We Need to Think Critically About How the Pandemic is Impacting Our Schools

Dan Kearney
October 9, 2020
As schools adjust to the reality of Covid, it’s vital that educators stand up for what’s in the best interest of students, teachers, and learning.

As schools adjust to the reality of Covid, it’s vital that educators stand up for what’s in the best interest of students, teachers, and learning.

If your school — and, by extension, you — has returned to on-campus, face-to-face learning maybe you’ll find yourself nodding along to these words. If you’re still teaching and learning in the virtual environment, then this just might be a message from the future.

Disclaimer: this commentary is not about the wisdom of returning to school during Covid. My school has returned. Many others have, while entire states still remain online. I wish you nothing but the best as you wrestle with your personal feelings and your district’s decision making.

Let me start by saying that students and teachers love seeing each other again. Kids, even from six(ish) feet apart, enjoy being in the same space as their friends, hearing their voices, reading their expressions above the masks. Many of the positives of being in the classroom — from a-ha moments to the boundless joy of students engaged in learning they truly love — hold up remarkably well during the pandemic. This speaks largely, I believe, to the resilience of human beings. Students and teachers can hold on to the good, the positive, and the bright, and carry it forward even under the most difficult circumstances.

Like humans, schools can adapt when faced with adversity. But just because they can, does that mean they should? Do we want our schools to adapt to the current circumstances and changes being foisted upon us?

There’s an important conversation taking place among progressive educators regarding how the pandemic has revealed a need for fundamental change in how we approach education. What I’m addressing here is the opposite: schools moving in decidedly undemocratic directions.

My message here is a challenge to us all. Think critically about the ways in which your school is shifting, sliding, and generally moving — especially if it’s in directions you’re uncomfortable with — just because it’s in the name of safety.

Under Control

I began paying close attention when a young student said to me, “I don’t like how everything is under teacher control. We don’t even have free play.”

You see, like in our larger society, the quickest way to ensure increased safety in a school is to tighten control. We’re talking about preventing the spread of a virus here, so I’m not being glib about necessary measures if a school wants to bring students back. I am, however, worried about the long-term impact of said tightened controls. What if they prove to be “highly effective” at keeping rambunctious students quiet? What if test scores increase? What if we fall in love with the new “order” they bring to our buildings? Or what if they are simply more convenient?

Consider something fundamental, at the most basic human level: student bodies. When we tightly control student bodies we create an environment that is inherently less free. Sit at this desk and don’t get up unless given permission. Walk in a line, six feet apart. Stand on your spot at recess and don’t move off it. What could be less democratic than circumscribing the movements, and controlling the space, of our students? When teachers find themselves thinking less about relationships and pedagogy and more about enforcing distancing, something has been lost.

[Of course, when I describe strict levels of control over student bodies as being “new” what I’m really saying is that it’s only new in predominantly white schools. Many black and brown students have endured similar treatment for their entire school lives.]

Zooming Away From Learning

Even the way we think about our pedagogy is being altered. Many schools have adopted a model in which some students are physically in the classroom and others are at home, watching the session over Zoom or Google Meet. The flow of learning is being fractured by a tangle of wires, mute buttons, and awkward positioning in the classroom. Can everyone see me? Can everyone hear me?

And for those students at home the learning experience has morphed into a consumable product, a low-quality Netflix special in which the audience is occasionally asked to participate. In the midst of a pandemic this may very well be a viable option for keeping as many students as possible “in the classroom”. But I believe we should be very afraid of what this model looks like in the post-pandemic world, particularly given edtech’s propensity for creating demand for questionable teaching tools in cash-strapped school districts.

As for the teachers in this hybrid model…well, I hope you don’t mind being on camera all day. It’s well documented that being watched changes our behavior, and this camera-in-the-classroom setup offers a new twist: you don’t know who might be watching, and when. I’m reminded of a colleague who described her teacher training in Australia. Apparently there was a classroom designated as the student teacher lab in which one wall was a two-way mirror, like an interrogation room at a police station. In this room, young teachers could never be sure if they were being observed, or by whom. I always wondered how that would affect the teaching and learning; I guess many of us are now finding out.

Re: Under Control

I’ll close by referring again to the observation by that young student. Everything is under teacher control. More than anything else, this might be the greatest threat to education posed by Covid. Beyond student bodies and cameras in the classroom, consider your school’s schedule, grading practices, assessments, et al. Consider the student experience, and consider how it is shifting to meet the (real or imagined) demands of the moment. If the center of the learning is moving away from the students and towards the teacher, we have a problem.

The pandemic has altered the world in some pretty significant ways; how many of these changes are here to stay? As educators we need to ensure that our schools do not internalize change that damages teaching and learning in the long term simply because it proved to be useful for a short stretch of time.

Dan Kearney
Dan is a social studies teacher in California. Formerly of the Peace Corps and international schools, Dan has a keen interest in creating school systems and culture that emphasize meaning and purpose.
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