Imagine you are 9 years old. You should be bursting with energy — but instead you’re still processing the grief of losing a family member to COVID-19. Or maybe you’re jaded after two years of going back and forth between online learning and face-to-face classes. Or maybe you’re just confused on how to get back in touch with your friends. Or maybe – all three.
Being a young student in American public schools right now is a bleak experience. And what is hard for the students also poses an almost existential challenge for thousands of teachers, who have had no less traumatic experiences in the last two years. You’ve seen countless teachers’ strikes over wages, COVID-19 precautions, technology glitches, Zoom schools, mask schools, and working without adequate mental health resources. Now school is back in school (mostly) without masks — and teachers are often those on the front lines dealing with students who have suffered not only severe academic setbacks but also severe emotional trauma.
I spoke to three public school teachers about how this school year is going so far. All three agreed: their students are not where they should be, academically and emotionally. A large proportion of their students not only perform below their grade level in school, but also behave as such. Amy Smith, a fourth-grade teacher at Leverett Elementary in Arkansas, told me that as she stands in front of a classroom of 9-year-olds who are used to entertaining themselves after spending about two years in a virtual learning environment, although they were not always under constant adult supervision. What they haven’t learned is how to socialize. “We have to teach very basic skills, like sitting in a chair, walking, empathy,” Smith said.
Seventh grade English teacher Kate Slenzak told me an almost identical story — she sees behaviors in the classroom two grades below what she’s used to — seventh graders acting like 10-year-olds, not 12-year-olds . “Not only were they thrown back when they were sent home in March 2020, but we had a whole year of madness about whether they were learning at home virtually, whether they were hybrid, whether they were learning in person, but with a mask and six feet away from their peers with no extracurricular activities,” she said.
When Covid-19 hit the United States, thousands of schools across the country scramble to bring their classrooms online. Teachers immediately began sounding the alarm about their students’ learning disabilities. Among K-12 teachers in public schools across the country, 60 percent of virtual learning teachers said their students had more trouble understanding the lesson than they do in a typical school year, while 61 percent said they also had more students had experienced emotional distress. The Government Accountability Office concluded that students at all grade levels, regardless of in-person or virtual learning, faced barriers ranging from a lack of appropriate workspace and support to withdrawal and absenteeism. All of this has resulted in an unprecedented disruption in learning that will likely be felt for years to come.
If the breadth of the problem wasn’t clear enough, the latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed the sheer scale of the learning loss across the country. Eighth-graders’ math scores were eight points lower than 2019, while fourth-graders saw a five-point drop — a score that’s lower than any previous assessment year since 2005. It’s a glaring red flag — test scores can reflect whether a student will finish high school and can even predict economic growth, although they are just one of many indicators of a child’s success. Add to that the fact that American students have just endured two hellish school years in a pandemic, while thousands are experiencing grief and loss for the first time.
The teachers were charged with the great task of holding things together – and they did it under incredibly difficult circumstances, basically. That includes vicious attacks on them, with a survey by the American Psychological Association finding thousands of teachers have been verbally harassed and threatened by their students and their parents during the pandemic. Not to mention the extreme politicization of education, with battles across the country over whether schools should remain open or closed. In the end it really didn’t matter. The NAEP results showed learning losses in every single state in the country, including Texas and Florida, where schools opened earlier, and California, which featured a more cautious approach to reopening schools.
Rather than continue to dig into the past, the teachers I spoke to wanted to focus only on the students and their academic work, recognizing that a longer recovery period will be required to bring everyone back up to speed.
So where do teachers start? Well, it helps put things in perspective. The American school system did not adequately serve each and every child prior to the pandemic. Heidi Crumrine, a New Hampshire high school English teacher and 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, told me if the pandemic has done any good, it has been to shake up the system and show the urgency of the injustice that exists. “As educators, as a society, this is our moment,” she told me. “We will decide, will we continue to do what we have always done, or will we address these injustices?”
Students from minority groups have historically been disadvantaged as they have faced all kinds of injustices ranging from access to books and extracurricular activities to high student-teacher ratios and lack of access to school counselors. This is the same demographic that has been at higher risk of COVID-19 and experienced higher mortality rates in their families over the past two years.
When Crumrine teaches, she differentiates her students according to their academic progress, grouping those who need more direct instruction and those who are caught between different lesson plans. She makes a point of being more articulate and aware of what she teaches and why. For Smith, who teaches fourth graders, it’s a bigger challenge. She’s faced with a classroom where there’s a huge gap between those who do well and those who fall behind, so she’s started dating her students. “No matter what happens, I’m going to stop what I’m doing and at 2:15 you’re going to read to me,” Smith explained as one of her approaches to dealing with these discrepancies. Smith said this type of intense planning helped her figure out how to incorporate more individual work in small groups to ensure all students were getting the attention they needed.
Incorporating small-group instruction is something Anya Kamenetz, a former NPR education reporter who has written several books on education, including the most recent, did The stolen year: How Covid has changed children’s lives and where we are going now, also recommended when I was discussing those dismal NAEP results last month. Another way to do this is through high-dose tutoring, which Kamenetz says can be done individually or in small groups a few times a week with specially trained teachers. But there’s a catch – this obviously takes a lot more time or maybe even a second teacher. As Smith told me, if she had one wish for this school year, it would be to have an extra adult in the room to help manage their small groups.
Many public school officials are aware of the daunting task facing teachers and are trying to train them in these new methods. Iranetta Wright, Superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, told me that her focus is on helping her district’s teachers identify the students with the greatest deficits and then how to deal with them in small groups. Teachers’ ability to use the technology everyone has adapted to during the pandemic could help them continue to tailor learning and instruction to the needs of different students. Wright argued that student laptops and Wi-Fi access, necessitated by the pandemic, are still important tools teachers can use.
What about the social and emotional trauma that students are dealing with at the same time? Over 91,000 children in the US have lost a parent to COVID-19. Others missed important milestones like graduations and birthdays. The mental impact of these experiences can lead to difficulties in thinking, learning, and concentrating, and a major loss can also leave you with trouble regulating emotions and forming new bonds with people.
“I worry less about what grade level kids are reading in and more about how they’re doing emotionally,” Crumrine told me. She believes there’s a direct correlation between a student’s social emotional health and academic endurance anyway—you can’t address one without the other. “Instead of arguing with each other about what should or shouldn’t have been done, complaining and whining about how bad those test scores are, tell yourself, OK: We know what they need, and we’re going to give it to them because.” we’re educators and we know it do.”