COVID-19 Focus: How Education Has Been Impacted By The Pandemic
Nearly every industry has been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way, whether it’s a suffering business struggling to stay afloat, a company that’s struggling to meet a booming demand, or a public service delivering public needs. By interviewing experts in their respective fields, Higher Rock Education examines the short-term and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in a wide range of industries.
Kathleen Carswell is a math teaching and learning coach at Parkwood Elementary School in Durham, N.C. In her role, Carswell works with her school’s leadership team to improve the academic achievement of all students. In the interview below, Carswell discusses the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that she’s experienced in the education field.
Higher Rock Education: Describe your work history as an educator. How long have you been in the education field?Kathleen Carswell: “For the first seven years of my education career, I served as a fifth-grade teacher. During my last year of teaching, I also pursued my Master’s in School Administration. Following a year-long experience as a principal intern, I graduated last May. The 2020-21 school year was my first year, post-graduation, to serve in a leadership role.”
HRE: Your school has obviously had to deal with COVID-19 impacts over the last year. What have been the biggest challenges that you’ve experienced?
KC: “There have been a few challenges that COVID-19 has presented. However, our team has always been able to work to navigate and overcome them together. One initial challenge we had as a district at the start of the 2020-21 school year was ensuring each student had a device and internet connection to attend class online. Our district ordered thousands of hotspots and Chromebooks to accommodate this need, but the order was delayed due to impacts of the pandemic. Our school asked families who had a personal device at home to use it for the time being so that our students who needed a device could receive one first. Once school started, a smaller challenge our teachers encountered was supporting students in navigating a different way to learn with new tools. I say a ‘smaller challenge’ because teachers are superheroes and our children today are tech savvy; teachers can make anything happen. Within a couple of weeks, students were navigating Zoom and online portals with more confidence.
“With this being said, schools provide more than just academics for students. They provide food, a safe space, social emotional and mental health resources, love, and much more to both our students and their families. Each of these continued to be priorities as we navigated online learning. Our district put systems in place so students could still receive two meals a day, our school-based Trauma Informed Learning Team developed engaging social emotional lessons for our teachers to virtually execute each day, and our teachers took the time to check on students and their families.”
HRE: How has your school adapted to COVID-19 and adjusted to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing, sanitation, etc.?
KC: “Our school’s adaptation to COVID-19 was two-fold: both virtual and in-person. When we returned to in-person learning in March 2021, several precautions and measures were put into place. This included place markers on the ground spaced six feet apart to guide students as they walked in a line throughout the building. Furniture in the classroom was placed so that students sat six feet apart. Additionally, hand sanitizer stations were placed throughout the building. Our schedule was built to include lunch in the classroom, rather than the cafeteria, and two outdoor mask breaks. A recess rotation was developed to keep homerooms in separate spaces and minimize the use of the same play structures.
“Each morning, a family member or guardian had to complete an online symptom assessment screener to note that their child did not currently have any COVID-related symptoms and that their child had not come into contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID. This screener had to be shown at carpool to a staff member each day, students’ temperatures were taken prior to them exiting the car, and masks were required 100 percent of the time at school.
“Lastly, we had a designated sick room for students who did not feel well or exhibited any COVID-related symptoms. In this case, family members were asked to pick their child up, and students were required to get a negative COVID test result prior to returning to campus.”
HRE: What support has the administration provided for teachers specific to COVID-19 and what support have teachers requested?
KC: “Teachers want the best for their students. When we were virtual, one challenge teachers encountered was maintaining engagement through Zoom. Children, and adults, have difficulty sitting and remaining focused for extended periods of time. While our schedule had small breaks built in, teachers looked for additional ways to actively engage students and encourage participation. Teachers wanted feedback and suggestions in this area.
“This past year, constant changes were made to address rising needs and updates in guidelines due to new information becoming available. Our Leadership Team worked together to ensure we stayed abreast of this information and communicated it to our staff with transparency and in a timely manner. Upon return to in-person, this was even more important to assure staff that safety was of utmost priority. Our team listened to staff members’ concerns, remained proactive in implementing safety measures, and communicated often and with consistency.”
HRE: A nationwide issue and concern during COVID-19 has been students falling behind in the classroom. What steps have you seen where educators are assisting those students most at-risk of falling behind?
