January 20, 2022

Pandemic redefined learning for students, teachers

Sarah Bullock/staff reporter

Students are picked up Wednesday from Randall Middle School in Cortland as they leave for Thanksgiving break with the help of a crossing guard.

Learning how to learn on his own is what Beth Chapman thinks her son, fifth-grader Ryan Tallett, took away from the pandemic.

When the shutdowns began in the spring of 2020, Tallet was a scared third-grader in the Cortland Enlarged City School District.

“He was scared because he wasn’t old enough to comprehend,” Chapman said.

When he started navigating remote learning in the 2020-21 year, he better understood how COVID-19 was affecting those around him.

“Before the next school year, he grew,” Chapman said. “He occupied himself more.”

Remote education during the pandemic served as a grand, unwanted experiment into student learning — an experiment that revealed the emotional toll of isolation as well as some students’ flexibility and self reliance.

As an English professor and a mother of three high-schoolers, a middle-schooler and elementary school students, Laura Davies had a front row seat to pandemic learning.

One of the most profound lessons was to reset her expectations as an educator, Davies said.

“I had students and my own kids struggling with mental health in really significant ways and that changed the goal posts for me,” Davies said. “We are more aware and remind each other that having the kids there, present and safe and feeling protected, is winning.”

The mental-health issues children and young adults are grappling with during the pandemic highlights the need for more funds for social health programs, she said.

“They need that bottom layer foundation of security, and security in a global pandemic is hard to find,” Davies said.

Groton schools Superintendent Margot Martin wonders how the challenges of pandemic learning will affect students.

“We say kids are resilient, but what does that really mean?” Martin said.

Children are more likely to take changes in stride, but they are also trained to be compliant as students, she said. “What we see as resiliency is just more compliance because that’s what students do.”

Digital communications is one area where children grew, Martin said. Students learned how to use their laptops more proficiently, to attend video meetings and how to use the chat area to make comments and ask questions.

“They have picked up a lot of those skills,” Martin said, and they’ll be valuable in college and the business world. “Other than that, I’m not sure there was a lot of soft-skills learning.”

Cori McKenzie, a professor of English education at SUNY Cortland, said technology was a major learning point, but believes students likely learned deeper lessons, such as how to work at home with their relatives. That’s something few did pre-pandemic. Students also can make new connections between the pandemic and their lessons.

“One of the big things in American literature is the relationship between the individual and the community,” McKenzie said. During the pandemic, individuals and the community are affecting each other. “What better object lesson could we have?”

Giving students the space to write about their pandemic experience is an essential part of learning and resiliency, she said.

“That’s not fluff. I see that as a necessary part of school to help students navigate life and the emotional components of life,” she said. “I do know we make sense of life through language.”