COVID-19 is still a threat, but as vaccination levels rise and public perception of the pandemic changes, life is getting slowly back to “normal.” Most school districts are returning to in-person classes when summer break is over. Those who weren’t planning to return are going to be hearing from the Department of Education according to U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona. This is all good news; however, it is important to remember that a return to normalcy does not change what has happened or get rid of the effects. Thus, teachers will need patience with students when they return.
It has been well established that many students are going to return to school “behind” academically. Learning loss has been the talk of the education world and has been covered extensively. Districts are offering resources to avoid learning loss over the summer, but that is a drop in the bucket.
Teachers are not unaware of this. It is one thing to know students will come in lower than they usually do. It is another thing to internalize and act upon it. Many teachers are not planning around the real possibility that students will not be ready for their content. A good long-term plan should always include some remediation at the beginning, but that should be true this year more than ever. Administrators need to be patient too, because if they are breathing down their teachers’ necks over the pacing of the content, it is only going to hurt students who need the remediation.
Unfortunately, academics will not be the only place patience is required with students. Many students are going to struggle with re-adjusting to the social, behavioral and structural expectations of in-person school.
Many students have been at home for months participating in e-learning. Going to school was literally logging on to a laptop for a certain period of time. And to be clear, millions of students didn’t even do that much. We are now asking those same students to wake up early, come into the building, sit in a physical class, meet expectations and do work again. That is not going to happen during the first week of school. Any principal operating under the assumption that it will is going to be in for a rude awakening. Schools need to be intentional about outlining and reinforcing expectations. Do not take for granted that your upper-grade students know the deal like you usually do. Some kids haven’t been to school for a year and a half.
Social dynamics will be strange for some kids. There is a big difference between online interaction and in-person interaction. There are things that are typically learned through interaction with peers that may be missing. Many students were fifth-graders when the pandemic started and are returning to school as teens and pre-teens. There is a lot to flush out for kids who haven’t had peer interactions during that time. If your school had optional in-person learning you likely saw a little bit of this awkwardness, then.
When students return this year, it will be much more like going to a new school—even if it is technically the same school they left. It is in the best interest of everyone if schools realize that the first day of school in the 2021-2022 school year is decidedly different than any other first day.
Andrew Pillow is a fifth grade social studies teacher at KIPP Indianapolis, a charter school where he has taught since 2011. He is also a former Teach Plus Policy Fellow and he has taught technology and social issues.