In the six weeks since schools shut down, educators say they’ve felt saddened, stressed and concerned.
Education is usually a social affair. Teachers and students gather and exchange knowledge and ideas. But as social distancing measures meant to slow the spread of the new coronavirus were put in place, learning has come with new challenges.
These challenges have included changing work roles in order to accommodate distance learning. Like workers in other professions, many educators are struggling to balance work and home life. Some have had to make difficult decisions about what to keep and what to let go as social distancing places new limits on both students, teachers, and administrators.
But above all, educators say they miss the loss of face-to-face interaction that they say is key to learning. Below, five of them tell their stories of adjustment, compromise and resilience.
The Elementary School Teacher
Name: Mary Diemer
Role: 4th grade teacher
Low: Students missing face-to-face learning.
Positive: Schools can learn how to better kids’ education through lessons learned during quarantine.
Mary Diemer teaches fourth grade at Hazelwood Elementary in Louisville, Kentucky. Before the pandemic hit, Diemer had a routine like many public school teachers. She would get to school around 7:30 a.m., finalize lesson plans and grade assignments.
“I would meet my class in the auditorium at 8:55 and then the day is non-stop until 3:45,” Diemer said. “Because my students are doing so many different activities throughout the day, there was a lot of prep work before school. Before COVID-19 my to-do list was always long.”
Having moved to a remote learning model, Diemer’s daily routine looks a lot different. She said she’s not expected to teach every subject like she was when classes were still in-person. Instead, she focuses on one subject and a team of teachers tackles the other subjects.
“I develop all the reading lessons, record which students are completing the assignments and communicate that with my team,” Diemer said. “I usually check everything around 7 or 8 because some students work through the evening. I want to make sure they are given credit for working that day.”
Hazelwood is one of the poorest schools in the Jefferson County Public School district. As a Title 1 school, it receives federal funding based on the number of low-income students enrolled.
This has created several challenges for Diemer and her students, the biggest being the lack of access to technology. Diemer was worried that many of her students would fall behind. She said JCPS announced over email it would be giving out 25,000 Chromebooks (laptops) to families that qualified, but many of the parents at Hazelwood did not have an email on file. “See the problem here?” Diemer asked.
“Several staff members started calling parents almost immediately,” she said. “The Chromebook request was first come, first served so we knew we had to get these parents signed up. Fortunately, most of our families that qualified ended up getting their Chromebooks by the next week.”
Technology isn’t the only concern Diemer has for her students. She said online learning is not a viable alternative to in-person instruction, especially for younger students. The immediate feedback that comes with the traditional classroom experience is lost.
“My other concern is how we will make-up for the lost learning,” she said. “Several of my students are already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to their education. Forty percent of my students are English Language Learners. All of them live in poverty.”
Diemer said educators should use the lessons learned from this period to improve schools.
“I hope we don’t just return to business as usual when we go back to school in August,” she said. I hope we use this time to make our classrooms even better for our students.”
The High School English Teacher
Name: John Hall
Role: High school teacher
Low: Concerned about mental health of students.
Lesson learned: Appropriate workload varies from in-person to online.
“Teaching high school is never easy,” John Hall said. “Trying to teach high schoolers during a crisis like this is something entirely different.”
Hall is an English teacher at Presentation Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, which is an all-girls college preparatory school. Unlike Mary Diemer, Hall’s students have access to technology, but that doesn’t mean his online experience has been without hurdles.
“Most of our students are on the more fortunate side of the digital divide,” Hall said. “However, there is a steep learning curve for some students with tech. Oftentimes, we think young people are savvier with technology, but they need lots of guidance. The biggest issue I’ve faced is trying out different online learning tools and working through the kinks. For some students, videos wouldn’t record, or some other issue would pop up. These issues occur in the classroom often, but you can adjust and fix the problem on the fly. The asynchronicity of online instruction is a huge issue.”
Hall said he’s worried about the actual instructional hours now compared to when classes were held in person. Not only does reduced instruction affect students, it also affects the teachers.
“We don’t meet with our students every day, rather once a week,” Hall said. “That lack of contact creates gaps in academic learning and social development. I’ve struggled with the loss of routine and the lack of interaction with my students. I pride myself in being able to develop strong relationships with my students. Whether that is asking them how their game went, how things are at home, or how their other classes are going. It’s very difficult to have those one-on-one conversations now that we are in an online classroom.”
Most of all, Hall said he’s worried about the mental health of his students.
“Adolescence is a time when humans need to socialize,” he said. “To try on different identities. I’m not sure what effect social distancing will have on their cognitive development, but it worries me.”
The University Administrator
Name: Beth Boehm
Role: University Provost/Vice President
Low: Having to layoff/furlough staff.
Positive: Summer enrollment up from previous years.
Universities across the country have had to make difficult decisions. Closing dorms, dealing with budget shortfalls, and making tough calls about employee’s futures are several of the decisions administrators have had to make.
University of Louisville Provost Beth Boehm said one of the more difficult aspects of this situation has been having to furlough longstanding employees.
“Everyone has had to take pay cuts,” Boehm said from her kitchen turned office. “From the newest employees to the athletic coaches all the way to the president’s office. The university is going to be short almost $40 million this fiscal year. The University of Kentucky just announced they expect to be almost $70 million short. Everyone is struggling.”
