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Even For Kids With In-Person Instruction, This Was The Worst Public School Year Ever


After successfully keeping New York schools closed for the whole school year, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, has decided to support the idea of reopening for next year. Conveniently, she waited until summer break to make this determination: “Given current circumstances, nothing should stand in the way of fully reopening our public schools this fall and keeping them open.”

Many schools in the country have been open this whole school year, including mine.

That said, now that we’re reaching the end of the school year, it must be admitted that this was probably the worst school year of our lives for everyone involved. Not only was there the demoralizing climate outside of school, rife with controversy and hysteria, schools themselves were sad, unproductive places.

All the good things that people normally associate with school — learning, making friends, and being part of a community — were almost completely nonexistent. Meanwhile, all the bad things associated with school — boredom, isolation, and depression — were all enhanced.

No doubt, the physical restrictions meant to discourage the virus played a large role in this. To successfully implement social distancing guidelines recommended by the formerly credible U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, students had to be spaced out six feet at all times in all places or be divided by plastic barriers when spacing wasn’t feasible. Teachers were asked to either remain in their corner of the room or continually move around so they didn’t stay too long next to any student.

During passing periods (which were extended to 15 or more minutes to release different groups at different times), teachers and administrators were tasked with breaking up crowds. Added to this was the cancellation or reduction of extracurricular activities and sports. Altogether, if a kid made a new friend this year, it probably wasn’t at school.

Mask mandates were also a burden. They hindered everyone’s breathing and hid their faces. I didn’t realize how big an impact this would make until I started working with my classes.

Along with many other teachers, I had a difficult time reaching my students while wearing a mask. They never knew when I was joking or being serious because they could never see my facial expressions, and I never knew if they were happy or sad because I couldn’t see theirs. Many classes were oddly devoid of expression and emotion. In those moments, I felt like I wasn’t really teaching, but giving directions and passing information to a passive audience.

As stifling as these things were, the greatest factor that ruined this year was the increased reliance on technology. Students either opted for virtual learning, attending classes through Zoom and completing assignments online, or they did in-person learning that still required the use of a computer and an internet connection.

As anyone who has taken online classes in college could have predicted, the virtual classes were a bust. Many students never logged in, and those who did rarely stayed in the room for the whole period.

Many kids would watch movies and play video games with their friends who were also taking virtual classes. As one might expect, getting work from these students was often an ordeal, with many of them waiting to see what was graded (since online work inevitably tends to be busywork) and then turning in something barely passable before the grading deadline.

Even with the most ideal setups, assessments were impossible. Copying on every quiz, test, and exam became routine among virtual students. They could look up every question and prompt and divvy out work among their peers. This meant students could get perfect grades in their classes without ever reading source materials, practicing skills, or even listening to their teachers.

Unfortunately, this problem of accountability extended to in-person classes. Because these students were still on computers, they could still cheat and blow off their work. Teachers might have had a little more control over this in a physical classroom, but not much. Instruction was largely dependent on the goodwill of students unlikely to resist the abundant distractions and opportunities to cheat.

Beyond the fact that instruction was compromised, staring at the screen for so many hours at a time took a huge toll on students. With many students already struggling with smartphone addictions before this year, this was the year the addiction became crippling. So many young people have completely withdrawn from reality, having little physical contact with anyone or anything.

Even the otherwise well-adjusted students struggled with the screens. Those who managed to stave off addiction still had to spend hours on their computers, completing work they found meaningless. The whole arrangement became exhausting.

All of it was a bit like the scene of Pleasure Island in Disney’s “Pinocchio”: the kids get everything they want, only to get turned into donkeys and locked into a pen. This year, students got to play on their phones and do easy work, only to be turned into tech junkies locked into their screens.

One might argue that teachers had an easy year, at least. They didn’t have to worry so much about classroom management since kids were quiet, spaced out, and mostly occupied by their devices. Moreover, they didn’t have to bother too much with failures since the work was easy and grading standards were relaxed.

In this sense, many teachers did have an easy year, and it was beyond frustrating. The feeling of making a connection with students, leaving a lasting impact, and simply taking joy in a job well done just wasn’t there. Sure, there were some of those moments, but not enough to bring that fulfillment one seeks when becoming a teacher.

Fortunately, many school districts will largely return to normal this fall, doing away with mask mandates and limiting virtual instruction. I would wager this has more to do with collective discontent of this year than anything health-related.

Whatever the reason, this year has likely caused everyone — students, parents, teachers, administrators — to reconsider what’s important about school. Let us hope they can remember this year and enter the next one with renewed purpose, humanity, and gratitude.