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Barbara James / Nov. 20, 2020

Notes From a Teacher's Desk: Virtual Survival

The pandemic interruption will require student triage for years to come.

I’m a career educator, and for the last 21 years I have taught in an independent college preparatory school for boys. Our school has high standards: strict admission requirements and dedicated professionals who are committed to their students and their courses are the status quo. Our educational philosophy is generous in not only allowing but encouraging teachers to be creative and progressive in their classrooms. For over 100 years, we have learned from and subscribed to the practice that says boys learn best when they are actively engaged in their classes and when they are bumping into each other in a friendly, rough-and-tumble boy kind of way. Sitting still for hours all day limits their desire and potential for learning.

We intentionally have not required our students to use their own device (iPad, laptop, Chromebook, etc.) in classes because we know that actual pen-to-paper has a positive neurological impact on imprinting (better learning) in the brain. Writing and learning go hand in hand (pun intended).

Until Friday, March 13, 2020. The first “Friday the 13th” of 2020.

I refer to that date as “Schexit” — the exit from school.

Many people I know have observed that 2020 has been characterized by more sleeplessness, more suppressed anxiety, and more “wondering.” I am an adult who lives by a deep faith in God and who also respects science. As I think about everything happening around me, how much more do children — who aren’t developmentally ready to assimilate the world news and real life — struggle with making sense of all that has happened and continues to happen in 2020?

I have more questions than answers.

Our students have traditionally carried the “burden” of academic pressure, but now they’re engulfed by ubiquitous reminders that the virus is waiting at every turn. Their new 2020 daily routine now includes a morning checklist that gives them permission or prohibition to be on campus: temperature check, questions about contacts who may/may not be positive, date of last negative test, plans to be on campus. Upon arriving on campus, they immediately mask, stay at least six feet apart, sanitize their hands at every door, spray desks after each class, and grab a lunch where they eat socially distanced from their friends. There is nothing social about “socially distanced.”

It takes longer for us to know our new students. Never seeing a full face is now normal. We have to learn our students by their eyes and hair color, and we can’t be near them. Teachers who respond to body language and non-verbal cues now have to guess if a student smiles at a pun or if he winces at a corny joke, if he smirks or if he has a sad countenance through the day. We teach from a distance, which is now the socially accepted/required practice, and the distanced connection is the oxymoron we now know. Reminders of CDC guidelines and recommendations are the prelude to every weekend, holiday, or extended break. The emotional toll is taxing.

Students are more anxious, and they don’t even realize it. They are carrying a load too big for their adolescent bones and minds to carry. Before they begin to learn anything academic, they have to cut through the fog of viruses, parental employment uncertainty, unexplained irritability, sleep deprivation (I’ll touch on this soon), and normal adolescent development.

We now have to require our students to have their own device (in education, we call this 1:1, meaning one device for one student), because at any moment a call from the Health Department may require the student to become a virtual learner. A teacher may have to quarantine and teach a physical class virtually after a family member tests positive. (Note: When a teacher has to quarantine and teach virtually, we still have to find a substitute for the students in the classroom for them to have supervision or attend to technological difficulties.) Children who developmentally thrive on routine are now living with 2020 that has given the gift of daily uncertainty and an increased threat level.

What is the long-term impact of living with this threat? Time will tell.

Before the COVID pandemic hit, educators and parents struggled to teach the balance of screen time for their kids. Thanks to the pandemic, the requirement for students to have a device for academics, as well as gaming/entertainment/social networking, unrealistically expects that students use an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex to exert the self-discipline to unplug. Any device in their hands gives them access to anything and everything, and the intention of games and videos (even the educational variety) is to keep them plugged in. (If you haven’t seen “The Social Dilemma,” I highly recommend it.) I set out on a search to find evidence that more screen time increases learning, but everything I have found proves the opposite. More screen time decreases learning, creativity, and restorative sleep. (Sleep is important for good health and learning.) Too much screen time is antithetical to increased learning.

We will have to be proactive as parents and professionals to listen to our children’s fears, concerns, and anxieties. We have to tune in to our children and turn off the devices. We have to engage with them and others on a personal level. Look at them. Listen to them. Our school is fortunate to have trained school counselors on campus to work with our teachers, students, and their families. Psychologists report that children of parents who are constantly distracted with their smart phones are less resilient, have lower self-esteem, and have delayed development. This research was published before a global pandemic. What will research show about the effects of an entire household that is glued to a device for work and school, and then for games, entertainment, and social media?

While I am concerned about my own school and our students, I realize how immeasurably blessed we are that we have the facilities and resources to be open for physical classes. We are blessed to have families that have access to devices and the Internet. How many thousands upon thousands of students do not have the access, resources, help, and availability of supervision? What happens long term to students who require special intervention and services to accommodate their learning differences and/or socioeconomic disadvantages? What about those who are now at their homes, who used to be able to escape the emotional and/or physical abuse that they received at home, for the routine and safety of school with adults who protect and educate them?

Surviving 2020 is only the beginning. The lasting impact of the gravitas of shutdowns, masks, and other extraordinary measures is yet to be determined. Our children will have lost months of education, growth, natural curiosity and discovery, and personal interactions. I fear we will feel the lasting effects of this gap resulting in stunted or delayed development. Will the relief of a vaccine overcome the grief over the loss of special moments, milestones, family traditions, and family members?

The pandemic interruption will require student triage for years to come, and it will take more than a “village” to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again.


Barbara James is a highly respected educator and a member of our National Advisory Committee.

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