From establishing schools, developing curricula, and determining requirements for enrollment and graduation, education is mostly a State and local responsibility in the United States. In fact, for elementary and secondary level schools, only 8 percent of funding comes from federal sources, including the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services Head Start program, and the Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch program.
Due to the ingrained federalist structure of education, state and local bodies have had the responsibility of readjusting schools across the nation throughout the outbreak of COVID-19. Therefore, questions such as virtual learning, social distancing, masking, and vaccinations vary widely across the nation.
JURIST spoke with two elementary school teachers about the impact of COVID-19 on the education system, both academically and socially. Both teachers have over a decade of experience in the field of education and both work in the state of Virginia. Each teacher works at a different Title I school, which is a designation given to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families. Although both teachers work in similar schools within the same state, their respective schools enacted different policies related to the pandemic.
Impact on Teachers
Several recent studies have explored the burden teachers faced during the pandemic.
“I cried for the first month, every day because it was so frustrating,” the teacher in northern Virginia said.
A third-grade teacher in her twenty-second year of teaching, she discussed the shift to virtual learning at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We got very little training, and it was up to us to go and do the additional training on our own time. But I think the school system should have been like, ‘Hey, you need to get this training in, we’re going to be virtual, and things are not getting better. So this training is mandatory, and this is how you’re going to teach.’ But it was just sprung on us, and the first week back to work was like, ‘Oh, you’re going to use Canvas, or you’re going to use this or you’re going to use that.’ And that’s what caused a lot of frustration.
“There’s stuff on Instagram and Facebook that you can see about teachers and how they feel or what they look like now because of how hard it’s been,” she continued. “I mean we had our superintendent come in the other day, and apparently he told our principal he has to take some weight off the teachers. It’s too much on them. You know, there’s so much to do. I don’t know how, but now, twenty-two years in, I’m working more than I did in the first twenty years. It’s just crazy. We have more meetings now, so every day my planning period is a meeting. One day is for a community learning team, one day is for math, one day is for language arts, one day is for social-emotional issues with students. And don’t get me wrong, these meetings are needed. But we used to combine some of those meetings; we used to have more time to make lesson plans to actually teach the kids.”
The teacher in southern Virginia spoke about the challenges she faced. A second-grade teacher in her tenth year of teaching, she addressed the difficulty of implementing the continuously changing regulations related to the pandemic.
“We went virtual at the beginning of the pandemic, but they delayed our opening because we had to get things ready like learn Canvas and set up our Google classroom. So we started about a month late, and then we did a combination of both what our school board voted on and what our superintendent recommended to the school board. So we stayed virtual until the middle of October 2021, and then we had the option to come back in person for a shortened day. But some students stayed virtual, so they had to readjust homerooms for that and all kinds of other stuff. And we had a problem where kids would go in and out of virtual and then come in person and then go virtual, so the school’s having to move classrooms and grading systems and all that and attendance would have to be adjusted. It was a big mess.
“And for the kids that did come back last year,” she continued, “we had to socially distance our desks. So the desks started out six feet apart, but then, you know, when I ended up with nineteen kids or twenty kids, you cannot do six feet. So the desks would end up closer. And last year when we would wait in line for the bathroom, we had dots in the hall that were three feet apart, and the kids had to stand on those dots. So I spent a lot of time getting on students for that, but you just can’t put out that many fires; you’ve got to pick and choose.”
The second-grade teacher also remarked on the political nature of the COVID-19 policies.
“Masks were mandatory, and it changed here when our governor changed. And we had a Democrat in who was actually a pediatric neurologist. And so we were more having to follow CDC guidelines. Now there’s a Republican governor, and he gave an executive order that said you cannot mandate mask-wearing so then they had to change that. So masks are optional now … Where we live is one of the lowest vaccinated areas in the state of Virginia. So there were a lot of issues that teachers had with being quarantined and having to stay home because they were exposed. But the school did do the contact tracing, and sad to say, our principal and assistant principals spent all day just contact tracing. So now we’re no longer doing that, and we don’t have to quarantine and isolate students and things like that.”
In response to the difficulties of teaching during a health crisis, a recent poll by the nation’s largest educational union revealed that more than half of teachers are ready to leave the field of teaching.
“One thing my husband has said to me,” the veteran second-grade teacher said, “and we’ve been married twenty-six years, is that this year he has seen me spend more time working than any other year. And I know it’s not just me; it’s the majority of teachers. The workload is crazy, and the stress level is so high. I can see why people are leaving the field of teaching. There are more meetings, and more things are being asked of us when I feel like they should be asking less of us and trusting us.”