She said having to explain to longtime employees that they have been temporarily furloughed and not fired has proven more difficult than she initially anticipated.
“Some of the employees can’t get past the terminology,” Boehm said. “Not being able to discuss these matters face-to-face has been challenging. Understandably, their pride has taken a hit.”
Boehm said she is proud of how teachers and students at the university have handled the situation. Moving everything online in a matter of days would be challenging for any school, let alone one with over 20,000 students, she said
“Surprisingly,” Boehm said, “enrollment for online summer classes is up compared to previous years. So, I’m hopeful that the online experience hasn’t been as bad for the students as some might have thought it would be.”
She said the administration at the university has been in regular contact with the Student Government Association. Communication has been key to understanding student body concerns and has also allowed the administration to transparently convey the university’s plan’s going forward.
“I know students miss being in class,” Boehm said. “Teachers miss being in class, too. We’re doing everything we can to make sure when the time is right, we’ll be ready to get back into our normal routine. I know our students are working hard. So are teachers and staff. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I have in the past six weeks.”
Multiple plans for reopening the university this fall are still being developed, but Boehm said she is hopeful that students will be able to return to campus.
“We’ve got a few options that are in the works,” she said. “One of them involves students getting a mandatory flu shot. Whatever happens, we are prioritizing the safety of our students and staff.”
The Adjunct Turned Homeschooler
Name: Patrick Wensink
Role: Professor turned homeschool teacher
Low: Busier than ever.
Positive: More time spent with his son.
Like all parents of school aged children, educators have had to navigate a new normal. It might seem like being a teacher would be an advantage when instructing one’s own children, but as Patrick Wensink, visiting English professor at Western Kentucky University tells it, teaching college writing workshops and teaching an 8-year-old boy are totally different.
“I don’t think I’ve worked this hard since I worked as a freelancer,” Wensink said from his kitchen-turned-office (a theme?). “Balancing my work, my student’s work, and trying to come up with things to keep my kid busy has been…difficult.”
Wensink’s son, Walter, is an 8-year-old with autism spectrum disorder. He said although his son functions at a higher level than some other children on the spectrum, he still needs lots of attention and face-to-face learning.
“Walter has definitely appreciated the sort of rigid schedule we’ve created for him at home,” Wensink said. “But having to continuously figure out activities that I can do with Walter while also getting my work done hasn’t been easy. I can’t just toss him some markers and tell him to color for an hour. He needs that face-to-face.”
On top of having to create a curriculum suitable for his son, Wensink has also had to take care of his wife, Leah, recently diagnosed with coronavirus. Although not hospitalized, his wife has been quarantined for the last two weeks, which has left Wensink to take care of everything around the house.
“It’s been hectic,” Wensink said. “I get up in the morning and check on my wife, then check on Walt. Then I start cooking breakfast and getting Walt settled for a little before I get to my students’ work. Usually I don’t stop cooking or working until everyone is asleep, and then I try to work on my own stuff. I don’t really ever stop working these days. Definitely more stressful than my normal routine”
Wensink is quick to point out that just because he is busier now and acts as a teacher for his son, it isn’t all bad. His son seems to appreciate the move to learning at home.
“Walt was having a few problems in school,” he said. “Having him here and making sure he’s getting all the attention he needs has created a noticeable shift in his attitude. He’s enjoyed the structure we’ve been able to provide. That’s definitely a silver lining.”
Wensink said the sudden shift to online learning and becoming a teacher to his son has taught him a valuable lesson.
“We always ask our students and kids to be flexible,” he said. “And I’ve definitely learned to be flexible through this, especially as a parent.”
The Creative Writing Professor
Name: Ryan Ridge
Role: Graduate Professor
Low: Missing out on personal interaction where students receive feedback.
Positive: Already familiar with online learning and instruction.
Ryan Ridge teaches creative writing at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. He said the loss of face-to-face feedback is particularly consequential for students and teachers in the humanities where in-person critiques play a large role in the learning experience.
“The main disruption to my routine is the sudden extinction of human interaction,” Ridge said. “I miss talking with colleagues in the hallways and working with students in the classroom. After all, we’re social animals.”
Unlike some creative writing programs at other institutions, Ridge said the program at Weber State had offered online classes since 2018. Being familiar with online instruction proved advantageous.
“A lot of the scaffolding was already in place to build things out pretty quickly,” he said. “We were privileged in that we weren’t starting from scratch. We already used technology like Box, Canvas, Drive, Zoom, etc. so we were able to adjust to the new normal fast.”
Ridge said the biggest challenge he has faced is holding students’ attention. Managing expectations while keeping stress minimized has also been a struggle.
“I pumped the brakes on any non-essential assignments to streamline things so that we can do more with less,” he said. “I won’t know the pandemic’s effect on the quality of the work until I get to grading. Ultimately, this semester is just about powering through, keeping on, maintaining.”
Though his experience teaching online has been smoother than most, Ridge remains skeptical, if not pessimistic, about what the pandemic means for the future.
“Handshakes and high-fives are history,” he said. “An even greater recession is imminent. Hopefully, if anything good comes out of this mess it’s that we finally get around to fixing our shattered healthcare system.”