When news first broke about a deadly virus rapidly spreading, no one could have anticipated how drastically the COVID-19 pandemic would change the world. As part of those changes, the education system was directly affected. Students were sent home, teachers had to learn to teach virtually, and families everywhere struggled to balance work and school from home. But are the changes made to the education system during the pandemic only temporary or here to stay? Let’s find out.
Pandemic Effects on Teachers and Administrators
The pandemic created massive changes in the education system as a whole — especially for teachers, administrators, and other education employees. Here are some of the ways the pandemic affected the educator side of the system.
When most of the world shut down in March of 2020, teachers were suddenly tasked with transferring in-person learning plans into online instruction overnight. This online learning continued through the rest of the school year for most.
Many teachers reported that their workloads increased significantly and affected their ability to be great teachers. Pam Gaddy, a social studies teacher from Maryland told NEA News that “The workload is probably 90% more than a typical year.” Gaddy also mentioned she was working more hours than ever, including early mornings, late nights, and throughout the weekend, just to keep up.
Gaddy’s experience was commonplace among many teachers during the beginning of the pandemic. However, as school districts around the country slowly reopened schools, teacher workload continued to rise. Most schools are now operating on a mix of schedules including full-time in-person, full-time online instruction, or a hybrid combination of the two, meaning teachers have to juggle a classroom as well as online students. Many teachers feel like their quality of instruction is lower since they have to split their attention between the students in front of them and the students on the screen.
Mental Health and Stress Levels
With so many teachers feeling overworked and pulled in different directions, it’s no wonder that mental health issues and stress levels have been affected during the pandemic. People go into education because they want to make a difference in the lives of children. When a teacher can’t properly connect with their students or feel like they are making that difference, it can become a huge mental toll and lead to teacher burnout.
One stand-out example comes from an interview that USA Today did with Carly Evans, a teacher and mother in Massachusetts, who struggled to balance teaching her students while also trying to help her family navigate their own journey through the pandemic:
Evans works on a hybrid schedule, where she splits her time between working on campus or teaching from home. In between her teaching schedule, Evans also needs to make time to help her young children with their online schooling. There is so much on her plate now that Evans found she can’t manage her own physical and mental needs, including attending therapy or addressing her now-weekly migraines.
Another effect of the pandemic on education is teachers leaving the field altogether. The stress, mental strain, and exhaustion are leading to severe burnout, with 42% of teachers saying they have thought about leaving or retiring in the last year.
Digital Skills Gap
Zoom, Google Classroom, and other online schooling tools are still relatively new technologies. This means that many teachers struggle to use these tools, especially since they are constantly evolving and updating. Teachers face multiple challenges as they try to implement online learning, and what works one day may not work the next.
Another challenge presented is when students have issues on their end, they turn to their teacher for help. Now teachers need to know how to use the digital technologies for themselves, and how to troubleshoot issues for their students. While schools can implement digital technology training for teachers, this digital skills gap will continue to be a problem for education as hybrid learning continues.
When online school wasn’t working — especially for younger students — and in-person learning wasn’t possible, many parents opted to pull their children out of school and turn to homeschool. If homeschool wasn’t an option, parents opted for private schools over public. Private schools typically have a smaller student body, which meant most of them could stay open following COVID precautions when public schools could not.
While students were transferring to private schools as the best option for their families, their new enrollment status financially impacted the public education system. School districts are allotted budgets by the number of students enrolled in public schools within their boundaries. This means that as students have turned to homeschool or private schools, school districts are experiencing lower enrollment rates and, therefore, smaller budgets.
Current data from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that public school enrollment has dropped just over 2% in the last year as parents sought other options for student education during the ongoing pandemic. Currently, most elementary and secondary schools use district funding provided by federal stimulus packages. But when these funds are depleted, school districts across the country will face new funding struggles.
Pandemic Effects on Students
The pandemic has been particularly hard on students, especially younger ones. Grades are slipping, social skills are down, and many students struggle to understand and adapt to big changes in the education system they’re used to. Here are some of the changes students are facing with education during the pandemic.
When schools switched to online learning, many students had to adjust to being “taught” by their parents while trying to learn through online resources. Due to a lack of consistent teaching from a professional educator, many children fell behind in school. By the end of the 2020-2021 school year, a McKinsey & Company study found that, on average, many students were five months behind in math skills and four months behind in reading skills. Students now have to work harder to ensure they are catching up to grade-level expectations.
