There is no doubt that COVID-19 has impacted the world in unprecedented ways. As the World Health Organization (who.int) summarizes, COVID-19 has presented a great challenge to public health and the livelihoods of many people. Not only have there been risk of life, but there has been a risk of people losing their jobs, homes, and other basic necessities. While Nebraska has begun its recovery from the pandemic, many of our daily activities are still being affected. Masks are now part of our everyday life, we are still discouraged from being out in public for too long, and even our gatherings amongst friends and family have been altered. However, one big step towards normalcy was the push for schools to re-open and allow students to partake in learning in-person again. While there were detractors for this action, it was thought to be the most advantageous option for students to be able to engage with one another and build relationships with each other as well as their teachers. Of course, there were many rules to follow and challenges presented for the educators, students, and families that participated in our schools during this past year. The transition from remote learning back to in-person attendance has had many ups and downs- and the impacts will likely be felt for years to come.
STEM educators gathered at a recent Noyce Project Serve seminar to speak about the impact that COVID-19 has had on education, and the ways it affected teachers’ relationships with students and their learning communities. The teachers who spoke of their experiences came from a variety of backgrounds and different communities. The Project SERVE forum provided an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, lessons learned, and how we can prepare for our next steps.
Through the Project SERVE seminar discussion, we learned that COVID-19 has had multiple negative impacts on our Nebraska communities, both rural and urban. Emily Winter, a science teacher from Fairbury, indicated that truancy numbers had gone way up during the pandemic, as compared to previous years. Those absences have significantly hurt relationship building with the students, in addition to basic content learning. Emily was also concerned that students who would’ve eaten a daily meal or two at the school weren’t being properly fed while staying at home in isolation. This could contribute to health and well-being problems for the students, even apart from catching the virus. Kyle Hemje, a math teacher from Crete, stated that a lack of consistency with the various health measures that were put in place caused additional challenges in his classroom this past year. Constantly changing rules made finding a routine more difficult, and that lack of routine made it difficult to develop a good classroom culture.
Teachers were forced find creative ways to adapt to their ever changing classrooms. When many students shifted to online learning, teachers had to learn how to educate their students in entirely different ways. Sharla Hanzlik, from Niobrara, indicated that a big change for her was restricting her movement to stay in front of a camera, rather than move energetically around the classroom, as she prefers to do. Emily Winter mentioned that teachers also had to be aware of finding content that was remote learning friendly, especially when hands-on activities were normally done in the classroom. Content also had to be modified in regards to the viability of it being taught equitably to all the students, and also taking into consideration the added time constraints.
Despite these struggles, the teachers sharing at the Project SERVE forum have been finding alternative ways to use their resources to be more efficient and available to students and families. Kyle Hemje had fortunately started recording videos of his math lessons prior to COVID-19, and he was able to share with the kids who were having difficulties learning during the pandemic. Sharla Hanzlik and Emily Winter both described how they used social media to engage with the families who had students learning from home. They were also creative with how they performed labs and hands-on learning, even delivering materials needed to perform experiment in advance to the students who were remote learners.
Some of the strategies regarding social media and other types of outreach had positive impacts with families, and the seminar presenters indicated that they would likely continue some of these practices, even after we move beyond the pandemic restrictions. Smaller communities, like the ones that Emily Winter and Sharla Hanzlik are a part of found that these types of communication methods helped parents and community members feel more connected to their students’ classroom. However, in larger communities, like the one that Kyle Hemje is a part of in Crete, social media communication wasn’t quite as effective. Kyle found that some students and families felt very disconnected from the classroom due to the necessity of students needing to work for the family or help take care of their siblings during the day. Kyle stated that it was hard to predict who would be in the classroom and at home on certain days due to quarantine regulations. Despite his creative and thoughtful planning for labs, unpredictable attendance made participation in hands-on activities quite difficult.
While there were many challenges with learning and relationship building this past year, there were also some positive examples of perseverance shared at the Noyce seminar. Despite the difficulties experienced during the pandemic, testing is showing that student learning still progressed to some degree. Students and families seem to have a greater appreciation for school and teachers, and have a better perspective on the privilege of education that we may take for granted. So, many people have built resiliency to move forward, despite the hardships that we have all experienced throughout the pandemic. These experiences will help shape future learning and provide the grit necessary to succeed when the going gets tough.
Looking forward to the future of education, the speakers at the Project SERVE forum had a variety of thoughts about their own school districts. For some communities, the way of life will likely return to pre-pandemic conditions due to the community's smaller size. In other instances, it was recognized that home learning is now a viable option for situations that previously might have interrupted learning (although everyone was in agreement that we shouldn’t do away with snow days here in Nebraska!) As for STEM educators, we must continue to be creative and resilient, as we do our best to provide quality education to our students, no matter the circumstances. Despite the inconsistency and uncertainty related to health measures during the pandemic, we were reminded that we must do what we can, with what we have, to serve our students. While it is impossible to predict all the potential events that may happen in the future, it is our responsibility as educators to be flexible to changes, and to help our students in whatever ways we possibly can. Because at the end of the day, that is who we are fighting for: our students.
Nolan Field (’21) is a Noyce scholar in the Doane University Fast Track Teacher Preparation program. Upon completing his teacher certification, he plans to teach science in a high-need secondary school.