Smart Lifebites’ second annual back-to-school teacher survey arms you with insights to help your kids get caught up after one of the most mixed-up years in history in modern education. We surveyed a dozen teachers and asked them what they really thought of last year’s mix of in-person, online education and hybrid schooling. In Teachers to share pandemic back-to-school tips from last August, educators discussed three months of lockdowns and online schooling. This year’s survey considers an entire year of in-person and/or online education as well as mask mandates. As kids head back to school around the country, parents and students are wondering what to expect amid ever-changing Covid protocols.
Learning loss nationwide
To be clear, schools face steep challenges overcoming learning loss from the last year. Test scores are down dramatically across the country. A report from McKinsey and Company, shows K-12 students are on average up to five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. In Texas, the state’s standardized STAAR test scores show almost 40 percent of public-school students failed their math exams. One-third didn’t past their reading tests. Urban areas fared even worse. In Newark, N.J., just 9 percent of students in second through eighth grade met math expectations. Only 11 percent met state reading standards.
Read, read and read and lots of math
“Last year many students fell behind in their learning,” says Susana, an elementary teacher from Florida. “My observation during this was that the biggest contributing factor was attendance.” She and many other teachers recommend students read daily for at least 15 minutes. Brushing up on math is also a good idea. She suggests math sites such as mathblaster.com and funbrain.com. “These sites “can help students attain information that they might have missed,” she says.
Rebecca also thinks her students fell behind. Her district offered a summer enrichment program for two weeks, which she thinks was beneficial. “I would recommend that students are reading daily with their parents, and definitely practicing their multiplication facts because this was a big thing that we noticed in our fifth graders that they were lacking this past year,” she says. “This could be done with flash cards or digital websites.”
Assessment tests are needed
One elementary teacher from New Jersey suggests parents pay close attention to learning assessment tests administered this fall. “Data from these can be used to see where the students are at and instruction/intervention will then be utilized to assist the student further,” she says. She recommends parents communicate with their child’s teacher to learn more about where their child ranks academically based on the data. Then determine the best course of action to help the student not only in school, but also at home.
For example, she says, test such as DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) can determine a student’s reading level. Once parents know their child’s DRA level, they can select the correct level books so that “a student is able to read and comprehend a story independently,” she says.
Special Ed kids perhaps felt the learning loss the most. “I absolutely believe that there were big setbacks,” says Nicole, a high school special ed teacher. She suggests fun educational games. “I utilized ABCYA online games often when I was not providing my instruction. The students loved the games, they were very engaging but above all they were reinforcing skills that I was teaching.”
Parents doing work for their kids
Many educators report significant cheating from 2020-21. Online education and testing made it easier to cheat from home. Even younger kids are cheating, relying on apps to solve their math problems. Kids taking tests on their laptops can open multiple computer browser tabs to research test answers. But in the younger grades, helicopter parents are part of the problem. Teachers complained that parents were completing assignments for the children. About half of the teachers in our survey flagged cheating as an issue.
“I teach first grade and so many kids had parents who did the work for them, or they didn’t allow their child to productively struggle, no matter how many conversations were had around this topic,” says Melissa, an elementary teacher from New York who taught online only for the first six months.
“This did seem to be a bit of an issue with remote students,” says Liz, an elementary teacher from New Jersey, says. “It was strongly encouraged to parents in our district to support your student but do not give them answers or do the work for them, this will only hurt them. If a teacher does not see how your child actually performs on their own, they are not able to provide them with the proper support.”
Online education safeguards against cheating
Not all teachers view the open notebook tests as cheating. A teacher from New Jersey tells us that pre-pandemic she gave open book/notebook tests. “The way I look at it is that students were trying to be ‘resourceful’ when they were completing their online assessments and did what they needed to do to ‘survive’. Students will certainly thrive once in-person instruction returns in the fall.”
“I believe that it is important for the teacher to set the expectations during a test but it’s also important for parents to follow through at home,” says Kayla, another elementary teacher from New Jersey. “My district used a program called GoGuardian that allowed the teachers to see the student’s screen, this was extremely helpful for many reasons including test taking.”
