One impact of the pandemic that remains to be seen is its effect on young learners. There are widespread concerns about K–12 learning loss—particularly among children who were just learning to read and students on the wrong side of the digital divide who lacked consistent access to high-speed Internet, computer devices and, in many cases, a suitable space to study.
Still, there are some ways in which the pandemic has been like pressing a fast-forward button for K–12 education.
In California the state budget signed in June included an astonishing $5.3 billion in funds to mitigate lost learning, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order directing state agencies to bridge the digital divide so that all students have access to devices and Internet service.
“Basically, the ‘I don’t have enough money,’ ‘We can’t do it because we don’t have the budget for it,’ well, that is no longer a viable excuse,” says Trang Lai ’91, director of educational services at Fullerton School District, a K–8 district where all students are now provided with iPads and mobile hot spots if needed. “And now that we’ve had it, one of those things in education and in life is that once somebody has something, it’s very hard to take it away.”
Make no mistake, there are students in California and across the country who still don’t have satisfactory home connectivity, but the idea that a device and Internet access are at least as essential to education as textbooks is now set.
Technology alone does not move education forward, however, says Justine Selsing ’11, a former elementary school teacher now at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in technology, innovation and education. “Every school I had worked at had so many tools and had invested so much in those technology tools, but they weren’t always being used to do better things,” she says.
“A classic example that we’ve talked about in some of my coursework is districts have invested so much in these smartboards [interactive whiteboards] and then have not made the investment in the human capital—in supporting teachers to use them in innovative ways,” Selsing says. “So a lot of teachers, myself included, would use them to do things very similarly to what was being done before. Just inputting the technology is not enough to make those changes.”
Now that almost every teacher in America has had a crash course in Zoom methods, some mental roadblocks about technology have been removed. Yet it’s not only teachers who’ve adapted; there’s a new realization about what students can do, says Lai, who sat in on a Zoom art class of mostly kindergarten students.
“These are the little ones, and they’re at home. And then I saw that on the Zoom screen, one patient child had had his hand up. The teacher finally said, ‘Oh, So and So, I see you have your hand up. Do you want to say something?’
“And then you see him reaching to push the unmute button, and then you hear his cute little voice. We’ve got a little one who knows how to unmute and then share on the screen. I was just floored.
“What will stick? I believe that our belief in the ability of our students, including our very youngest ones, to be flexible, to adapt to the situation, is novel and new. If we didn’t have these outside pressures, I’m going to say it would have taken at least another five years for us to believe that our students are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for.”
Almost everyone’s goal is to get students back in classrooms as soon as possible, but some things seem forever changed.
Parent-teacher conferences and IEP (individualized education program) meetings—the annual planning sessions for students with disabilities that involve parents, teachers and administrators—are simpler and no longer require everyone being in one room.
Students who are home sick might be able to watch class on Zoom or view a recording when they’re feeling better.
Some home-schoolers who had increasingly flocked to for-profit online learning might be brought back into the public-school fold with online learning, depending on the family’s reasons for choosing homeschooling. And students who would benefit from classes at another school, whether it’s because of where they live, special needs or a desire for accelerated coursework, could have more options.
In addition, standardized testing, cast aside in K–12 education last spring out of necessity because of school closings, might be fading.
“I’ve seen schools where we are relying on this standardized test as the only goal for what our students should be able to achieve instead of thinking about how to really be prepared for the future,” Selsing says. “We have catastrophic change coming in our future as humans. And all of our students are going to need to be able to exercise leadership skills, are going to need to be able to research and figure out what’s true and false, to talk across an ideological divide, to solve huge problems. And I don’t think that teaching them to succeed on the standardized tests is the most important thing.
“I think that we have a lot of hope that this will be a time of redesigning schools to ideally look pretty different from how they looked before.”