Fourth grade teacher: Online school was a disgrace

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

The NY Times published a “guest essay” today by a fourth grade teacher from Washington, DC. The first part of the piece deals with the obvious logistical nightmare that online school created for a lot of parents:

Home alone with younger siblings or cousins, kids struggled to focus while bouncing a fussy toddler or getting whacked repeatedly on the head with a foam sword. Others lay in bed and played video games or watched TV. Many times each day, I carefully repeated the instructions for a floundering student, only to have them reply, helplessly, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” their audio squealing and video freezing as they spoke.

But eventually the author gets around to the real problem, which in her view wasn’t logistical. The real problem was a lack of commitment from some public school teachers and administrators:

I am still bewildered and horrified that our society walked away from this responsibility, that we called school inessential and left each family to fend for itself. Meanwhile nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers all went to work in person — most of my students’ parents went to work in person — not because it was safe but because their work is essential. Spare me your “the kids are all right” Facebook memes. Some children may have learned to do laundry or enjoy nature during the pandemic. Many others suffered trauma and disconnection that will take years to repair.

I don’t know the first thing about public health. I won’t venture an opinion on what impact the school closures had on controlling the spread of Covid. What I do know is that the private schools in our city quickly got to work upgrading HVAC systems, putting up tents, cutting class sizes and rearranging schedules so that they could reopen in relative safety. Public schools in other states and countries did the same.

The problems of in person education during a pandemic were serious but they were also solvable. Like a difficult word problem, we just needed people willing to stick with it and work it out. Instead, in many places we got teachers and unions looking for any excuse to throw in the towel and then claiming it wasn’t their fault they couldn’t return to classrooms. Basically, we got the sad, adult version of the dog ate my homework.

And if you read through the comments, some of the teachers are still offering the same litany of excuses, e.g. the HVAC system was no good, the windows didn’t open, we couldn’t properly social distance. All of these things were true for a lot of other workers who had less critical jobs making less money. But at least some teachers commenting on the story clearly get it. For instance, this law school professor who points out that even his highly motivated students struggled with online learning:

I teach law school. During the pandemic, our students were given the option of attending in-person or virtually. A small cadre attended class regularly, but the vast majority opted for the virtual “pajama” version. I taught virtually the same materials in virtually the same way as I had in the past, with perhaps slightly more supplementary explanatory materials. When I sat down to grade the final exams, I was mortified by the level of comprehension. It was as though I frankly had failed to impart the material.

Law students are pursuing post-graduate education in a highly competitive field, and paying a huge tuition for the opportunity to do so. If anyone should have the incentive to fight through the virtual disadvantage, it should have been them. Yet, without the discipline of the classroom, most of the students were far to casual in their reading, attention to the lectures, and development of a working knowledge of the subject matter. My conclusion: classrooms matter.

This is a conclusion that should have mattered to more people but somehow didn’t. Another response:

The one place we could have all focused our collective energy on safety would have been schools. Many schools successfully stayed open in other states and countries. Meanwhile the people who work in supermarkets and all the other places delivered their essential services to you and they and their their children suffered societal abandonment, the results of which will linger a long time. A collective trust and mutual responsibility was broken.

A teacher from NY on the threat to teachers:

It’s time to put away the specter of mass teacher deaths that justified so many of us sitting home for the past year. It didn’t happen anywhere in the world, and never was going to happen in NYC, in schools with basic masking and distancing.

That was unscientific fear mongering by the union, and everyone fell for it.

And a teacher from Chicago:

As a teacher in Chicago, I struggled with online teaching in the fall; after adjusting to new tech and new ways of teaching, I found it very convenient — no commuting, no classroom discipline, no dragging papers home. But throughout, it has been overwhelmingly negative for most students. I felt guilt for reasons precisely described in this op-ed. Why were my students’ parents essential enough to be exposed, but I am too important to get covid or laid off? And, yes, teachers play an important role in childcare– deal with it peers! I still am dumbfounded as to how my district and union did not even attempt innovative solutions.

Finally, a response from an obviously upset parent makes a partisan point:

This. One thousand times this. Democrats and blue states have made a terrible mistake. I am a parent and I am horrified what they did to our children, I am leaving the Democratic Party. I spent the last 15 months in utter disbelief. Other countries did not do this! Other states did not do this. They

Parents are a quieter voting bloc as a whole, we are too disparate and too busy. We don’t advocate or protest en masse. But we do vote. Dems will lose the House and Senate over this in 2022, no doubt. Anyone thinking otherwise is not paying attention to the quiet but incredible anger boiling in most parents in blue states.

I think there’s some truth to the idea that this could really hurt Democrats if Republicans are smart enough to talk about it. That will also depend on whether or not the same unions who fought to keep teachers home will now fight to ignore the impact of that decision. There is already a move in New York not to test kids lest parents learn the full extent of the pandemic learning loss created by remote learning.