Adjusting to new social and educational realities
New Realities
By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver

For many of us, when thinking back to our school days, people and places come to mind: former teachers, coaches, classmates, classrooms, playgrounds, sporting events. For many students today, their memories of school will differ significantly, given the tremendous shifts in the reality of public schooling following the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the widespread knowledge of social, racial, economic, and environmental crises that also are unfolding. And while nearly all of us may be aware that public schooling has taken on new forms and platforms to start this school year, we may not understand what families, students and teachers are experiencing. So, we asked the question: How has the reality of public education changed over the past six months?

Parents, community members, and educators have a sense that there are equity issues underlying education during the COVID-19 shutdown. Concerns about equity existed well before the pandemic, which has left many frustrated with the lack of commitment to guaranteeing all students are supported enough to succeed in educational institutions. According to one community member, the pandemic has been “piling more and more issues on top of a system that is not in a good place and hasn’t been in a good place for a while. And as a person of color, too, I think we need to reimagine public education because the way we’ve been doing it traditionally does not serve kids that look like me, that share my background, for the last fifty years, well enough.”

The things to do school
One father noted his concern that due to the shift to in-home education, every students’ learning environment is now different. These inconsistencies mean some students will have access to spaces that are more conducive to learning than others. “It’s not necessarily that the parents and families are doing anything wrong. It’s just wrong it’s just an unhealthy learning experience because they don’t have the privilege of being in a classroom that’s conducive to learning, they’re taken away from that. I don’t know how people homeschool, it’s just so many distractions and so many other elements.”

Not only are some students subjected to attempting to learn in shared, and sometimes crammed spaces, many students, especially those experiencing hardship, must complete their school tasks with inadequate resources. While varied, some estimates suggest that Denver Public Schools came up at least 3,000 laptops short to meet the needs of its students. Other students face issues of limited internet access and uncertain economic times have led to many families being unable to pay for basic utilities like electricity. Some community members have noted that this may be a good reason to push for public institutions, like libraries and recreation centers, to be made available to the public sooner if they are able to be opened safely.

Being at school
Adding to equity concerns is the fact that some students are having to navigate the difficulties of online schooling without much support. Parents noted the difficulty they have in finding time to both handle their work responsibilities and facilitate their children’s learning, even when they had the support of other adults and a flexible work schedule. Obviously not all parents are subject to such flexibility in their obligations as to fully support their children and many of those students are left to figure things out on their own. As one parent put it, “pretty big disparity between the kids that have the support to handle education during this pandemic and the kids that don’t and there’s this huge gap and I feel like the education gap is getting wider. Another added. One woman recalled recently delivering to a home where two children under ten appeared to be there all day without adult supervision. Others expressed concern that those children were representative of many households throughout the metro area. Many students may also be doubly tasked with managing their own education and helping younger siblings adjust to online learning.

One community member from a small town added that rural communities have also had a tough time navigating the shift to online education. She described some of the difficulties experienced by rural communities, many of which mirror the problems in the metro area, but in many cases for rural areas, resources aren’t as concentrated.

Unfortunately, these compounding difficulties have led to many students opting out of remaining in their local districts altogether, though it is not clear whether these changes signal transitions to private or home-based education or whether these students have enrolled in other local districts. Despite the lack of available data about where these children have gone, the enrollment decline is precipitous, and will lead to major financial changes throughout the region. One parent estimated that several thousand students are not attending DPS: “My gut tells me this is a number that should not be ignored. It might be wise to put some pressure on the school board and DPS administration to address that number because it’s so much more than a number; there are individual stories behind every one of those people and we need to understand them, if we’re going to be able to help get kids plugged into learning.” Having thousands of absent students could mean that students who are in need of support are going unnoticed due to their lack of contact with mandatory reporters and other concerned adults. As one father noted, one of the key elements that is lost in online education is the informal start to class. He believes that without that point of contact many students who are in distress are not accounted for as they usually would be: “Abuse is all time high but reports are at an all time low because people aren’t seeing the signs.” While talking about the scale of the pandemic one educator noted that, “so many of these kids are affected in so many more ways than we’ll ever know. The stress of their parents is going to impact them, if they’re in abusive homes, they’re still in abusive homes, and have been there since March because we don’t know the full story and we can’t see them everyday and we can’t ask them the questions that we need to.”.

