Graciela Leon, High School Student in Pittsburgh PA

Last spring, children, teens, and young adults faced a transition to virtual learning that abruptly removed us from our routines, resources, and support systems. This massive disruption came amidst a global pandemic and recession, resulting in economic instability and political unrest. 

I started remote learning in March 2020, and it has been extremely challenging. Spending prolonged periods on Zoom or other video conferencing tools is draining. Some of my classmates still do not have the internet connection or technology to access these virtual classrooms and many more experience constant technological issues that disrupt their learning. Others face the additional challenge of having to watch over their siblings or family members while simultaneously attending school with the same learning expectations.

The general lack of transparency around reopening and education plans has been extremely frustrating to students and has left many of us feeling removed and powerless to influence our education and safety. Rushed plans to reopen at multiple phases in the pandemic have been confusing, unrealistic, and dangerous for ill-equipped school districts.

School shutdowns have uncovered and exacerbated existing disparities in our education system. Lower-income and minority students have been some of the most vulnerable, as they lack the educational resources, support from tutors, and technology that more affluent students have. The pandemic has also made it more difficult to obtain resources like school meals, counseling, and daytime shelter that millions of students rely on. 

The mental health crisis among teens and children, which has been a growing epidemic in recent years, has deepened since schools shut down. Students have been left to deal with grief over losing family members to COVID and the unique stresses and difficulties of online learning in isolation from their peers. 

With the likely large-scale return to in-person learning during the fall, schools need more resources to contend with the effects of the pandemic on student learning. Standardized testing, which already has implicit economic, gender-based, and racial bias, should be cancelled nationally and students’ grades from remote learning quarters should not be incorporated into their overall GPAs. Districts need to hire new teachers, nurses, and mental health professionals, who will be crucial to serving those of us dealing with the fallout of the pandemic like isolation and rising poverty. We need more permanent funding for our schools to overcome growing achievement gaps on economic lines and deal with the decades of crisis in our public schools.

Erin Brightwell, Parent in Oakland CA

Parenting two young children before the pandemic was already a juggling act. Trying to manage remote learning while working from home and making sure that me and my partner’s schedules are coordinated so that both of us can be at our physical jobs when necessary has been more like a three ring circus. 

Just navigating the technical aspect of distance learning is a significant increase in work for parents. Kindergartners aren’t always able to independently log in to education apps and zoom rooms. Chargers go missing, tablets need to be restarted, and passwords are forgotten. Teachers are facing their own set of issues with remote learning, and there’s plenty of glitches and changes, last minute messages on school messaging platforms, and even substitute teachers who don’t know how to mute the class (at least that technical problem provided some comic relief.) 

I live in a two-bedroom house, and while it’s not exactly spacious, it’s always been fine – until remote learning. I have no idea how families who live in small spaces deal with it. Finding a quiet space for an important meeting is occasionally impossible. I had to buy new furniture to accommodate work areas for both kids, and now I get to yell at them to actually use the furniture instead of laying in their beds with the tablet.   

It’s not just the aggravation of technical problems or having to multitask. The emotional toll remote learning has taken on parents and kids is real. My kids were happy to go to school almost always, in pre-pandemic times. Now, getting them to log in and pay attention is a daily struggle. Getting them to complete work “asynchronously” is typically a herculean task. Their interest in school plummeted along with the level of engagement that school provides. For the one friend I have whose kid is thriving in remote learning, I have five others whose kids are refusing to do school, not getting help for special learning needs, getting depressed, or becoming addicted to video games.

My partner and I trade off on the endless reminders to get onto the next Zoom on time and the nagging to finish assignments. At some point I end up escalating to coercing and threatening. It’s hard to be an engaged and sympathetic parent at the exact same time that you’re trying to work for a living, with the immense stress of living through a pandemic and economic crisis in the background. Something has to give.

Zachary Morfin, Teacher in NYC (member of UFT)

For over a year, teachers have been forced to make remote learning work. We have been expected to meet the same results as “normal” years, years which were already extremely challenging given decades of underfunding of our schools. The result was inconsistent, frustrating, and created demoralizing learning and work environments for educators everywhere.

When COVID first hit, most places went entirely remote virtually overnight. We sat anxiously in the deafening silence last summer, waiting to hear from administrators if we’d be back in classrooms or not in the fall. Throughout the year we fluctuated in and out of different hybrid models. Changes often happened at a whim, with new schedules introduced at the last-minute, forcing us to continually reinvent the wheel on how to teach our classes. The same lesson has to be completely replanned to be taught online vs. in person, and planned twice to be taught both ways at the same time. 

Since we have no real control over students’ learning environment in all-remote, any chances of meaningfully engaging our students goes out the window. Teacher shortages meant that those of us still working had to fill in gaps with little support and certainly no additional pay. I met a paraprofessional who was asked to teach a second-grade class, but wasn’t given any lesson plans, a curriculum, or materials. 

Our whole world went topsy-turvy when we learned, on a few days notice, that the hybrid model was ending. With no time to plan, we had to bear all of the responsibility for adjusting a bunch of new children to a brand new environment. Was there any real plan from the Department of Education? No. Were any teachers actually consulted in this decision? Absolutely not. 

This is the reality of remote learning. Teachers were already overworked before COVID and incorporating COVID safety measures while adapting to different teaching models has just made it worse. And all of this with little to no support and training from our schools and districts.

The school year didn’t have to be like this. We’re going to see money come into schools from Biden’s stimulus package, but we’re going to need to fight to make sure that money is used to better the conditions of teachers, staff, and students. This needs to include mass hirings of educators, support staff, and counselors for our schools. 

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