Throughout the past year, teachers and students alike have shown a tremendous amount of resiliency. They have adapted to new learning environments, new forms of communication and last-minute plan changes by administrators. With the COVID-19 vaccine approved for younger Americans, many educators are looking forward to returning to the classroom in fall 2021.
However, for all the joy that comes with in-person instruction, teachers also have concerns. They are worried about the academic and emotional well-being of their students, along with other industry-related issues.
Teachers Are Worried About Continued Remote Learning
While many school districts are opening up for full in-person instruction in the school year, some educators are worried that their districts will continue to offer remote instruction as an option.
“I’m hoping that we don’t have to do hybrid, but I don’t want to be in a position where we haven’t thought it all through,” says Eva Moskowitz, CEO at Success Academy Charter Schools. “I honestly don’t know what the chances are… logic would tell me that we shouldn’t have to, but my knowledge of government makes me a little more hesitant.”
Parents share this concern. According to a statewide survey conducted in April 2021 by the Public Policy Institute of California, 61 percent of adults are concerned that schools won’t be open for full-time in-person instruction in Fall 2021. Additionally, 53 percent say schools should be partially opened now and 28 percent say they should be fully opened.
In May 2021, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that there will not be remote learning for public school students in the fall. However, this has also raised concerns from education experts who wonder what classrooms will look like post-pandemic.
“I think there’s a hesitancy about bringing children back if there are overcrowded classrooms,” says Jasmine Gripper, executive director at Alliance for Quality Education. “It’s not just the CDC, it’s parents’ concerns about overcrowding. There’s a hesitancy about putting 35 people in a room together, whether six feet apart or three feet apart.”
While few teachers will miss the hours spent troubleshooting Zoom calls or trying to engage students remotely, the in-person classroom still needs to be a safe learning environment for everyone involved.
Some Kids Haven’t Had School in More Than a Year
Along with figuring out the logistics of returning to in-person learning, educators are trying to determine where kids are academically and how they can get back on track. It is becoming increasingly clear that some students have thrived during this time (with supportive parents and private tutoring), while others have completely missed a school year.
“I worry about the ten percent of my students who have never attended a class or done any school work,” says high school teacher Larry Ferlazzo. “I know I’m not the only teacher with this percentage of ‘disappeared’ students, and I know that despite extraordinary efforts by our school’s administration and staff, we don’t have the resources to find them and provide the support they need to re-connect.”
The pandemic highlighted the inequality in most learning environments. Many of these inequalities existed before schools shut down but have been exacerbated over the past 15 months.
“I think we need to be careful about saying there’s ‘X amount’ of overall learning loss — because to me, that’s not the problem,” says Andrew Ho, professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It’s the inequality. It’s the inequality, it’s the inequality, it’s the inequality. That’s what’s going on in this country right now.”
Ho says he’s most concerned about the students who haven’t been attending school throughout the pandemic. “We’re seeing the kids who are being tested, who are in school systems,” he explains. “That’s not who I’m worried about. I’m worried about the people who are off the grid.”
The inequality issue isn’t going to go away, says journalist Lee Chilcote. “What worries me is not the small number of affluent families leaving, though I do think it’s important that families of all races and income levels choose our city’s schools [in Cleveland],” he writes. “My main concern is families of all income levels feeling like they’re not being heard by the school system. The affluent ones are the ones able to act on that immediately, but others can and will follow.”
These transitions to and from districts will continue to put pressure on some schools that see an increase in enrollment while leaving other districts floundering as parents pull their kids (and financial support) out of the system.
Many Students Have Social-Emotional Needs
One of the challenges facing educators is their students’ need for emotional support and mental health care as we emerge from the pandemic. For many students, in-person education had been a refuge and source of social support.
“A core part of children’s social experience—interacting with other kids in school and on playdates—has been stripped away and disappointingly replaced with virtual get-togethers and pandemic school,” writes Helen Shwe Hadani at the Brookings Institute.
Educators are calling on administrators and governing bodies to focus on the emotional health of students. Without mental health care, you can’t expect students to thrive academically.
“The whole world is dealing with the effects of this pandemic, so I’m not as worried about academics as I am about [student] emotional wellbeing,” says fourth grade teacher Niki Tilicki. “Most of my students will pick up quickly as long as they feel emotionally supported.”
Many teachers did their best to check in with students during the pandemic, but it’s much harder to read someone’s feelings through a screen or video call.
“When we were in person, I would see a kid, and you could just pick up on how they were feeling and their energy just by looking at them,” says teacher Monica Vu. “But now that I’m looking at them through a computer screen, sometimes they don’t have their cameras on, and it’s hard to just gauge where students are at.”
Teachers Are Leaving the Field
In the long run, uncertainties in the teaching profession and the stress put on educators to be caregivers and mental health counselors could lead to worsened teacher shortages. Already, some teachers are planning to leave the field because of COVID-19.
“It is a concern in Wisconsin that there aren’t enough teachers, and even though there are great people going into the profession, it’s changing, it’s endangered,” says Meg Graham, a retiring high school teacher in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. “I think it’s a profession that they need to make some changes — it’s whether it’s in time for people to change their mind.”
A November 2020 survey by the Horace Mann Educators Corporation found 77 percent of educators are working more during the pandemic than before and 60 percent enjoy their jobs less. One-quarter of teachers (27 percent) said they are considering other employment, early retirement, or a leave of absence because of COVID-19.
Administrators and school leadership are facing burnout. These leaders spent the year helping others without receiving help themselves.
“Many school leaders have admitted that they were flying solo with little or no support systems,” write Sean Slade and Alyssa Gallagher, co-heads of education at leadership development and coaching company BTS Spark North America. “School leaders are giving support to others, but they are too frequently left to their own devices for their own well-being.”
An Opportunity for Change
While there are several worries weighing on educators going into the fall 2021 school year, there is also hope that the pandemic could be a turning point for students.
“If we expect back-to-school to be back to normal, then we missed the mark,” says Chris Minnich, CEO at Northwest Evaluation Association. “We must…recognize that we’re still at mile one of a massive marathon. While the pandemic may be subsiding as more and more vaccines are available, the long-term impacts of this past year are yet to be fully understood.”
Education leaders are pointing to the discussions about inequality as a call for change. Why should we return to normal when the old system wasn’t working for many students?
“Normal was a situation where, in my state of Tennessee, only one in three students reads at grade level. For students of color, the number is closer to one in five,” says Shaka Mitchell, the Tennessee state director at American Federation for Children. “Normal was a public school system in which students who look like me, a man of color, are suspended three times as often as their white counterparts. Normal was only six percent of Black students meeting all four ACT college readiness benchmarks. Who wants to get ‘back to normal’?”
Some leaders say this past year has been an eye-opening experience that could propel society forward, and are optimistic about the future. They believe parents better understand the needs of teachers and administrators, and now see how teachers provide social services along with academic instruction.
“Education, as if there was any doubt, is mainly a social endeavor,” writes Jaime Saavedra, global director of education practice at The World Bank. “Parents now have a whole new understanding about how much they can do to support their children’s learning, and at the same time, the immense influence that a teacher can have in the lives of children and about the complexity of a teacher’s job.”