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The pandemic upended K-12 education. Some teachers caution against a return to “normal.”


Don’t get us wrong — COVID-19 has generally made being a teacher or a student or a parent in the K-12 system way harder. But when schools first shut their doors last spring, some educators were also hopeful that the sudden pivot might be a chance to reimagine what school could look like post-pandemic. So, has that happened?

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“I don't see a change,” said Jessyca Mathews, who teaches at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint. “I think there are so many things we could have done with the system. I think we could have blown the system up and just done some amazing things to change education, to reach all children. But I'm not as optimistic as I was before.”

Mathews is now fully vaccinated and back in the classroom in a hybrid learning format. She says that based on how schools are handling the return to in-person learning, she feels less hopeful than she did back in May about the possibility of big changes in the education system.

“They're literally trying to force us into the model we had before COVID. Everything is the exact same thing,” she said. “It wasn't working for all students to begin with. So why do we keep revisiting old structures and trying to put them in place when we know, deep down, they weren't working for everyone?”

Still, Matinga Ragatz, education consultant and Stateside commentator, says there are some lessons from this year that can’t be unlearned.

New structures, new possibilities

When schools closed and students transitioned to online education, families and teachers had to adjust rapidly to new learning structures. Suddenly, school involved platforms like Zoom or Google Classroom, as well as new modes of instruction like asynchronous learning. Ragatz says it’s likely that remote learning is here to stay. And for some students, it actually works better than the traditional classroom setting.

“Asynchronous learning means I can learn at my own pace,” Ragatz explained. It also means kids who had a tough time at school—or faced bullying—might be able to thrive.

Mathews says some of her students have struggled with remote learning and are doing much better now that they’re back in the building. But, she adds, she has other students for whom the exact opposite is true. It's not just students that have found themselves adapting to a new mode of doing things. Mathews says remote and asynchronous learning can work well for teachers, too.

“With the hybrid format, the smaller classes, I'm able to address things one-on-one,” she said. "So if I have a class of like seven, I can spend a chunk of time with every single kid, every single day. But when we go back to trying to shove everyone in, and all my kids are there—are we really setting them up to be successful by going back to what we did before COVID?”

Adding flexibility, eliminating stress

Mathews says that if she could choose, she’d like to go into the building three or four times a week, with a day or two for asynchronous learning. If students needed help, they could come to her for personalized, one-on-one instruction in office hours, she says.

“It would make me probably a little bit less stressed and less rushed,” she said.

Ragatz points out that, particularly during Michigan winters, removing a commute from teachers’ schedules could free up time for them to connect with students or focus on planning.

“I think that if they're intending to keep educators and continue to attract talent to the profession, we're going to have to put changes in place,” she said.

Exhausted teachers

There’s recently been an increase in teachers who are leaving the profession, both in Michigan and other states. Ragatz says that teachers have been frustrated with weaknesses in the education system since before the pandemic. And, she adds, they don’t feel like their voices are being heard on issues like standardized testing, inequity and lack of resources, or whitewashed curricula. That’s left many wondering if they can be an effective teacher within the current paradigm.

“They're not leaving for not loving the job,” Ragatz said. “It's just the inability for the upline to understand the circumstances, and to understand what we were just talking about—the idea of changing.”

Mathews says many teachers have given a lot of themselves to their communities during this pandemic—grace, understanding, time, even their own money—in order to make things work. And she, along with many other educators, are just exhausted. 

“I don't think our society is realizing that we have nothing else we can give,” she said. “That's why teachers are leaving. That's why they're leaving in droves. If you were to ask them, like, ‘What is it?’ They will tell you: ‘I have nothing else that I can give.’”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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