Opinion: Students bore the brunt of COVID and are feeling its effects on their education

As COVID-19 changed our landscape, K-12 students saw their world shrink to the confines of their computers. Because so many districts in Illinois -- and elsewhere -- were unprepared for remote learning, students' grades in the last quarter of the 2020 school year could not have a negative impact on their second semester grade for that year. Many students then had no incentive to work. For those happy with their grades, coasting for the rest of the year was a no-brainer.

Students struggled in the 2020-21 school year too. Many schools remained open, often seesawing back and forth between in-person and remote instruction. Some schools focused solely on remote learning; other schools used a hybrid schedule. And while they tried their hardest, students bore the brunt of COVID-19.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, finally acknowledged that remote learning was not successful for students. I was in a unique situation because I taught in a remote setting and took classes during COVID-19. My experience as a learner mirrored my students' experience: Instructors did most of the talking, and students chimed in at the beginning and end of class only. The same scenario happened in many high school classes. If a student didn't feel comfortable with or know a teacher, he or she didn't talk during class and often used excuses like poor internet for not joining the conversation. Getting students to participate or feel comfortable in a remote environment was close to impossible.

Another issue that hindered remote education was a lack of computer training. Since many schools weren't one-to-one with computer technology before March 2020, some students remarked that there was little training on new devices schools implemented at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Finding assignments and completing them, trying to contact a teacher and other obstacles made remote education difficult for students.

Moving forward, how can we address the substantial learning losses? U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently told a roundtable in Tennessee: "It's time for us to think outside the box and try to create more opportunities for students and the best way to do that is to listen to the students directly."

But what do students say? For many, COVID-19 meant the loss of educational opportunities. It also meant the loss of social interaction, the loss of teacher and class choice, the loss of a full learning experience and the loss of a depth to education, which has eroded their foundation. Some say the pandemic created an environment that allowed them to choose to not work at their highest level. Those students now wish they had thought more about the consequences of not fully embracing remote learning.

This year, how can students be brought up to grade level? COVID-19 eroded any progress students made in reading and math over the last 30 years. The most recent scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows students in grades four and eight dropped an average of six points in math and three points in reading.

The U.S. Department of Education has identified five tools to help address COVID-19′s educational impact. The tools include using high-quality assessment and effective tutoring; addressing students' social, emotional and academic needs; closing gaps; and helping students transition to each level of education. Whatever path we take, we need to keep students and their goals of becoming independent people in mind.

Some students feel the "different normal" means lowered standards -- from students, teachers and the education system. Others feel cracks and crevices in their educational foundation, and still, some students feel that the passion for education was lost in the sea of COVID-19.

Whatever students feel, their frustration, antipathy and uncertainness about the future are evident.

Katherine Prange is a high school English and accounting teacher in Illinois.

The Chicago Tribune

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