I survived my season of pandemic teaching as did my college-age son suddenly dumped back into the nest after he had fledged and flown. However, neither of us was happy with the results — and we were teaching and learning in pretty optimal conditions with recently upgraded router and modem and multiple devices at our disposal as well as the optimal ratio of bedrooms to people (even if the rest of the open floor plan left much to be desired when you factor in a work-at-home husband/father). We fully recognize our privilege, but our struggle was real. In fact, I was taken aback by how much of a struggle this half of the semester was for me. I have been teaching online for my 19-year-old’s entire life. My spring semester classes were either fully online or hybrid before the pandemic transition. I and my students should have weathered this transition just fine. For the record, we did not. So whatever cudgel you have been using to beat yourself up for your failures during this season of pandemic teaching – break it over your knee, set it ablaze in your fire pit, and toast marshmallows over the embers.
Say Its Name: Pandemic Teaching
No one achieved success this semester and if someone is claiming they did they are liars akin to Pinocchio. This is because no one was prepared for pandemic teaching and make no mistake this was not online or distance learning, this was pandemic teaching (as my colleagues at ChronicleVitae explain in 5 Myths About Remote Teaching in the Covid-19 Crisis). Preparing to teach an online class is time-consuming and requires careful thought and planning. Some of us were better prepared for the transition than others, but no one had enough time to effect this change smoothly or properly. But there were much bigger forces at play that doomed this radical pedagogical experiment. We were all (students and educators alike) experiencing trauma — in fact a series of compounding traumas that sapped our energy and resilience as the weeks marched inexorably on.
Then compound that trauma by social inequities and you have a recipe for the disaster that wrought havoc in education systems across America. Many of us were already aware of the education inequities in our classrooms and schools, but taking our students out of our physical buildings exacerbated those inequities and made it much more difficult to mitigate the problems caused by the inequity. Some of these inequities were immediately apparent in homes without internet access or worse — food, electricity, or even running water for example. Some students lost their homes or were forced into problematic housing. Here in rural Eastern Kentucky we see all of that and more, but we also see many children left with erratic supervision (sometimes provided by older siblings who themselves had schoolwork to complete). While many white collar workers are working from home and can support the remote learning of their children, the children of many blue collar workers are left with only the support of older siblings or grandparents during the day while their parents are often working longer-than-usual hours. For those of us teaching older students (high school and college) many of our students were suddenly thrust (back) into challenging living conditions, unexpected responsibilities, and/or extended working hours while simultaneously losing all their support structures and coping mechanisms. All of this to say: pandemic teaching was always doomed to fail so no one should be surprised that it failed.
The effects of all this trauma and difficulty is even further multiplied by the fact that the future is so uncertain. Will there be any joy to be found this summer? This fall? This winter? Ever again? Will we ever again be able to gather with our friends without worrying that gathering led to their devastating illness or death? Will we ever again be able to teach/learn in a classroom setting? Will we ever again be able to attend concerts, sports events, or church? Are hugs canceled? Frankly, the headlines do not offer much room for optimism.
When discussing what re-opening schools could look like there is a lot of talk about testing and social distancing as the magic solution, but, as anyone who has ever spent time in a public school should know, getting kids to practice good social distancing every day, all day, for weeks on end is a losing proposition. There will be no time/energy left for teaching – especially kindergarten through middle school. And anyone who has ever witnessed the chaos of school drop-off should know that inserting morning screening/cleansing protocols into the chaos will not be easy. And what about the buses? I know school administrators are masters of logistics, but I fail to see how effective they can be without a serious upgrade in the resources available to them (and how likely is that given state and local budgets already wracked by COVID-19?). Plus, there are many many many educators and students who should not be heading back into schools because of their health concerns or the health concerns of their immediate family – how will this impact school staffing? Similarly, what about the faculty and staff who are in quarantine? Most U.S. schools were already struggling with substitute coverage (one reason that some schools are forced to shut down for days during flu season) and social distancing will remove the common administrative fallback of simply doubling up classes.
All of this means that we simply cannot expect business as usual in schools this fall. It is likely that we will see some sort of staggered schedule for students. My hope would be (if we are not reinventing school) for dividing your class into four groups – you would see one group each day (Tuesday through Friday) with Mondays devoted to planning, meetings, and troubleshooting. But this is still a logistical nightmare for middle and high school administrators and teachers and problematic for everyone at the primary and elementary level (where students are less able to self-regulate). Also, such a program does not help the scores of working-class families (not to mention the teachers and other school employees) who depend on schools to care for their children while they work. Some countries have gone for a rolling start – some starting with the younger kids first and others starting with older kids. There is also a lot of talk about altering traditional school calendars and days to lower the amount of students who are on a campus at any one time. Almost everyone agrees that some form of remote learning will continue even when conditions are optimal — and as previously discussed there is a lot of reason to be concerned that pandemic curve could again swing up and if it does during flu season then we could be in big trouble. Also, it is important to remember that (m)any of these “solutions” do little to address the prevailing social and educational inequities. I am not worried about the “slide” of many middle/upper class learners who have always been good in school. They’ll be fine. There is a lot of wasted time built into today’s American education system and kids with resources and parents with the leisure, money, and will can create/find/support learning opportunities for these kids. In fact, some middle/upper class learners will actually thrive because their new learning conditions suit them much better than school ever could. But there are a lot of kids with opportunity gaps and special needs who are and will continue to be hit hard by pandemic teaching. Those are the kids that keep me and many educators awake at night. Those are the kids I hope we prioritize, but when have we ever?
