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How Our Response To COVID Is Affecting Education

I am going to answer this question, for the most part, by referencing my experience. My day job is as a high school teacher, so I have a very “inside perspective.” I’ll make a few observations based on what I see every day at the ground level, based on what students tell me in the many conversations I’ve had with them about this topic, and based on their responses to anonymous survey question answers many of them have given throughout the semester.

This is, of course, about as unscientific as it gets. My observations could be off somewhere, even though I do not think so.

First, a few preliminary remarks.

Notice how I worded the title: “How Our Response to COVID Is Changing Education.” Not “How COVID (implication: COVID itself)” is changing education. The wording is careful, and deliberate. It is not the virus itself that has brought this upon us: it is how we’ve responded to it...the policies we’ve put in place, that have had these consequences. Saying otherwise is a copout. Perhaps it couldn’t have been any other way. Perhaps, all things considered, the policies we’ve put in place in education are the best we can hope for. But perhaps not. Many people act as if the book has been closed on that discussion. Me, I’m not so sure. Weighing trade-offs in any arena is an endeavor fraught with complexity, and sloganeering such as “trust the science” or the ad hominem attack “people are dying. You must not care about their lives” lobbed at anyone who is skeptical of the asserted priority hierarchy dismiss this complexity and downplay the trade-offs, but that doesn’t make the trade-offs go away. I almost wonder if it’s some sort of performance most of the time. The trade-offs are real and are not going away just because some people tell themselves they “believe in science.” Anyway, my only point here is that “how we do things” often has adverse consequences, and in this case, the adverse consequences should not be a surprise to any of us, but for some reason, many pundits and leaders seem to have not seen this wave of effects coming. We should not blame the virus for that; instead, the blame lies squarely on our shoulders. We should feel the weight of all this and wrestle with it, not shrug and say “well it’s a pandemic; what can ya do?” Next, there is a positive side to all this. Some of the consequences are positive. More on that in the next post. On balance the scale skews negative, though.

Lastly, this list of consequences is not exhaustive. Let me start with the obvious, the things that have already received considerable attention:

The effects on grades, attendance, and learning are well known: more failing grades. Negative effect on actual learning. Less attending class. These both have hit disadvantaged students harder. While I acknowledge that the causes of the absenteeism spike are legion, some of which have nothing to do with school, and the solutions anything but straightforward, it is also true that It’s easy to skip/miss class, and easy to evade the usual consequences of that. The bar to be counted “present” in class is incredibly, incredibly low, and yes, more students take advantage of that. Cheating has spiked, and it was already pretty rampant. The rules create perverse incentives. Secondly, screen time is on overdrive. Things like anxiety, depression, listlessness, etc, for the last decade or so, have increased at an alarming rate. That is a constant worry in education circles for the last few years, pre-COVID. Counselors are doing their best to address it all, but are struggling. So what we’ve done now is take the very thing that is a huge cause of our kids’ mental health cratering, and we’ve exposed them to it for almost the whole school day. We’ve taken them away from one of the biggest things they need right now to mentally and emotionally flourish--the physically embodied presence of other people (you know, the whole “talk to someone. Look them in the eye. Shake their hand and smile” thing)--and bound them to one of the biggest things that drains their mental/emotional health. Their faces were stuck in front of a screen way too much before. It was cranked to an 11 prior to the pandemic. Now, we’ve ripped the dial off. That can’t be good. And even if it turns out that screen time per se is not so bad (some have argued that it's social media, not screens per se, that’s the culprit. I am skeptical.), they have more room and reason to be scrolling on social media, which definitely negatively affects mental health. The increased isolation and decreased face to face engagement practically guarantees it. Even prior to the pandemic, we were moving at warp speed as a culture from an embodied existence to a disembodied existence, spending more and more time in the ether, and a moment’s thought will convince you that we weren’t meant for that kind of life. The way we are doing things now has put that into hyperdrive. What you log time doing matters. The effects of that are going to be with them--and by extension, the rest of us who are relationally connected to them--for a long, long time. In fact, a study just released this week, conducted by The Education Policy Institute and the Prince’s Trust, found that: Based on the new findings, researchers determine that the experience of the pandemic is likely to continue to exacerbate existing mental health and wellbeing problems among young people. National estimates show that 1 in 6 young people now have a probable mental illness – up from 1 in 9. While school closures were necessary in order to ensure the safety of pupils, with positive mental health outcomes closely linked to relationships and social experiences in the school environment, researchers fear that the increased isolation seen over the last year risks causing long-term damage to the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of young people.”

