The pandemic upended education. Two years later, what changes are here to stay?

Maddie Hanna and Kristen A. Graham
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — Two years ago, the pandemic upended the education system. And while students are now back at their desks in before-times style, other parts of schooling will likely never be the same.

From Chromebooks in classrooms to added mental health and social supports, some pandemic-induced changes appear to be here to stay — at least for now.

What are COVID-19′s lasting impacts on the way kids learn, how schools operate, and how communities interact with them? Some educators and parents shared their perspectives.

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All the technology: 'Now they live there'

The abrupt shift to virtual learning in March 2020 represented a massive disruption that left some children stranded without the ability to access online classes and coursework. But schools that initially struggled to supply students with laptops have since invested in equipment, thanks in part to billions in federal pandemic aid.

Two years later, that technology is more central than ever to schooling. In the Pottstown School District, for instance, students used to travel to designated labs to use computers.

"They got to visit technology," said Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez. "Now they live there." All 3,500 students in the Montgomery County district now have Chromebooks, and they're a fixture in classrooms — though for the youngest students, computers are used more sparingly, Rodriguez said.

The pandemic has continued to alter some aspects of education, resulting in more widespread use of technology in districts like Pottstown. In this 2021 file photo, Pottstown Middle School students work on laptops at school. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Daniel Diamond, a teacher at Loesche Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia, said technology has transformed how he works with his fourth graders. All of his students complete homework now that there's no opportunity to forget worksheets, and the groans he used to hear when he told students to pull out books have disappeared now that they mostly read their screens. Being able to embed videos and incorporate other kinds of educational strategies into classwork just captures digital natives' interest better, he said.

"What they lost from not being in the classroom, I think they gained tenfold from technology," said Diamond. "They have become experts on the computer, which I know they'll use for the rest of their lives."

Educators also say teachers are now more likely to use computer-based instruction in lessons. And students have freer access to communicate with each other and teachers outside of class through online learning platforms. "Those are all great things," said West Chester Area Superintendent Bob Sokolowski, though "it's still important to have boundaries." He said some students have struggled with the increasingly online aspect of schooling, like seeing on their phone that a teacher has posted an assignment — compared to getting the assignment in class — and feeling anxious.

Differentiated instruction isn't just for some kids

Tailoring lessons to a student's particular needs isn't a new concept. But a number of educators said the approach gained steam in response to the vastly different experiences children had with virtual instruction.

Research has found achievement gaps widened during the pandemic. But it's "not only a child reading two grades below level" who can benefit from targeted lessons, said Jason Lytle, principal of Myers Elementary in the Cheltenham School District. Kids considered on grade level "might have some deficits or needs" requiring additional support.

In the classroom, that means teachers breaking out small groups of students during lessons to focus on particular skills. Teachers use benchmark assessments given by the district and their own observations to determine where a student's gaps might be.

"My school embraces data now," Lytle said. Teachers have "a road map on where to go."

Why keep grading the old way?

In West Chester, more high school students than usual made the honor roll at the start of last year. But more also failed classes.

That led to a different approach: "Why do grades have to be bound by time?" Sokolowski said. To give struggling students another chance to learn the material, teachers left grade books open, allowing more to pass.

The district is also offering more flexibility in student scheduling. With West Chester fast-tracking its plans to start a cyber school once the pandemic hit, Sokolowski expects more high school students may choose to incorporate virtual classes into their course load — allowing for later start times or earlier dismissals, providing the ability to do an internship or participate in a competitive sport.

Rob Schloss, a teacher at Bregy Elementary in South Philadelphia, now tells his seventh- and eighth-grade students assignments are due on Saturdays, rather than Fridays. It's a small change, but an important one, a nod to kids' rhythms.

"Some kids work better at night," said Schloss. "I saw kids handing in assignments at 1, 2 a.m. I grade on Sunday morning, so it started as grace and flexibility and just became my norm. What difference does it make to me if the assignment is done by 3:39 on a Friday afternoon, when the kids have the technology at home?"

Snow days are dead? Not quite

In some schools, the traditional snow day has been replaced with at least some virtual instruction.

"We have a model where we are able to get school in, in a portion of the day" while still giving kids and teachers some free time, said Dana Bedden, superintendent of the Centennial School District in Bucks County. That restructuring of the school day "is becoming much more prevalent."

Mental health supports are not optional

In another trend that accelerated with the pandemic, school leaders say they're more focused than ever on student mental health and social-emotional needs.

"We are becoming a one-stop shop for family support," said Rodriguez, Pottstown's superintendent. "Everything we're doing is far greater than before" in terms of mental health and social services. The district now has designated "home and school visitors" who visit families whose children may not be regularly attending school, and help connect them to services.

The Centennial district has not only added mental health counselors, but also looked more closely at its benefits packages and encouraged staff to use mental health services, said Bedden.

Andrew Saltz, a teacher at Robeson High School in West Philadelphia, said he's not certain if his students are experiencing more stress — both from the pandemic and from the city's gun violence epidemic, but "I do think now when kids are experiencing that stress, they are far more likely to talk about it in those terms."

College and the future is a more abstract concept to his students, said Saltz.

"I would say that everyone's mindset is slightly off," he said. "In high school, we really push curriculum towards postsecondary plans. Those plans are very hazy right now, students have a hard time thinking 10 years down the line after the past three years."

More screens mean less writing

The shift to more screens for everyone, including the youngest learners, has shown up in myriad ways. Kindergarten teacher Kate Sannicks-Lerner has seen a difference in kids' fine motor skills because they're writing less and using devices more.

"I had to teach more kids how to hold pencils and write this year then I ever remember having done in kindergarten," said Sannicks-Lerner, who teaches at Julia de Burgos Elementary in Philadelphia's Fairhill neighborhood. "Most of them used to come in at least being able to hold crayons."

Teachers are still exhausted

Three years of pandemic teaching and a workers' labor market is also taking its toll on the profession. Philadelphia, for instance, has seen a massive jump in the number of midyear teacher resignations. Many schools struggle to attract substitute teachers. When that might level off is unclear.

Rodriguez, whose district has faced staffing challenges this year, believes the pandemic has made the competition for teachers "far worse."

More parents, more criticism

The online shift didn't just affect students: Schools are now offering more virtual meetings for parents, whether that's for a conference with a teacher or Back to School Night. The aim, school leaders said, is to enable more participation.

While an in-person "Kindergarten 101″ event in West Chester may have drawn a couple hundred people in the past, "now by Zoom, I might have 400 on the line," Sokolowski said, with breakout rooms for different groups.

The pandemic also brought an intense parental focus on schools — and online activity around them — that some don't see dissipating. "The entire nature of parents communicating with each other within the community has changed completely," said Lower Merion parent Jaime Bassman. A lot of that, she said, "is really the use of Facebook groups."

In many communities, camps of parents that initially formed around the debate on reopening schools in person later shifted their focus to topics like masking or racial equity, or became forums on other school issues.

While the furor around school reopening has died down, the parental divide remains, Bassman said: "How do we come together and make peace?"