for a student of hers who teaches not only himself but also his younger sibling. "He also has the stress of being her teacher, learning himself, taking care of his own work plus her work." She explains, "Who's there listening to his issues? His parents are clearly gone, they're gone because they need to provide for their family."
Kimberly's school uses their counselors and Restorative Justice educators to help stay on top of this by having counselors remain with the students each grade level yearly to maintain connection and lessen the gap between students and the help they need.
How Are Parents Holding Up?
Parents not only have to maintain their careers and essential jobs but now have become teachers and I.T. support. It's a lot to juggle in addition to global health concerns.
Many kids are either being left alone or tagging along to their parents' work. "All of these stigmas and ideas about what a family should look like and what a parent's responsibility is was when the economy was good enough that only one person had to work", says Niki. Schools help families manage days, allowing parents to work and give children structure. Many ask if a portion of state income and sales tax goes to public school funding, how can families be made whole while managing home classrooms?
Some would say this is an argument for Universal Basic Income (which we'll touch more on next week with Andrew Yang). UBI would help families with meals and supplies. Like the political science professor, Almaz Zelleke, some believe that UBI should specifically be allocated to children.
The country accepted that summer wouldn't be water parks and vacations, but many hoped that schools would reopen by fall.
How can it be done safely when many schools already experience overcrowding and low budgets? How can social distance apply when typically students are in cramped classrooms? When Georgia's Paulding County school opened in August, it went viral with pictures of crowded hallways and increased COVID cases. Kimberly expresses similar concerns for her district. "There are a million-plus kids in this district.", Kimberly says, "It's the biggest district in the country. So you're telling me that these buildings that can't even regulate the temperatures...you're telling me they have good air circulation?"
In addition to health concerns some teachers, like Kimberly, fear the dangers children in certain demographics will face such as the potential of over-policing students. Who and how will COVID protocols be enforced? A tragic incident like the one involving 16-year-old Cornelius Fredricks could occur. He was tackled by staff because he threw a sandwich and later died from the injury. There is a real fear that kids who may act out, reject wearing a mask, or refuse social distance could face violence.
Although there are many fears of the unknown, both Kimberly and Niki remain vigilant in finding solutions. Kimberly's school is planning an orientation outdoors to greet and hand out laptops if needed. Niki predicts that programs will only get better as bugs get fixed, and kids can adjust. "Kids are insanely adaptable. I also think that kids are amazing as long as you expect them to be," Niki says of keeping her standards high.
The increased use of computer keyboard skills, spreadsheets, or sharing files can benefit students and help land that entry-level job where they can grow. "In the long run, it's probably a blessing in disguise,” Kimberly says, "This technology isn't anywhere, kids should be well-versed in how to use it,"
Despite many concerns, one thing is for sure that teachers like Niki and Kimberly deserve our admiration and respect. They're continually expected to adapt to budget cuts and mold America's children at the same time. Teachers are among the essential workers, and they need our support.
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