What Can We Do?
Before we give in to despair, we should remember that the pre-pandemic model of school was not a great success story either and was ripe (rotting on the vine, even?) for dramatic re-vision. In the past, times of great upheaval (and even tragedy) have led to dramatic change to our systems. It is possible that the American education system that rises out of the ashes will be better and stronger and more humane. We can dream. We should dream. And we should share those dreams – at the top of our voices to all the powers that be who are scrambling to (re)build a shanty town with the detritus left by this tsunami. I’m not going to tell you what to dream, but in my dream we embrace the flexibility that COVID-19 has forced upon us and we allow districts, schools, and teams of teachers to re-vision education in a wonderful array that attends first to our most vulnerable and challenged populations and abandons all vestiges of our previous one-size-fits-all industrial model. At Morehead State we conducted an educational inventory some weeks ago to better understand which classes could be taught fully online or hybrid and which could not in order to determine some priorities. In K-12 I would like to see a similar census undertaken, but instead focused on the students. Which students can maintain an online education with minimal impact and which students are most harmed by pandemic teaching (as well as our previous model)? Prioritize actual classroom time for the most challenged students and then build from there.
We are living in the in-between right now. We are wrapping up Pandemic Teaching 1.0 without a clear vision of what Pandemic Teaching 2.0 will look like in the fall. The only thing we know for certain during this liminal time is that education for the 2020-2021 school year will not look like the before times. If we are lucky the powers-that-be will include us in the process of determining what Pandemic Teaching 2.0 will look like, or at the very least allow us some input or feedback in regard to their plans. But there are things that we, the educators who will be putting their hearts and minds on the line (and possibly their lives) to prepare for the next wave of pandemic teaching. Three things we can do this summer to prepare ourselves for Pandemic Teaching 2.0: Rest, Plan, and Learn.
Rest is essential. Pandemic living is exhausting and pandemic teaching even more so. We must refresh ourselves before we do anything else. Many health administrators are telling health workers to rest this summer to prepare for the resurgence in the fall and teachers should as well. Our surge will likely come before theirs, but both groups will need to guard our health and sanity. It’s not going to be pretty out there. Remember to put your own oxygen mask on first, because if you go down this whole enterprise will fail.
Planning is essential. We had no time to prepare for Pandemic Teaching 1.0 and even though we do not know what Pandemic Teaching 2.0 will look like we know a lot more now than we did when this all started. Even more essential, we know a lot about what doesn’t work and what is and is not sustainable. We know that we need to lower our expectations of what is possible for both ourselves and our students. No one can Zoom for hours every day (and no one should). Engagement is even more crucial now than in the before-classroom because we are fighting against even more distractions and flexibility is key. I noted before that I was fully prepared for remote teaching, but even with my less is more approach I am rethinking my classes for Pandemic Teaching 2.0. I will focus every activity, assignment, and unit on my bottom line with the barest minimum of work expected (seat time be damned). Push back, resist, and fight every impulse (internal or external) to add anything that does not support your end game. No one (teacher or student) will have the time or energy to do more than we must to survive a full year of pandemic teaching. Students can and will learn if we don’t create unsustainable chaos.
Learning is essential. This summer is the time to enhance your skills and add new tools to your pedagogical bag of tricks. This past season of pandemic teaching has taught us all that we have gaps in our knowledge and skill sets. One recommendation that I have heard repeatedly is that teachers should take the opportunity this summer to take part in a quality online education program. This experience will help you learn the skill of remote teaching from an expert, expand your teaching toolkit, and build your PLN (more essential now than ever before). May I recommend the Morehead Writing Project’s Online Summer Institute led by me. We are asynchronous, fully online, emphasis project-based learning, and we will bring you into the research-proven renowned National Writing Project.
Remember that the failure of our first season of pandemic teaching was inevitable and that our pre-pandemic version of school did not work for many (students, teachers, families, communities). We can fight for a better version of school in the future and we can prepare a better version of ourselves and our classes, because Pandemic Teaching 2.0 is coming our way. What will you fight for? How will you prepare?