Educators: Returning to 2019 is a Mistake

(Image credit: Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash)

Some school districts are permanently muting their remote learning programs. 

States such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Illinois, and large districts from Florida to New York, are eliminating virtual learning options or greatly limiting programs

“You can’t have a full recovery without full-strength schools,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio during an appearance in May on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to discuss New York City’s decision to eliminate remote learning for the coming school year. 

Synchronous hybrid classes can be difficult for already overworked educators to manage, and many students and teachers are ready for a return to relative normalcy. However, some educators worry the rush to move away from remote learning is a symptom of a larger effort to ignore any gains made since March 2020. 

“I think there's a big push to kind of go back to the status quo from before the pandemic,” says Justin Reich, an educational researcher and director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. 

This, Reich and other educators say, is a missed opportunity. 

“People don't necessarily enjoy teaching through Zoom, but it's shown us that if a kid is absent, we can still connect with them,” says Dan Jones, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Richland School of Academic Arts in Mansfield, Ohio. 

Jones, who specializes in flipped learning, says other pandemic lessons that should not be put away with masks include an increased emphasis on relationships. “Sometimes, I think, relationships are taken for granted -- it was just a natural occurrence. And then this year, teachers really had to work exceptionally hard at building those relationships,” Jones says. Bringing that pandemic-level tenacity to building relationships with students, even when they’re in person, could pay dividends in teaching going forward. 

The pandemic has also led more educators to rely on active learning strategies. “We now know more than ever how valuable our time with students is, and that we don't have a minute to lose when it comes to spending time with the kids,” Jones says. “To then use that time purely for [lectured] instruction is definitely not the best use of our time.” As a flipped learning advocate, he suggests that class time be used instead for more active and engaged learning opportunities.

A Time to Reflect  

The pandemic uprooted traditions in education and, overnight, once unthinkable practices became commonplace. Many would like to see that spirit of innovation continue. 

“I think people are empowered by having seen how many things that seemed fixed could be moved,” Reich says. “But the entire education system right now is really exhausted, so schools aren't going to be reinvented in September. And that's okay, that's understandable. What I'm interested in trying to figure out is if there is a way we can encourage schools to hold on to that energy that they applied so marvelously during the pandemic.” 

Reich and his colleagues asked more than 200 teachers to survey their students about what they liked and did not like about pandemic learning. 

“There are a lot of students who said that they really appreciated having more empathetic understanding teachers, and were hoping that teachers might continue some of that,” Reich says. “Teachers literally saw into kids' homes, and developed a deeper empathy for the challenges they had while they were trying to do school.” 

Insight and understanding such as this might result in a more competency- and mastery-based learning approaches, says Reich. 

In addition, students enjoyed new autonomy during the pandemic. “They could snack when they wanted to. They could take a little nap when they needed one,” Reich says. “They could go to the bathroom when they wanted to. They could learn while wearing a sweatshirt, even a sweatshirt that had a hood covering on it.” 

There was also more flexibility in terms of time management and learning pace, which worked well for some students. 

“People are interested in finding ways of building on that autonomy and nurturing it,” Reich says. “There are certain ways we just kind of made school more humane [during the pandemic]. We tried to do fewer things well. And I think there's some good evidence that that's actually a recipe for good schooling in all times.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.