No blueprints for online education
Some teachers believe better planning and communication could have averted some of the difficulties they experienced. While Rebecca, a fifth-grade teacher, says her school district was able to make changes to accommodate online and in-person teaching, she still felt communication between parents, staff and the community was lacking. “In the beginning teaching digitally was difficult,” she says. Attending school online demands skills sets, she points out. For instance, a fifth grader is responsible for keeping track of different passwords and remembering what time (online) classes started. “However, as the weeks went on, the students really rose to the occasion,” she says. “Overall, having all the students come back in person was where we saw the most success.”
In the rush to adapt to an online environment, some teachers say things were overlooked. At Nicole’s high school, her schedule was four half days a week in-person with one virtual day a week. “To be honest, there was absolutely no guidance within our special ed department,” she says. “Many [Individualized Education Program’s] (that lay out goals for a special education student) were not met and goals that were almost impossible to do in a virtual setting were never really addressed,” she says. “We just kept doing what we thought was best for the students.”
Challenge to keep students engaged
Zoom fatigue is real. Teachers struggled to keep students interested in online school. Other teachers juggled hybrid class situations. Common issues include: Online students would turn their cameras toward the ceiling or just turn off their cameras. “I think the first couple of months my students were engaged but as the weeks went by, turning into months, it was a challenge to keep them engaged,” says a teacher from a Pennsylvania elementary school. “I know each week having to come up with new slideshows with new effects and different ‘virtual field trips’ was helping. Yet come the end of August most students just wanted to be back in the classroom.”
For many students, just being at home was a distraction. Susana from Florida says that while most of her students were engaged, “unfortunately some had to care for their siblings while at home which impacted their concentration and learning.”
At the same time, many teachers feel like they were able to connect with their students despite the obstacles. They set schedules and ground rules for students. Teachers kept online education to brief intervals, and gave students breaks to socialize with friends. They also used encourage collaborative work, breakout rooms, brain breaks and video tutorials for students to refer back to on their own time. They also suggest digital educational “gaming” platforms such as Kahoot or Quizizz.
Dealing with masks, Covid-testing and contract tracing
Covid protocols, including mask mandates, contact tracing and Covid testing are divisive issues. Some in-person kids were contract traced multiple times during the school year, which disrupted their in-person education. In schools that offered online and in-person options, sometimes athletes would be mandated to do online schooling because their coaches thought it would limit their exposure to Covid and propensity to have to quarantine an entire team. Other parents kept their children home due to pre-existing health conditions. Children with sensory issues or other health issues have difficulties wearing a mask for 8-hours a day. “Covid testing weekly in school was an issue for some parents,” Melissa says. She says that is why these parents kept their kids online when her school’s hybrid learning opened.
Online and isolated
Feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety among students was very common in the last year, especially among children in 100 percent online education. As students go back in-person (many for the first time in over a year), they might face challenges re-acclimating. This is top of mind for all the teachers we surveyed.
“My goal for this year is to really develop the sense of community in the classroom,” Rebecca says. “Before diving into academics, I want all children to feel safe in our classroom. We will be doing a lot of team-building activities and discussions.”
Kayla is confident that some of these issues will resolve themselves as schools starts up again. She still thinks school need to be pro-active at unifying students. “My school had many virtual activities and spirit days that all students could participate in.”
Happy to be in-person
In the end, in-person education might solve many of the issues experienced in the last year. “The families desperately wanted their children in school, so they were generally supportive of anything we asked,” says Brendan, a K-8 teacher from New Jersey. He taught in a hybrid environment last year and says it was close to a normal school year in his district. “The students made appropriate growth in all subject areas.”
He also sees a silver lining. “I found the students to seek any sort of interaction with any students,” Brendan says. “In the past, students would generally stick to their ‘friends’ or boys with boys and girls with girls. But this year they did not care at all. In addition, I tried to make a fun assignment for the students where I could put them into breakout rooms with 4-5 students at a time where they can have fun while they work.”
So, however your child heads back to the classroom this school year, know that many teachers are well aware of what worked and what didn’t work so well last year, and they trying hard to make this a better year.