Pandemic prompts rethinking education

January 31, 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. The majority of the 24 children in a fourth-grade class in Detroit—Black, Latinx and white students—have not tuned in to their virtual class. They’ve dropped out. Their young teacher, in a desperate effort to engage them, tells the two or three who are doing their work, “You can’t talk now”—which discourages them further.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered teachers and students back to classrooms on the grounds that remote learning was leaving disproportionate numbers of Black and Latinx students behind. But Brentano Elementary School teachers worked outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures because they did not think their building had adequate COVID-19 safety practices.

Mayor Lightfoot is not wrong to state that remote learning is alienating increasingly large numbers of students. But Chicago teachers feel that the decision to re-open at this time—as COVID-19 cases 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 legislation to more funds,` 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…


“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 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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