Experts urge quickest possible return to in-person learning

COVID-19’s impact on U.S education


Second of a three-part story

Editor’s note: This three-part series examines the pros and cons of distance learning in the Black community and what must be done to help those who have fallen behind to catch up.

When teachers Edairra McCalister and Tiff Nunn-Clark welcomed their students back to physical classrooms this past school year, they were relieved. Finally, they’d be able to interact with and educate on an in-person basis the students they’d known only as faces on a computer screen for too many months.

But as highly-anticipated as the return to the school building was for some, welcoming children whose still-developing minds had been in isolation for longer than anyone expected did not come without its challenges.

Though health experts and politicians once touted a two-week fix for the pandemic if everyone abided by social distancing efforts and stayed home, taming the spread of COVID-19 proved to be a far lengthier and more discordant endeavor. For some children, the stretch of time spent away from brick-and-mortar classrooms has spanned more than 16 months.

McCalister, a high school English teacher working in the Osseo Area School District in Minnesota, painted a dispiriting picture of the scene when her students returned to the building. Though McCalister and others expected teenagers who’d spent too much time pent-up at home to be ready to talk, engage, and be social with their peers, she explained, “It wasn’t like that.

Related Story: The fallout from distance learning

Submitted photo (l-r) Edairra McCalister, Anisa Diaz

“This year it was so quiet, the quietest I’ve ever seen the classroom. I was like…is it because we have masks on? Or because it’s not a regular school year?”

McCalister believes the social aspect of school will end up being a larger focus for her students than academics in the upcoming school year because they missed out on establishing so many crucial connections. For perspective, students who were seventh-graders when the pandemic first struck will be heading off to high school next month and were short-changed of key transitional experiences.

“For a high school student,” said McCalister, “that’s a way that they’re going to survive, is learning to be socially engaged in the school environment.”

Nunn-Clark, a kindergarten teacher in the Riverview Gardens School District in Missouri, also observed that her much younger students’ social skills took a hit during the pandemic and the lockdowns that came with it. “I could tell a difference with their independence level,” said Nunn-Clark, who has been teaching for 16 years.

“They were so much needier,” she explained, adding that the young students constantly sought reassurance, asking, “Is this right? Is this what I’m supposed to do?” Nunn-Clark said, “I had to teach them independence,” adding that her students needed to be told “You can do it!” more than those from past years.

On July 12, UNICEF issued an urgent plea for schools across the globe to reopen in the interest of school-aged children’s health and safety. “The losses that children and young people will incur from not being in school may never be recouped,” the statement said.

“From learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills, the consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health,” the statement continued. “This should not go on. Schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen.”

Distance learning not only stifled students’ social development but also took a toll on their academic journeys. Rhonda Williams, an elementary school teacher from New Jersey who teaches special needs children in the Trenton Public School District, said her students’ return to the building was marred by what preceded it.

Even students who missed “over 100 days” of school passed their classes as no one at the elementary school was permitted to fail. “No kid failed. Everyone was promoted,” she said, estimating that her students are likely “a year or two more behind” than they normally would be. Through her observations teaching summer school, Williams concluded, “It’s almost like anything they had learned in 2020 or 2019, they forgot.”

McCalister agreed that the last school year set students back academically. “A lot of teachers and systems took this as a time to be very lax,” she said, adding that for many educators, that entailed lowering their standards. In some cases students may have passed a class but “don’t have the knowledge to move on to the next level because it was all out of whack this year.”

Anisa Diaz, principal of Somers Elementary School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, found that it was a challenge to maintain the same pace and level of student engagement virtually compared to the progress that could be made in the classroom. 

“Some students are behind, some students just naturally went forward,” she said. According to Diaz, a portion of the damage inflicted by distance learning was mitigated by “rock star teachers” who engaged students and held them accountable despite the obstacles they faced.

“It was based on the teachers and the plans they had for [the students]” Diaz said. “It just shows that if the teacher is well-prepared and has activities set for the students, that they will thrive and do well. I noted the opposite for those that just did the bare minimum. Their students were not as engaged.”

Nafeesah Muhammad, a high school teacher in the Minneapolis Public School District, said that for some of her 11th and 12th-grade students who became essential workers during the pandemic, grades became “super elusive and almost irrelevant.

“I think public education needs a new branding,” said Muhammad. “I think we need to reconceptualize how we see growth and progress.” Educators were tasked with balancing the establishment of a place for healing, affirming, and learning this year more than others, she said, adding that it’s a trend that needs to stay.

“There’s rhetoric around learning loss. We’ve missed out on a whole year. But that means we can go back to the drawing board and say, ‘OK, well how do we accelerate learning in a meaningful, holistic way?’”

As teachers across the country gear up to go back to in-person learning this fall, the rapid spread of the COVID delta variant has cast uncertainty on the safety of such a return. Though the situation is still developing, presently both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics continue to urge a return to in-person learning.