Adoption of E-Learning
After losing in-person instruction, e-learning was one of the biggest challenges of pandemic education for students. Not everyone can easily learn online, and many younger children need parental supervision to complete their digital classwork. There are other issues with adopting e-learning, including:
- Lack of student/teacher communication
- Missed or unclear information
- Unreliable internet connection
- No personalized learning approaches
The biggest issue with online learning is students having access to a computer they can use for schoolwork. In some homes, there may be only one computer that every child uses for their online school. This affects students’ ability to attend virtual meet-ups at specific times and creates the need for a family schedule where everyone can get their work done.
Lower-Income Students Are Hit the Hardest
Students that live in lower-income homes have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Children in these homes may not have access to a computer or the internet to participate in virtual learning. Additionally, many of these students rely on school breakfast and lunch for their meals, meaning they may face food scarcity if they can’t attend in-person school.
When schools switched to online learning, many school-sponsored extracurricular activities were suspended. These activities are an important part of the education experience because they can improve academic performance, boost self-esteem, and inspire future actions or career choices. Without these programs, students miss out on enhancing parts of the education system.
Some after school programs, like tutoring, homework assistance, speech, and debate, were able to move online during the pandemic. However, some extracurricular activities provided by schools — like sports, choir, student council, art, science, and language clubs — had to adapt to remote options or stop completely. Where activities like art club could use online instruction, students faced the problem of not having the materials at home to participate in the art projects. In some cases, teachers and activity coordinators took it upon themselves to get needed materials to their students, but this was not a feasible option in most areas.
Funding is another problem for extracurricular activities. Schools may have stopped their programs simply because the funds weren’t there to keep the activities running. According to an article from EducationWeek, federal- and state-funded programs had an easier time transitioning to online services because they had the money to do so. However, fee-based programs were not moved online or were stopped completely, largely due to the inability to pay fees and keep the programs running.
What Does the Future of Education Look Like?
The pandemic has already changed so much about the education system, but the future of schools will continue evolving as the world deals with COVID-19. While it is impossible to predict what the future will actually look like, here are some changes we can expect in education after the pandemic.
Improving Learning With Digital Innovation
Students don’t all learn the same way, and teachers will need to continue being innovative with their teaching methods to help students online. Teachers are going to find new ways to make current technologies work for themselves and their students' needs. In a blog from Western Governors University, they suggest that teachers can add technology practice exercises to the beginning of the school year to help students learn the systems before doing actual coursework.
Another suggestion is to change the online learning approach by using a flipped-classroom approach. With this learning style, students view video lessons as homework after school. Then, during the school day, students can ask questions about the videos, work through problems together, and get further instruction from their teacher during the online class.
As teachers strive to make online learning work better for everyone, school districts will also need to allocate more funds and resources to build more robust online or hybrid learning options.
Changes in Class Structures
While many classes are almost back to full in-person operation, there are still numerous students learning online or doing a hybrid version of school. When looking at the future of schools, many will likely implement permanent remote learning options. According to the First American School District Panel Survey, “About two in 10 districts have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting virtual school as part of their district portfolio after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic”
Improved Accessibility and Affordability
Public K-12 schools are typically free for everyone, meaning online learning through these schools should also be free. However, schools and school districts will likely need to create relief programs that provide remote-learning families with internet access and devices for online school.
Building Better Relationships Between Students and Faculty
As education has changed during the pandemic, teachers have become more understanding of student situations regarding coursework and homework. This compassion is expected to continue throughout the remainder of the pandemic and beyond, helping build better relationships between students and teachers.
Focus on Teacher Well-Being
If the pandemic has taught us anything about education, it is that teachers have an irreplaceable role in our world and we need to do more to support them. School districts will need to invest in better teacher professional development to ensure teachers are adequately prepared for the challenges of online learning. When teachers are trained to handle the different facets of online and hybrid learning, it can make their work life a little less stressful.
A teacher’s emotional, physical, and mental health needs to be prioritized. Schools should implement ongoing safety protocols that protect teachers and students from illnesses, including COVID-19. Additionally, schools need to involve teachers in education planning and policymaking. Teachers’ voices need to be heard and their concerns addressed to create a better working environment in the future.
The pandemic changed many aspects of our lives and every industry in the world was affected. The education system in our country has been permanently changed and everyone will need to continue to find new, innovative ways to make school work for everyone. No one knows exactly what the future will look like moving forward, but it’s safe to say that the education system will never be the same.