Pandemic changes education

January 14, 2021

From the January-February 2021 issue of News & Letters

Detroit–As schools and colleges resume after the holiday break, both students and teachers are rebelling against the mis-education the mis-handled pandemic has wrought.

  • In Chicago, Brentano Elementary School teachers, ordered back to classrooms, worked outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures because they do not think their building has adequate COVID-19 safety practices. Mayor Lori Lightfoot stated that it was a question of equity, as remote learning was leaving disproportionate numbers of Black and Latinx students behind.

Lightfoot is not wrong –remote learning is alienating increasingly large numbers of students.

  • In a fourth-grade class in Detroit, with a mix of Black, Latinx and white students, the majority of the 24 children in their virtual class have not tuned in; they’ve dropped out. In a desperate effort to engage them their young teacher tells the two or three who are doing their work “You can’t talk now,”—which discourages them as well!

But the Chicago teachers feel that the decision to re-open at this time—as COVID-19 case are rising nationwide after the holiday travels—is not supported by data and is disrespectful to staff and students. “I also want them to stop using equity as an excuse to open buildings when it’s really not safe. That’s not what equity is,” said one teacher.


Teachers, parents and students all across the country report similar concerns about student engagement and motivation, beyond the frustrations of technology failures. But some are generating better ideas. One Michigan school superintendent advocates individualized learning for all students, which would require everything from more funds to legislation to a changed mindset. Another former teacher’s philosophical approach, shared on Facebook, is even more deeply grounded in the students’ needs:

“In our determination to ‘catch them up,’ I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on?…When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year.

“….Greet them with art supplies and writing materials, and music and dance and so many other avenues to help them express what has happened to them in their lives during this horrific year. Greet them with stories and books that will help them make sense of an upside-down world. They missed you. They did not miss the test prep. They did not miss the worksheets. They did not miss the reading groups. They did not miss the homework. They missed you.

“….They need be given as many tools as we can provide to nurture resilience and help them adjust to a post pandemic world.… Our children have so much to share …. This will help them—and us—achieve a lot more than can be measured by any assessment tool ever devised. “

The pandemic and the massive switch to virtual education has upended the social and political foundation of education, placing question marks over curriculum, teaching and evaluation methods. Moreover, the deep divides in student achievement are much greater than technological inequities affecting poorer, Black and Brown children. Fundamental assumptions underlying society’s financial support for education and the very purpose of schooling in the U.S. are up for debate. Out of this mess comes an opportunity to address basic issues.  Most immediately, educators can be thinking about ways to help students reflect and build on what they have learned, in school or out, and to figure out how to allow those experiences to “count.”

–Susan Van Gelder

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