ST. GEORGE — Just past the third week of remote instruction, teachers, students, principals and families were still hopeful that school would be back in session on May 1. That hope was crushed Tuesday when Gov. Gary Herbert announced the extension of soft closures until the end of the school year.
Public school closures aren’t isolated to Utah or America; in fact, approximately 9 out of 10 students are out of school worldwide, according to a National Public Radio article. With reopening dates being pushed back and some experts discussing the possibility of a resurgence of the COVID-19 virus in the fall –how are Southern Utah educators thinking about the future of public education?
If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that when students return to school the world will not be the same.
Students will need social and emotional support in order to help redefine and cope with new realities. Teachers will need to assess student starting points and figure out how to bridge the gaps caused by this unprecedented break. Yet, this experience has drawn back the curtain on an essential component of education: the vital importance of connection.
While all students have struggled with this transition into digital instruction, some of the harder hit students have been those in English as a second language classes, Justin Martinez, an ESL coordinator at Pine View High School, told St. George News.
Cultural boundaries and language barriers make it harder for these students to develop relationships with teachers and for the teachers to understand where the students are coming from with their behaviors, he said. As someone who is biracial and from a California town that is 90% Mexican, he understands how to connect with these ethnic minorities. But without a classroom, he said he worries he’s losing this.
Martinez has about 44 students in his ESL classes. He said his greatest fear for his students is that they take this time as a vacation and completely detach themselves from education.
These are good kids. I really love them. Because of that love, they’re like my children. So, I’m really concerned about the short-term and the long-term consequences of not being in a classroom. I worry that a lot of them are doing nothing, that they are just waiting for the next school year to pick things up. But then they’ll be behind – more behind than the average student that is enrolled in public schools because they might have a language barrier. I worry that they will forget a lot of the good things that I’ve tried to teach them and that their other teachers are trying to teach them.
Many of his students also don’t have access to the internet or they are using that claim as a way to get out of doing schoolwork. And due to a level of skepticism parents of ESL students sometimes have, Martinez said it can often be difficult to get hold of parents via telephone, which further exacerbates the challenge of maintaining a connection.
The added challenge of that cultural disconnect is that he said he’s coming up against parents with a “fear over persecution, fear of racism, fear of being deported, fear of being misled – that’s an unfortunate starting point when communicating with parents.”
Additionally, the same problems with digital communications that already exist outside education can become heightened, as most communication actually happens through body language and facial expressions. Without his in-person direction, the chance of cultural misunderstandings increases regardless of whether or not they have a Chromebook or the internet.
“There’s a lot of needless misbehavior that happens just because of the cultural misunderstandings. It could be something minor like giving attitude or not taking work seriously to something that’s a bit more overt and offensive from the student not the teachers.”
Martinez said finding a successful pathway forward with digital instruction goes beyond just using a digital platform in which to disseminate information – teachers need to find a way to bridge the lost connection of being in the same room. It’s not so much about just using technology to relay information, but rather speaking to the hearts and minds of the youth and who they are – their pop culture and technological interests.
“Teachers are, I think, naturally territorial, you know. This is mine. Don’t get on my turf. This is my baby. This is my thing – or maybe that’s just human nature. It’s hard for us to embrace change. But change needs to happen in order for the students needs to really be met.”
As a first-year ESL coordinator, Martinez said he doesn’t yet have any hard-set patterns, which makes it easier for him to move with this transition and think about what education might look like for the future, especially in the case of another school shutdown.
“I’m not that old,” he said with a laugh, “so I know about TikTok. I know about memes. These things are important to millennials and the younger kids.”
What works in class might not necessarily translate to the screen, he said. Content has to be entertaining and relevant to the students.
“In order to continue to adapt and meet the needs of the students, and not just be comfortable with their own pedagogy and their own resources, teachers need to look for ways to connect with students on their level and not necessarily the other way around.”
Stephanie Player, a second and third grade teacher at Gateway Preparatory Academy, told St. George News that without the social-emotional connection of being in the classroom, her students aren’t able to get through the same amount of material. She added, however, that the value of this time goes beyond the information they are receiving by packet or electronically.
“These students are experiencing the same fears and uncertainty found globally about what the future looks like. Some of them are seeing their parents lose their jobs. Their worlds and their perceptions of the world are transforming as a result of the crisis, not just school dismissals.”
Students are also gaining an awareness that what they do can affect others on a deep level.
“It’s a little earlier than what they would be used to,” Player said. “I feel like there’s always that connection one time where you realize you’re not the only person – that the world doesn’t revolve around you as a child. I feel like they’re coming to that really early now.”
One of the challenges when they get back for the next school year is finding the gaps in learning and how to streamline and speed up the process of getting students on track to where they need to be without overwhelming them and causing an unintentional roadblock to learning.
Like with Martinez’s students, the need for entertaining remote instruction is critical to keeping students coming back. In the four weeks since they’ve been doing this at Iron County School District, Player said she’s found, after speaking with other teachers, that most all teachers are seeing a gradual drop-off.
“Packets still are getting picked up, but we’re not seeing the work coming back as much. So we’re like how do we keep them accountable? But it’s a fine line we’re walking,” she said. “We want to keep them learning and keep it as normal as possible in a world that is not normal for them at all. There’s a lot more worries that they have on their plate right now as little kids than they had four weeks ago.”
This is a point that brings home a similar sentiment shared by many at this time – what these students are going through is not just remote learning or home schooling – it’s crisis schooling that is outlined by the unknowable.
“We want to know if A plus B equals C – that’s what we learn in school. We learn how to adapt, but there’s always an end to something. An end to our third grade. Or the end of a unit. But this feels like an uncertainty. We don’t know when the end is. We don’t know when we get to start up again. And that’s making people uneasy. They don’t know how to plan,” Player said.
“Without a plan, how can anyone know how to move forward?”
Drew Williams, principal of Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts, told St. George News that having a plan in place in the case of another school closure is a top priority for him and his staff. He said that realistically, starting back in a brand new school year isn’t going to mean that it’s just business as usual again. He said like any major catastrophic event that happens in society, it changes society forever.
The lessons gained from this experience are going to continue to evolve for years to come, he said.
“In the short side of it, as educators, we’re going to have to work really hard at the beginning of the year in order to bridge any gaps,” he said. “And we’ll have to be creative in the ways that we present curriculum.”
Williams said he’s been having conversations with principals of art schools across the United States and worldwide about rethinking education. Williams said part of these conversations have been with the response to the possibility of the coronavirus coming back in the winter months and how better to be prepared.
“Rather than hoping that it doesn’t and thinking out of sight, out of mind … we are going to as a faculty, really as we enter the new school year, have a constant conversation about what this looks like and were this to happen again. And we need to shut down schools, how do we shift at a moment’s notice? And let’s have a plan in place, so that we don’t feel like we’re trying to catch up, and we’re prepared.”
Nevertheless, this pandemic has given a voice for the visual artists at the school, he said, and in general further illuminates the significance of art in all its varying forms in connecting the human race and being able to navigate hard things.
At the end of the day, art is what got us through.
Williams said he’s been impressed with the way that student government, teachers and principals are connecting with students in a different way – not just in his school but schools everywhere, .
The hardest part of this process on both sides of the coin is going to be shifting and not thinking that we’re just going to go back and erase all of this like it never happened and just move back to what was,” he said, “because we’re thinking differently now.”
For students that’s tough, he said. It will be very important for educators to not forget about the need to provide stabilization in the new norm and to consider traditions. Finding traditions that can be kept and finding ways to create new traditions that come from this, Williams said.
“And then having our entire community help us evolve.”
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