Even before this year of school
The stress facing children and families and schools these days not only comes from the considerable uncertainty caused by the pandemic but also from the intensity of summer defined in large part by large scale resistance to white supremacy and racism. Several incidents during the pandemic caused mass civil unrest, with many protesting against systemic racism and murders of black people at the hands of law enforcement. One school psychologist noted that students may be trying to comprehend the moment by themselves as they don’t have the typical amount of access to others for decompressing or processing events in the local and national media. “They have to not only process what’s going on with the pandemic, but it’s happening at a time where most folks are needing to process what’s happening racially and politically and environmentally also, and then not having the space to do that could be really detrimental to a lot of people.”

One teacher noted that the backlash against white supremacy made him confront his own relationship to whiteness, power and educational spaces. “This summer has made me pretty reflective about my own experience as a teacher, being white in a world where I teach a lot of kids who don’t share my racial and cultural identity and what that means and potentially the harm that I’m doing.” Teaching the humanities in light of racial equity can be difficult as the canon used in standard curriculums often reflects the very racist assumptions progressive educators hope to defeat. He says navigating dialogue with students about these complicated and consequential concepts is even more difficult in an environment when many have their cameras off and the educator can not read the room.

Many students are struggling to maintain their mental health during this shutdown and it still remains unclear when they will be able to return to the typical activities they found value in. As one highschooler put it, “I feel really disconnected from people, I’m not a people person, I’m a go outside and talk with trees person, but I like being around people sometimes, it just feels really wrong I guess… seeing people doesn’t make them feel real and I don’t feel connected to community.” Another student felt that the pandemic had shortened his highschool experience and reduced his ability to maintain the community they had established. Some students noted that strategies like exercising, talking to people about how you feel, and remembering why education is important have helped. Other highschoolers agreed, noting that motivation seems to be hard to muster especially when typical pillars of encouragement like teachers feel less accessible.

For many, heading to school provides an opportunity to have meaningful social interactions. Students, especially those that are extroverted or particularly social, have had a difficult time adjusting to their new social environment. Several people noted that they’ve seen improved mental well-being when kids get a chance to see one another. One community member who works with youth noted that, “kids that I have that are in Douglas County, Little Public, Boulder Valley, those schools that are back on a hybrid system, they do seem generally happier than the kids that are in DPS or APS that are just learning online all-day because I think that infuse their life with some sense of normalcy and they’re able to socialize a little bit.” Several others recounted stories of children whose personalities had shifted after being removed from their typical social environment. One mother noted that a family friend’s child had made a dramatic shift from being outgoing and bubbly to shy and anxious during the pandemic. Importantly, the child returned to their normal behavior pattern once they returned to a small level of in-person schooling.

Parents and teachers were particularly concerned about what the lack of social interaction could mean for children’s development in the long term. One parent noted that although kids are flexible and have adapted well to the new social expectations, it can be difficult for them to get a grasp on why these new standards are in place. For instance, one young girl had a tough time making sense of changes in their in-home lifestyle after her father tested positive for COVID-19. Her mother recounts that “she didn’t quite understand why daddy was sleeping in a separate room for a while, why daddy can’t hug me, she kept saying daddy I forgot what your face looks like.” A pre-kindergarten aged girl echoed that sentiment, noting that she “did not like coronavirus” and really wanted to see her friends.

One father noted that the online curriculum was not sufficient for his children and they completed all the course work within the first few weeks. He then supplemented their schoolwork with his own curriculum to keep his children engaged. Unfortunately, not all students have fared that well with their course work. Some have had difficulty disciplining themselves and maintaining their schedules to engage in school from home. As one high schooler put it, “with having the school having to be online it’s been crazy because I procrastinate a lot and I get distracted easily and so with it being online it was hard for me to stay on top of my things.”

Similarly, teachers have had a tough time adjusting to life online and some have found it difficult to not be disheartened by the consequences of not interacting with students in person. “The best part of our jobs, and the best part of teaching, and why we all do that has been removed from the equation… students have been removed from it.” Another teacher noted that they felt like they were teaching blindfolded and felt powerless to support the kids that were struggling the most. Several teachers expressed frustration at having to figure out how to teach to a level which is helpful to all students given the limitations of setting a curriculum and administering class in this new format. “Teaching is hard in general, teaching e-school is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” they shared.

Diving in
The digital demands of online classrooms can be especially difficult for young students who haven’t developed the skillset necessary to do complicated tasks like split share apps on a computer screen. One parent noted that his elementary aged son’s experience helped him understand the difficulty young people may be having in adjusting to a fully virtual format. “There was this new reality of having to see his classmates through a computer screen and none of them were happy. We see kids breaking down into tears all the time on Zoom.” Similarly another parent noted that it can be difficult for kids to try to learn technological skills and social norms all at once.