Not good. Not good at all. Relatedly, and in my view, most importantly, the most common refrain I hear from students, by a long shot, is that school is...just….sorta….dead. An eerie silence permeates the classroom, the hall, the cafeteria. Time and again, students say things like “no one talks to each other now. We just sit in class and do work on the computer.” Students who are doing online school are faring little better. They are often stuck in their rooms all day on the computer, so it's the same outcome, different location. A bevy of rules, procedures, and regulations, designed to slow the virus, has made interaction, both in quantity and quality, much, much less likely to happen. As mentioned above, screen technology from computers and phones have rushed in to fill the relational vacuum. As a result, there is precious little actual interaction and engagement going on. Yet that is what is so desperately needed: embodied engagement. We have bodies. Faces. Eyes. Voices. Those are our natural tools for connection, and the cornucopia of COVID policies have combined together in the school to muzzle the use of those tools. Engagement is the fuel that drives education. If you don’t have that...your car ain’ gonna go, boss. Without that, learning, social development, and emotional flourishing slow to a crawl. Think of it this way: I can’t stand even a 30 minute faculty “meeting” on Zoom. A lot of adults are the same way. If I, a grown man, get fidgety with 30 minutes of Zoom, how are we to expect these kids to be able to handle 5 or 6 hours a day on Zoom, for eleven months! Granted, many of the studies and articles referred to and linked above focus on students who are doing all online schooling, rather than a hybrid where students come to school a few days per week. Still, the experience in class mimics online schooling to a significant degree. Even “face to face” school is now primarily online done through a computer, due to the “co-seated” nature of most classes that features a combination of students face to face and students online at the same time. In terms of mechanics, this is somewhat manageable for teachers, but only when the natural embodied interaction is significantly curtailed. All that to say: going to face to face school doesn’t help students escape these effects. They are still feelin’ it. When I ask students the “how are you doing?” question each day, the overwhelming response I get (by a long shot) is “tired.” They sure do look tired too. What we’re doing here with school kind of strikes me as trying to cure a headache by cutting off one’s head.

Here are some answers students have given on an anonymous survey I had them fill out. While this is hardly scientific, and not everyone says things like this--some report this has been a positive experience for them--answers like these below were incredibly common:

It is hard not having the relationships with teachers I like to form. I like to stay after class and I like to come in early and ask questions. It has been weird feeling distant from all my teachers.

I am not learning the same as I would to face to face everyday. I have never failed a class before and this semester I have failed the majority of my classes.

This is the one class I feel I am actually learning anything, but in my other classes we spend 20-30 minutes watching a video and then the rest of class answering a google form. I need more interaction and in person lectures to be able to really learn, but I am not getting that in class right now.

I mean I am passing which is the goal, but I used to really thrive on passionate lectures but everyone seems tired now.

I don't get to talk to other students in other classes at all and they are really boring. Some teachers barely interact with in person students.

For my other classes I feel like my teachers are trying really hard but they are in a hard situation and the classes feel dead.

When I did the hybrid model I spent almost half the time in my other classes on my phone because we would finish our work really early.

School is more depressing this year because there are so few people. It doesn't feel like a normal high school.

The teachers are not teaching. They just post videos. I want the old learning back.

Being home doing google meets all day is boring.

Classes now can be very quiet and awkward.

My classes are boring with no interaction.

You might say “oh big deal. So kids are a little bored. It’s not like they’ve never said that previously. We’re in a pandemic! Grow up.” Such a response A) minimizes the real problem (not just simple boredom, but an incredible dearth of human interaction), and B) misunderstands the actual long term consequences of our educational environment on the mental and emotional health of the next generation. This is not about just a few kids dealing with a little extra boredom. This is about kids not getting what they desperately need and making due with an ersatz substitute, the equivalent of a long term diet that substitutes energy drinks in place of real home cooked meals. This is about being less human.

My intention, here, isn’t to dunk on educators, in general in our country or specifically at my school. I have awesome colleagues, and the overwhelming majority are doing what they can, like in most schools across the land. And maybe the “new normal” (I hate that term, by the way) is the best we can do--that is certainly possible. I’ll say this: it is tough to be a leader right now, with any sort of decision making duties. All stakeholders--not just administrators, but parents and even students themselves--must wrestle with this. Combating these effects is a collective endeavor.

My intention *is* to ask a question: have we as a society really given this the attention it deserves? What we are trying to avoid on one side of the ledger--the virus--is in your face and obvious. Hard to miss, so no one does. However, there are a legion of consequences on the other side of the ledger, that are realities due to us trying to avoid the virus at all costs, and they are kind of the elephant in the room right now. What’s more, they are harder to see, because they are less “in your face” and more diffuse throughout society. But they are just as real. Even if it turns out that the way we are doing things now is the best choice, all things considered, it would be good to at least acknowledge and fully grapple with what it is doing to the young.


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