So Over COVID!

Figures of people surrounded by covid-19 germ and question marks and magnifying glass

In March, we’ll “celebrate” three years since the world as we knew it turned upside down, locked down, and started moving toward a new normal no one asked for. As adults, we have reference points for seismic change, having lived through September 11 and other health scares ranging from swine flu to HIV/AIDS.

But our students often have no such reference point. As we begin to assess the results of the myriad changes in the way we deliver education, it’s clear that our students’ needs are greater than ever. Some have regained their footing and others are on the right path, but many are still reeling. In addition to the changes in their schooling, they’ve been through illness, death, and a steady diet of adults arguing about how things should be. Confusion and fear linger, and many of our students don’t know what they don’t know, which makes it hard for us to figure out what they need, let alone provide it.

My first clue that things were different emerged when I met my college freshmen last fall. As a group, they were quiet—much quieter than last year’s group—but I chalked it up to nerves (it was orientation, after all) and personality. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that every class has its own vibe. Maybe this class was reserved.

A second clue appeared as we moved forward into the semester and I noticed an attendance problem in one of my other classes. I teach this class in person during spring and fall semesters, but online in the summer. A much higher than usual number of students were failing to show up for class and, while some of the absentees weren’t doing the work, others were, using the online resources to create quality assignments.

As the semester progressed, my freshmen got a little chattier, but mostly with each other. In-class discussions were still a struggle, but written work (turned in online) indicated that they were doing the readings and assignments and making connections. Their work was quite good, in fact, and most were even turning things in on time.

The attendance problem in my other class, which consisted largely of upperclassmen got worse. Those not showing up in person but using the online resources were doing rather well, but a substantial chunk of their no-show peers were in serious danger of failing the course.

In the end, it was a student assignment that unlocked the mystery of both classes. One of my freshmen wrote about how hard it was to find his footing as a first semester college student after spending three years of high school navigating a pandemic-influenced education. He cited an excellent source that supported his personal experience with statistics, making me sit up and take notice in a way I hadn’t so far.

Shortly after that, I initiated an in-class discussion with my freshmen and found that my typically reticent class had a lot to say. During their sophomore year, everything had shut down. During their junior year, classes were hybrid. And senior year? Well, they were seniors.

And we expected them to navigate college? Most of them hadn’t even had a chance to navigate high school.

This was (embarrassingly) eye-opening for me. While I knew that a new normal wasn’t the same as the old normal (nor was it even the same normal for everyone), I’d failed to take a step back to allow the big picture to come into focus. Once it did, a few practicalities came sharply into focus as well.

Don’t waste time—or energy—pointing fingers. Whether you agree or disagree with the policies that were in place, they are in the past. We owe it to our students – and ourselves – to move forward so that we can create a consistent new normal that works for everyone and leads to quality instruction, no matter what that may look like.

Accept that this is real. Students are struggling, and not just academically. Mental health issues among adolescents and young adults have skyrocketed. At a time when their developmental success hinged on building self-efficacy and leveraging independence, they got exactly the opposite. As a result, they may be struggling with very necessary soft skills along with the highly publicized academic deficits that are leading educators to push the panic button. Our job has always been to meet our students where they are and take them as far as we can. We may be meeting them at a different place, but our responsibilities remain the same.

Don’t assume that they know what all of your previous classes have known. Because the delivery of instruction has been different at best and inconsistent at worst, students have not all been exposed to the same content at the same level, nor have they all received the same amount of social, emotional, and academic support. Couple that with a lowering of expectations that was appropriate at a time when the stakes were literally life and death, and we have a lot of ground to cover. As educators, we’ve gotten really good at assessing what our students know and what they need to know. The answers to the former may not be what we have come to expect for the grade level and content that we teach which means that we may be a long way away from the finish line we’ve always set out to cross. We need to adjust accordingly.

Allow for pandemic-inspired growth. While Zoom classes and hybrid instruction were not a good fit for everyone, some students discovered that they learn extremely well through online instruction. As their peers were celebrating a return to face-to-face instruction, these students were less enthusiastic. Students who struggle to focus for an entire school day might have discovered that taking breaks when they needed them enhanced their learning. Students who struggled with bullying or anxiety might have loved learning from the comfort of their own bedrooms. While we may not be able to provide every child with their preferred learning platform, we can leverage the tools we used during the pandemic, using them to create a blend in our classrooms and making it more likely that we’ll meet more needs of more students, whether they prefer technology or old-school learning.

Aim for quality, no matter the modality. One thing most of us learned very quickly was that taking a face-to-face lesson plan and dumping it online did not result in quality instruction. As a result, we tried new tools and new approaches, and some of them worked. Finding a way to weave them into the tapestry of what we’re doing now creates more options, and more options might also provide on-ramps to success via these new avenues.

Don’t assume. When students don’t show up, we assume they don’t care, but there are potentially as many reasons for these no-shows as there are students. While it’s true that some don’t care, others are overwhelmed, sick, dealing with family, personal, and mental health issues and a myriad of other distractions. Still others have discovered, as mentioned previously, that online learning feels safer and/or like a better fit for them. The only way we’ll find out which of these is the case is to reach out.

We will never succeed in being everything to everyone. Though I think my successes last semester outnumbered my failures, there were still times I could have done more. When we teach adolescents and young adults, we expect them to step up and reach out to us, but some need a nudge and, we need to be that nudge, at least for now. When we seek to form relationships with our students, we play an active role in ensuring their success.

And isn’t that part of why we’re here? 

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is a retired elementary school counselor enjoying an encore career as an adjunct professor at York College of Pennsylvania. Lisa teaches psychology and a first-year seminar.