Parents, especially those with younger children, are finding it difficult to navigate the demands of their working situations while helping their children succeed academically.

One mother noted that the pandemic has made clear the benefit of the de facto childcare aspect of schools; a feature which often goes unspoken. For many parents the childcare element of in-person schools allows them to more easily advance their professional lives. Another parent put it this way, “Juggling your students’ crazy schedule with your schedule, it’s not easy for anybody, even people who have that opportunity to work from home. It’s like I have to be working and my kid has a test at one and another one at three. It’s also harder for them to get their stuff done.”

Parents are faced with the tough task of deciding whether they should make online education continue to work for their families or send their children back to school during a pandemic. One mother noted that part of the intensity of the moment is everyone trying to perform high level risk analysis at the same time. Through working through her own decisions and conversing with others she has observed that “everyone is trying to figure out what’s going to be best for them, for their jobs, for their kids, for the school.” Some parents have been quite impressed with district procedures put in place to maintain safety at their children’s school; others however, have encountered less trust inspiring scenarios, especially in facilities that were already scarce on resources. One community member described the difficulty her sister was having in balancing child care needs and maintaining a safe environment for all members of her household, “[She] doesn’t feel comfortable with them going back to daycare and I totally understand that because I don’t feel like the daycares there in Aurora that are for low income parents, single moms, and things like that, I didn’t see that, that daycare was doing the things as far as hygiene that needed to be done, so I feel like they would’ve been at risk and then they’ve got a grandmother who has cancer so they couldn’t be in the household and go to school.”

Schools and districts have been given a wide breadth of autonomy, meaning people dealing with different institutions have had vastly different experiences. Some have found these discrepancies to be unjustifiable and would prefer best practices be implemented in all schools in order to make sure all students have access to quality environments. One mother voiced her frustration at the lack of central focus stating, “localized responses, on not even just a district level but different schools within the same district are doing things completely different, and to me, I understand the value of local control in a lot of ways, but also it feels like there are so many things that some schools are doing that are working that other schools aren’t doing or implementing, it just feels like why aren’t we having a more coordinated response.”

It can also be difficult for parents to know how much clout to give their child’s preferences in terms of going to school or staying home. As one mother put it, “it’s a hard conversation for kids to have and know the repercussions of whatever their decisions are, particularly for the kids who are like I think I can do this from home, I think I can focus, and I’m a good learner. I think they are missing a lot of the social stuff.” That decision has also been difficult for college students who have to also weigh out their financial investment when assessing whether they should return to school in person, or if they should re-enroll at all. A college student who is not returning to her university explained her decision suggesting that, “it doesn’t make sense to me to go pay tuition and everything and a lot of universities are still charging room and board.” Students are unsure about the effectiveness of various policies universities are implementing and may find the cost of admission too high given the traditional aspects of college, like socializing and attending lectures. are suspended due to the pandemic.

Many parents are nervous about sending their children into high contact, public environments but also realize that long term online schooling may present insurmountable difficulties. For some families, though, there have been some benefits of the new online arrangement that they hope not lose as Covid restrictions start to dissipate. After experiencing a new and more flexible schedule for several months, many community members feel that they don’t want to return to the previous sense of normalcy. For many families, work and school responsibilities keep them apart for the majority of most days. One mother noted that having her children around all day brought more clarity to the notion that many days educators see her children more than she does. Another mother noted that she had the opportunity to see how her children learn in a more intimate way than she had ever observed. Having the flexibility to structure time around the needs of the family has allowed people to have unique bonding experiences that they would not normally get to have. One mother observed more familial interaction during the shutdown. She noted that, “everytime we went out, I saw more families, like mom, dad and kids than I ever have in the middle of the day going on bike rides, going on walks, being together and everyday that gave me hope.”

The pandemic has dislodged some of the predominant notions about the way society should be structured. The United States has demonstrated its commitment to individualism but the turbulence of recent times have
left many wondering if it is time to call that devout commitment into question.

As one father put it, “the US is the most individualistic society that has ever existed on this entire planet.

We need to pick it up faster because it’s time to take care of each other.” Some are hoping the need for a more flexible, and perhaps reasonable, schedule is recognized by major institutions and can lead to an increased work-life balance.

However, if that shift occurs through more online working, parents hope employers also account for home office expenses in terms of pay.