KC: “As a school, we are building in much more time for small groups so that students can receive more personalized instruction. We have also purchased new curriculum and intervention materials to support teachers in delivering this tailored instruction. Additionally, we have hired more instructional assistants for next year to support math intervention, specifically. Overall, we are excited to have extra staff, time, and materials devoted to closing any gaps in learning for our great students.”
HRE: Is your school currently doing remote and in-person learning? How does it work having both simultaneously and how have students, teachers and parents responded?
KC: “Our school was completely remote until late March 2021. All students who opted to return to in-person instruction were allowed to do so. To accommodate these numbers, half of our teachers continued to teach virtually and the other half taught in-person. Students were able to return four days each week, with Wednesday being ‘Wellness Wednesday.’ Students remained with the same core teacher throughout the day for their core instruction. While all parties involved were undoubtedly nervous upon our initial return, our principal possessed open and consistent communication, transparency, and prioritized students’ and staff members’ safety. This assurance brought a sense of relief during such an unprecedented time.”
HRE: How were school activities impacted?
KC: “Upon return to school, following CDC guidelines for schools, we had to make adjustments to our Connect or Specials schedule to deter our Art, PE, Music, and STEAM educators from interacting in multiple classrooms throughout the week.
“There were no extracurricular activities associated with the school this year, however we did have an after-school program that was offered on-site for students following the school day.”
HRE: Were any teachers or administrators at Parkwood Elementary furloughed during the pandemic?
KC: “Fortunately, no school employees were not furloughed or laid off.”HRE: How have schools handled vaccines? Does Parkwood require all staff members to get a vaccinated?
KC: “Our school district held several vaccine clinics and advertised their availability once educators were eligible for the vaccine. Staff and members of the community were encouraged to take advantage of these opportunities. Given our students are elementary age, they are not yet eligible for the vaccine.”
HRE: Did you work from home during the early stages of COVID-19 and what were your biggest challenges?
KC: “The early stages of COVID were quite memorable. This was toward the end of my principal internship at a middle school last spring. We learned on a Thursday evening that schools would be closing beginning the following afternoon for what we thought would be about two weeks. Little did we know at the time that this would continue through the end of the school year and continue into the 2020-21 school year. Teachers were forced to learn how to teach virtually overnight, literally and figuratively. Fortunately, this was the first year that this middle school had become 1:1 with technology; students were accustomed to taking home their laptops with them each night. It was a bit of a logistical challenge in the very beginning stages setting up new online routines and procedures for students. We created an online spreadsheet for teachers to post their Zoom links, lesson resources, and assignments. Our middle school students were in the habit of checking email daily, so it was easy to communicate these shifts with them. I would say that an additional challenge our staff faced was the lack of closure at the end of the school year last year. While we gave our eighth graders a special drive-thru sendoff, it just was not quite the same.”
HRE: When did you personally return to working in-person and what safety precautions did you take?
KC: “I returned to working in-person in mid-March, a week prior to students’ return. I wore two face masks, completed a COVID screener for staff members, and followed the same sanitation precautions our students did. I also chose to get vaccinated as soon as I was eligible.”
HRE: How do you believe COVID-19 will continue to impact education moving forward, both in the short term and long term?
KC: “That’s an interesting question that I have often wondered, myself, over the last year. The number of students learning online has increased in recent years. However, I believe that COVID-19 will spur more interest. As we have already seen in our surrounding area in recent weeks, many school districts have created online academies that families can opt for their children to attend this fall. We observed during virtual learning that some students seemed to thrive while some really struggled. Therefore, I’m curious to see if these online academies become increasingly more popular in the future.
“In preparation for the first few months of next school year, our school has registered for professional development with a curriculum company. This company offers both in-person and now virtual options, with the virtual option being much more affordable. I found this to be interesting, and quite honestly had not considered this to be an aspect that would change.
“Lastly, another undeniable impact that has come into greater focus are the inequities that exist in our educational systems and structures. This year, nationwide data highlighted that our instructional practices are not serving our marginalized students well. Therefore, these students are not performing at the same level as their peers. While this data is not new or COVID-19 specific, this data was greatly disproportionate this year. Our district has already analyzed this data in depth and has started conversations with building-level leaders as to how we can implement change to better serve all of our students. It is my hope that the pandemic has highlighted this data in a way that ignites educators to collaborate around this topic to be the change that our students deserve.”