This past Saturday, the Pennsylvania Department of Education announced that Pennsylvania is one of seven states to be awarded a nearly $1 million federal grant that will go toward studying the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on K-12 students.
The department will partner with Mathematica to identify the biggest challenges faced by students most affected by the pandemic, develop potential responses to future epidemics, and evaluate whether some remote-learning strategies have been more effective than others.
“Our school communities and families have remained resilient during the pandemic, and we are thankful for their ability to pivot throughout the challenges we have faced,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said in a press release. “The ability for us to examine inequities in education will help us create responsive teaching and learning opportunities in future years.”
Robert Salladino, principal of Springton Lake Middle School, said instructors at his school have done an admirable job of adjusting how they instruct over the entirety of the pandemic.
“I could not be more proud of what they have accomplished,” Salladino said. “With each passing month, I also see them getting better and better at what they are doing.”
However, he noted that the pandemic has had real effects on the school’s day-to-day operations. Namely, virtual instruction has limited the ability of teachers to fully connect with their students.
“While our teachers have done an excellent job over the last year, it has been harder to build connections and relationships with students who have been fully virtual,” Salladino said. “We know that relationships are a key factor in academic achievement.”
As a result, student development has also taken a hit. Jennifer Dalton, who teaches second grade at Tinicum Elementary School, said it has been difficult getting her students fully caught up following months of virtual and asynchronous instruction.
She also said it is hard to blame any single person for those difficulties.
“I do not look at this as a failure in the education system, but rather a failure in the United States as a whole,” Dalton said. “The entire country was not equipped to handle the pandemic.”
Dalton cited the greater emphasis on online learning during the pandemic as both a success and a failure. Even though she believes technology is important for students to learn, devaluing hand-writing skills, she said, could be “a huge problem down the road for our younger students.”
Barbara Rudy, who teaches second grade at Nether Providence Elementary, added that while the education system succeeded in providing adequate at-home resources for students, support for instructors could be improved.
“We struggled with parent involvement, but it fell on us to handle and encourage parents to do their jobs at home,” Rudy said.
In spite of all those complications, Dalton said that her students have remained resilient through all the drastic changes to the curriculum.
“Children adapt,” Dalton said. “This is the new normal for our children and they have adapted and are living life as if it has always been this way.”
Looking ahead, certain pandemic-related changes could stick around. Both Salladino and Rudy envision Zoom, for example, remaining a valuable resource for conducting staff meetings and parent-teacher conferences. Dalton also said she plans to keep her classroom environment simple, limiting classroom decorations in order to cut down on potential distractions.
But Salladino said that he is eager to get back to the pre-pandemic norms his school is used to.
“Sometimes it takes losing those things to appreciate what you have,” Salladino said.