Teaching in the Time of COVID

by Matt Hurt

Since March 13 when Virginia schools were initially closed due to COVID-19, I have  participated in discussions with hundreds (maybe thousands) of public school teachers and administrators from across Virginia. Most conversations centered on the educational difficulties imposed by the pandemic. A common thread through those conversation was the frustration that schools were not meeting the needs of at-risk students. Educators felt like they were between a rock and a hard place.

Most of these educators work in school divisions that offer some degree of in-person instruction to every student, and have done so through most of this school year. These folks are concerned that educational outcomes, even for students who opted for in-person instruction, will not be consistent with the progress expected prior to the pandemic.

Few divisions offered in-person instruction for students five days a week. Some offered four days per week, and many offered two days per week (one group coming two days a week, and another group coming another two days a week to accommodate spacing needs for social distancing). In almost all divisions, the school day was slightly shortened. In most instances teachers had significantly less time with their students than in previous years. 

Teachers believe that in-person students on average achieved more this year than most virtual classmates. In every division that offers in-person instruction, students have the option for virtual instruction, and approximately 30%-40% took advantage of it. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the students opting for virtual instruction are at-risk. In past years many had issues with truancy. Now they see virtual classes as an easy way to ditch school.

Educators feel that virtual instruction has not been successful for at-risk students, mostly because the students won’t participate. Prior to COVID, teachers could develop positive relationships with students who were not motivated by grades and convince them to do their work. When that didn’t work, principals could intervene to help persuade students. Now, on the rare occasion when these students do log into a Zoom session, their camera is off, and they do not interact with their teacher. Rarely do they turn in any work; some haven’t submitted a single assignment all year.

In an effort to mitigate the problem of non-participation, many teachers and administrators have logged countless hours calling, emailing, and drafting letters to the parents of these students. The purpose is to inform parents of the student’s lack of progress/participation, and to determine if there are any unmet needs that the school can address. Many times, the school’s and the teacher’s phone numbers are blocked. Their emails go unanswered. Their certified letters get returned to the school. Many of our educators counter these setbacks by conducting home visits to engage with parents, which does help a little, but does not provide the level of student participation necessary for students to be successful. During these conversations, educators inform parents of COVID precautions taken at school, and tell them the door is open should they wish to send their child to school. Some take them up on the offer, but not nearly enough.

When we ask educators what measurable effect COVID has had on the skill attainment of our students, they dejectedly reply that they don’t know in the aggregate. When asked the question, one administrator commented, “Well, I can’t tell you how well the students are doing, but many of our parents’ skills are progressing nicely.” We haven’t received enough work from many of our at-risk students to gauge their progress this year. No one is sure if it is the student’s work, the parent’s work, or if the student sought the help of Google to complete the assignment. Some students who consistently earned C’s in the past now have straight A’s, likely due to various forms of cheating.

The only verifiably valid aggregate data that has been collected so far is from our in-person students. When we administer SOL tests this year, we will get a reliable accounting of the skills of the students who will take the test, but many students likely will not come into school to take their tests. SOL tests are not allowed to be administered virtually due to test security protocols. Because of these issues, we won’t be able to fully assess the impact COVID has had on the education of our students until we resume in-person instruction for all.

The pandemic has also taken a tremendous toll on our educators. These folks were trained to teach students in face to face classrooms, and that training and experience doesn’t translate easily into the online format. This spring and summer, teachers spent countless hours learning an overwhelming array of new skills to try to meet the needs of their students in an online format. They had to recreate the wheel and convert all of their traditional materials into digital format. Please keep in mind that there has been an ongoing teacher shortage, and the effects of the pandemic will surely worsen that problem.

The stress and worry about how to change from in-person to virtual-instruction overnight, and how to do so in a way to ensure positive outcomes for students, was overwhelming. Add to that the stress of changing the plan many times from 100% virtual, to in-person instruction, back to virtual when they didn’t have enough teachers who weren’t in quarantine to have school, back to in-person instruction, back to virtual so everyone could get vaccinated, and etc.  

Most teachers in divisions that offer in-person instruction not only have to provide for the students in their classrooms but to virtual students as well. The problem gets even worse for teachers in those divisions that operate on an A/B hybrid schedule in which they have three groups of students to teach — group A kids, group B kids, and  virtual students. This scenario is a record keeping/ organizational nightmare to manage. All teachers report spending significantly more time planning, creating new materials, and grading work that is not turned in on time than they spent prior to the pandemic.

Teachers don’t get into this field to get rich, they do it to do good things for kids.  They worry they are not sufficiently providing for the educational needs of their students. Because many virtual students are not turning in much work, they’re receiving failing grades. Worse, they are not progressing enough to achieve success in the next grade. 

We will likely experience the educational effects of COVID for years. Prior to the pandemic, most students moved on to the next grade having mastered enough of the prerequisite skills to be successful, but some moved on without sufficient prerequisites in place. Working with students on various skill levels created a difficult problem for teachers. This problem certainly will be exacerbated by the pandemic. Despite the fact that educators are developing and implementing plans to mitigate this to the greatest extent possible, it is unrealistic to expect that summer school, after-school tutoring, or extended school years can effectively make this problem go away by August.

It is also unrealistic to expect that we retain students who have not progressed sufficiently to ensure success during the next grade. Many of our at-risk students simply bide their time in school until they turn eighteen and then drop out. If we do not develop a plan to ensure they can meet their graduation criteria prior to their eighteenth birthday, they will likely not earn a diploma. Retaining students a whole year will make sure that these students will turn eighteen prior to meeting the criteria to earn their diploma.

Throughout all of these conversations across the state, educational professionals expressed the belief that, over time, we can overcome the educational outcomes posed by the pandemic. However, this will take time, and there’s certainly no silver bullet that will make it easy.

Matt Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program, a coalition of non-metropolitan public school systems in Virginia.