As the coronavirus pandemic took hold of Central New York in March 2020, life changed in every aspect. Restaurants closed; sporting events were canceled; jobs were moved online.
Schools in particular faced massive challenges having to halt in-person learning and all other programs and switch to remote learning.
Districts started opening up again ,to in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year, but many still learn remotely and other challenges — including access to food and reviewing students’ emotional wellness — have arisen.
School teachers, administrators and education officials have learned what the changes in teaching methods have meant to their students’ well being and academic progress.
As the year progresses, many said that in-person remains the best way to learn. But being flexible and learning to change to adapt to students’ needs may be another lesson further emphasized by the pandemic.
“That’s the key for every school year,” said Tricia DiFulvio, a sixth-grade math and social studies teacher along with a seventh-grade science teacher at the McGraw Central School District.
Whatever lessons schools may have picked up during the pandemic, one thing remains clear — in-person teaching is preferable to remote learning, said John Birmingham, the superintendent of the Moravia Central School District.
A committee of teachers, parents, board of education members and school staff at the district has been meeting since August to figure out ways to do that.
“The whole goal of these meetings is how do we get more people in in-person?,” he said. State guidelines still prevent full occupancy of most schools.
As of February, elementary school students rotate between morning and afternoon schedules for in-person learning while middle and high school students take a hybrid approach. All students learn remotely on Wednesdays.
Teachers have honed their skills teaching remotely, something the district may look to preserve in some form post-pandemic, Birmingham said. Still, “the magic that happens in the classroom is irreplaceable.”
Students who have been struggling academically and need additional support and those with learning disabilities have needed the in-person schooling the most, which is why Birmingham is targeting them for some of the first groups of students to return to learning five days a week when possible.
LOSS OF CONNECTION
The ways classes are taught vary from school district to school district, meaning one district’s experience may not be equal to another’s.
At the McGraw Central School District, DiFulvio has her classes in-person five days a week, she said. While most of her students come to class inperson each day, some students learn remotely and most follow along on a tablet.
Most of her teaching styles haven’t changed that much — still writing on a digital board and handing out worksheets, for example — but what she has learned has been more about the ways in which her students pick up on learning.
This is particularly true for the students who are learning remotely. She can’t tell as easily by looking at a tablet screen if her students understand the material or not.
“When you’re in a classroom and you’re looking at them and you see them tilt their heads or squint their eyes and you don’t have that virtually,” she said.
Further complicating the assessment of her students is when they don’t turn on their cameras during lessons. This, DiFulvio said, can be a strange occurrence especially for students who weren’t shy being in class in-person are now afraid to show their faces on camera.
DiFulvio has rewarded bonus points to her students who turn on their cameras to encourage them.
The loss of personal connection between teachers and students is also felt at younger age groups such as pre-kindergarten.
Rachel Vianof, a pre-kindergarten teacher at McGraw, said she’s had to cut out routines such as hugging her students each day due to COVID health restrictions.
“I definitely miss the hugs and doing things that are closer to me,” she said.
SOME THINGS LOST AND SOME THINGS GAINED
Masks, too, create their own problems.
For Vianof, teaching language is harder because students can’t look at her mouth to pronounce letters, sounds and words. For students, picking up on emotional facial cues is difficult because there’s less face to see.
If there is one positive to come from the pandemic for Vianof, she said it would be her students have developed a strong hygienic routine, leading to a decrease in illnesses such as the cold and flu.
Fewer students are out with the cold or flu this year than in prior years, she said, thanks in part to frequent handwashing during each transition before a new activity and using a new spray sanitizer for all of the surfaces in her classroom.
She isn’t the only one focusing on cleaning.
“The kids have taken up to cleaning the classroom,” she said.
For DiFulvio, since her teaching hasn’t changed that much, there isn’t much she said she would take from the pandemic and incorporate into her curriculum once the pandemic is over, except for using Google Classroom more often to distribute learning materials. This would give students a source to get materials should they lose a copy handed to them.
“I would continue to do that,” DiFulvio said.
THE ROLES SCHOOLS PLAY
Teachers and school districts took on a herculean task of switching to remote learning and implementing new protocols for everything school related when the pandemic began in March 2020, said David Little, the executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State and the director of the Rural Schools Program at Cornell University.
The challenges were even more severe in rural school districts, where schools play a central role in the community.
Schools provide meals, internet and social and emotional resources, in addition to extracurricular activities such as sports, that once the pandemic began, forced districts to learn how to provide these same services in new ways.
Lack of broadband accessibility in rural areas was, and remains, a major concern for districts when schools were all remote at the beginning of the pandemic, Little said.
He noted that in the evenings, “School parking lots were full of people sitting in their cars doing homework.”
Districts have worked to provide portable Wi-Fi hotspots to families in rural areas without broadband connection, but many families are still lacking reliable internet.
This, he said, is in stark contrast to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s claim that 98% of the state has the capabilities to access broadband internet. According to a Feb. 8 article in On Board, a monthly newspaper by the New York State School Boards Association, this statistic the governor uses is based on faulty mapping as “the state is highly reliant on (Federal Communications Commission) coverage maps that identify an entire census block as served if just one household within that census block has access to broadband with download speeds of 25 Mbps.”
A 2015 state Broadband Program Office report found that 5.5 million residents and 55,000 businesses lacked access to broadband speeds of 25 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload.
According to survey data compiled last year by then- Rep. Anthony Brindisi of Utica, the Federal Communications Commission claims that 92% of people in the 22nd Congressional District have access to broadband, but one Microsoft study shows only 40% of people actually do. In Cortland County, the FCC said 87.2% had access, but Microsoft said it was only 34.1%.
But the functions districts play in serving a community’s needs, especially in rural communities, has been a crucial lesson learned during the pandemic.
Remote learning, like DiFulvio noted, has made it harder for teachers to check in with their students to see how they are doing both academically and personally.
Remote learning as well has taken away the important socialization children need while their brains develop.
“That’s been one of the things that’s been learned: how well the function is of a school district to a community,” Little said. “Whether it’s meal delivery to families, transportation to healthcare, activities that go on. They’re the one area that can do all things to all people across the place.”
Keeping up these vital services, though, will be a challenge for school districts as they could face cuts in school aid, Little said.
PREPARING THE NEXT GENERATION OF TEACHERS
The pandemic has not only provided insight into what has worked well and what hasn’t for schools. It has also provided useful lessons for training teachers.
The School of Education at SUNY Cortland started offering a course before the fall semester on online education, said Dean Andrea Lachance.
Students are taught how to develop curriculums to fit into an online setting and address questions on how to best develop lessons that engage students virtually.
As part of the teaching program, students spend their final semester teaching full-time at schools across the state.
“We felt it was important that our students had those skills before they go into their final student teaching,” Lachance said.
Another emphasis has been adaptability. Student teachers must now place a greater emphasis for teaching in ways that best reach students in classrooms, whether in-person or online, Lachance said.
“You have to be adaptable,” she said. “I think we’re doing a broader array of what education looks like in different kinds of settings.”