I thought the best way to approach an article about teaching during a pandemic is to reflect on the experiences within my school district and how the district prepared us for preparing and delivering instruction during the pandemic and where I see those experiences moving post pandemic. So, when educators across the country were planning to begin teaching in the 2020-2021 school year, no one knew what to expect or what a school year was going to bring. I’m sure everyone had ideas so educators may be able to speak to different experiences but many of the approaches, decisions, and results may sound the same.
Changing Our View
The pandemic changed the view of how we would function in a building, maintain social-distancing, reinforce the idea of six feet apart, teach wearing a mask and determine what materials and equipment we can physically use. We had to rethink the way to provide instruction, develop those all-important student-teacher relationships, and find a way to measure the success of our students, while trying to maintain normalcy. The quick answer to achieving such goals was implementing technology, but how was that going to work? The year presented an entirely new set of educational challenges and introduced health protocols and new building policies like we have never seen before.
In education, everyone knows how important it is to plan for an academic school year. You begin the planning process sometime before the end of the previous school year and into the summer break. Your first day of a new school year is a very exciting time when educators, students, and parents meet to start forming relationships and bonds. Besides that, educators are excited to show off their recently purchased classroom resources, demonstrate their innovative
instructional tricks they learned from summer professional development, and proudly display their well organized and decorated classrooms.
But the end of the 2019-2020 school year ended abruptly in March without an educational roadmap, leaving schools uncertain and uncomfortable about the direction we should go. And at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, educators were still lost and needed a GPS to get them running in the right direction. We were no different than any other K-12 district in the country, our summer was spent waiting for some clarity from our district, who was waiting to hear from our state and local educational departments, in addition to new players in the game, the Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We were getting limited and often confusion information from each department but eventually, we received the guidance we needed to make some type of return to school. We still had some doubt regarding what instruction was going to look like. Then finally we found out the 2020-2021 school year was going to begin by teaching students in a fully virtual format. Virtual instruction for us means educators could teach from a remote location with computers and video equipment, at home or in your assigned building. For some educators, they were permanently assigned to teach virtually the entire school year based on their request and district approval.
Preparing in a Whole New Way
So, there were many things to prepare in order for this virtual learning format to get off the ground. We were supplied with document cameras or web cams and smart screens to teach our lessons. Chromebooks® were offered to us but most of those machines were loaned to families who needed the technology for one or more children within the district. We had the opportunity to visit our buildings to gather and organize our instructional resources. Fellow colleagues and academic departments trained each other in using Google Classroom®, Google Meets®, new curriculum, and learning management systems we implemented at the start of the
school year. It was not a thorough understanding of everything by educators but it was enough to get started in the Fall.
Like many school districts, ours was thrust into action to initially connect with our students and let them see some familiar faces. So, students quickly learned how to master Chromebooks®, enter student account information and give their families a crash course in using Google Classroom®, Google Meets® and a few other tools. As educators knew this was the start of transforming our previous instructional delivery and methods to an online environment that some educators were comfortable with and some were not.
Literally Everyone Needs Training
The job of training families and students to use all this technology, in addition to helping them understand the daily school routines had its learning curve. We had parents, grandparents, day-care workers, and even small learning pods of students supervised by neighbors during the school day who helped students get through this virtual learning experience. Educators created electronic agendas or web pages, provided live online instruction, including recorded lessons so students had on-demand access if they missed a live session. Depending on your grade level or specialty, educators may be teaching entire groups of students or classes according to their regular daily schedule. All this prepared us for about a month of virtual instruction, then just when everyone was getting comfortable with that learning format, we readied ourselves for the next change, which was to move to hybrid learning.
After a month of virtual instruction, we received word that we are transitioning from fully virtual to hybrid instruction. Within our school district, hybrid instruction is another teaching format where learning was taking place simultaneously in the classroom and virtually with students at home. Students were divided equally into Groups A and B, with several sub-groups to reduce the crowds within the buildings and help maintain social distancing and six feet
expectations. Each group attended in-person instruction two days a week and attended virtual instruction the other two days. Some sub-groups attend all four days as determined by their educational needs, but all students received one weekly virtual meeting to keep in touch with their teachers and do some fun learning activities.
That has been the learning format the past few months and early into this new year. There have been some challenges for educators along the way but they are making the learning happen. Educators are resilient, adaptable, and can often be referred to as chameleons the way they can shift and switch gears without much warning. They know how to monitor and adjust to any situation thrown at them. By nature, educators appreciate routines and consistency in their profession but, they are able to make adjustments when asked or needed. Yes, educators have always integrated technology in their instruction but now technology was going to be the basis for everything happening in the classroom. And as of this article, our district is planning for students to return to in-person instruction, either four or five days a week. Educators will be vaccinated and our community spread has been relatively stable, so we should be hearing something shortly.
Learning, Adapting, and Actually Improving
I see many of the experiences my district incorporated this school year remaining with us post pandemic. Google® Classroom will allow educators to utilize collaborative learning in the classroom and out. Google® Meets will allow educators to stay connected with students even when they are absent. In fact, we use Google Meets on snow days now. Our district has been calling “virtual snow day” instead of “traditional snow days” this winter. On a virtual snow day, we run through our regular schedule and teach our classes. The nice thing about virtual snow days is we are minimizing the number of snow make up days add at the school calendar but students have less opportunity to experience and enjoying a traditional snow day. In addition to
the Google® platform, educators have been using recorded videos for teaching their online synchronous and asynchronous lessons. Now you have on-demand lessons accessible by students like your Netflix® movies to help students to keep pace with their classes. Besides the platforms we utilized, others platforms such Zoom® and Microsoft Teams® have opened the door for many other opportunities to change the way we educate in 21st century, and quite frankly the way we live.
Another post pandemic takeaway is the numerous types of technology were able to use like document cameras and web cams to help with student learning. We implemented a few ideas that work for us but there many more out there that work equally well, if not better. In any case, it comes down to the accessibility districts have at their disposal to these technologies and what works best for them.
Better Prepared for the Future
Our adventure throughout this pandemic is just one of many you will hear about throughout the country. I believe it has opened the door to many more ideas related to learning and education. The pandemic took us by surprise and it really exposed those of us who need to step up their educational game, but I also believe the pandemic uncovered the forward thinkers in education, who are ahead of their time with innovative ideas. I know none of us want to go through another pandemic again, but now we have a better idea of what to expect and hopefully we will be better prepared for pandemics and other emergencies in the future. More than being prepared for future emergencies, however, we are better prepared to meet the ever-changing needs of our students. That’s something for which we should all be very proud.
Lisa M. Imbriaco, PhD
Wilkes University Business Adjunct
Abington Heights SD Business Education