Impact on Academics
Recent research explores the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on the academic performance of students.
“I feel like I have second graders,” the third-grade teacher said. “I mean, we left in March 2020, so that was two years ago, and we were out basically until April of last year. So I feel like everybody missed a year of school. And some missed longer than that because even when they let them come back in April, not everybody chose to come back so those stayed virtual. And now teachers are seeing low academic performance and students not being where they should be.
“In Virginia, we have standardized testing that is given at the end of the year that they call the SOL, the Standards of Learning,” she continued. “And we had to take them last year. I mean, we had just gone back in April, and within like three weeks of going back, we had to take the SOL. And some kids didn’t pass. And those kids that did not pass had to go to summer school. But they could not find teachers to teach summer school, so they were offering a $1,000 bonus for teachers just to sign up for summer school. They were begging teachers. And because they didn’t have enough, they couldn’t give summer school to those that needed it — that is just behind or, you know, struggling and would normally get summer school.”
The second-grade teacher also shared the gap in the educational performance of students in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“Right now I have twenty-one students,” she said “and I maybe have only one or two that are reading on grade level. But then I have seven kids that are like fourth and fifth grade. But those are the kids who have teachers for moms, or they have parents that have read to their kids and worked with them during this pandemic. And then I have other ones that are like on pre-primary levels, like kindergarten. So academically we are far behind, and that’s a concern. Like in math I’m teaching two-digit addition and subtraction with regrouping. But one of my students is working with an aide on knowing what a plus sign is a minus sign and an equal sign. And if she can’t even look at our number line and do two plus three and know which way to go, there’s no way I can hold her accountable for regrouping with double digits. We have a program where students can stay after school for social or academic reasons. So I have students that stay after for that, and they will work with me if I can stay. And if I can’t stay, then I find an aide. Even like today, I had a cafeteria worker, she wanted the extra time to work with the students.”
Impact on Student Wellbeing
In line with current research, both teachers also discussed the disparate impact of the pandemic on low socio-economic communities.
“For some of my students,” the third-grade teacher said, “they have a dad who will work three jobs, and the mom will work two jobs, and the kids will be at home. Like, you know, there were kids at home all day by themselves. And they were expected to get up and get online and do class by themselves all day while their parents are working five jobs to make ends meet. And for a time when things were shut down, the parents didn’t work at all so people couldn’t pay their rent … So you know, and all those things impact the children because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, let alone if they’re going to have a bed to sleep in tonight or somewhere to sleep. Like we have families here where you’ll have a family of five — two parents and three kids — and they’ll live in an apartment with three other families and each family will take a bedroom. So a lot of these kids, you know, they might have 10 kids in one apartment. And so my principal said, ‘Who needs a desk because everybody needs a workspace.’ And so they started taking out desks from the school. So I delivered some desks to the students’ apartment. And then that way, at least the kid had a place to sit and be in school every day at home. Do you know what I mean? And I also had cases where I delivered groceries too. I would go to the school, get the groceries, take them over to the apartment, and leave them outside and they would come out and pick them up off the sidewalk and take them back in. It’s just crazy. It is.”
The second-grade teacher shared the additional burdens faced by rural communities.
“I would make review packets for my students, and I would deliver them to them,” she said. “And because this is a rural area, it would take me about three to four hours to deliver them. And they never said I had to do that. I could leave the packets at the school, and if the parents picked him up, then great; if they didn’t, it wasn’t on my back. But that bothered me. And I wanted to be able to see some of my kids because we have a high foster home situation here. And I wanted to be able to put my eyes on those kids that were in foster care, and also the ones that weren’t, but maybe really should be in foster care.
“And what I did, which is not what everyone did, is every day, Monday through Friday, at 9 am, I would post a Google Meets,” she continued. “And I usually had about not quite half of my students get on that Google Meets every day, and we do the packet together. And then, in the evenings, a lot of times, like once a week, we would do something social; I would drop off stuff for crafts, or we’d have a pajama party or something like that. I just felt like I needed to put my eyes on them and see them. And being a parent myself, I couldn’t imagine for other parents who aren’t even in the field of education how they were dealing with it.”
Several reports have quantified the toll of the pandemic on school participation across the globe. UNESCO data reveals that more than 888 million children have faced disruptions to their education due to full and partial school closures, while a UNICEF report found that schools for more than 168 million children have been completely closed for almost an entire year. While school closures are easier to monitor, the academic and social toll of the pandemic remains challenging to quantify, for both students and teachers alike.