As I write, last night our high school graduated just under 150 seniors. So another end of a school year has come. And what a school year it was. I have heard veteran educators comment that they had never lived through quite a year like this one in their entire career experience thus far until now. No one envisioned how a pandemic could impact education and learning so much, but it did so.
Our school year in our West Tennessee district began in August of last year, only a week later than was slated, but the schedule was disrupted from the outset. Our high school students attended by one grade level per day, beginning with freshmen on a Monday and ending with seniors on a Thursday. On Friday, our freshmen returned, and the schedule began again, with sophomores returning on Mondays.
I can only imagine how confusing that may have been to parents with students in multiple grade levels. As an English teacher, I was fortunate in one way: I teach only one grade level per day. Teachers of other disciplines may teach multiple grade levels within a given class, so I’m sure they felt as if they were spinning proverbial wheels in re-teaching material when a new grade level showed up on a new day.
A month or so into the semester, though, our schedule changed. We began combining grade-level attendance. Freshmen and sophomores attended on the same day, and juniors and seniors attended on the same day, with Fridays delegated as a teacher workday. Finally, a little further into the school year, our district progressed to the status of having all grades attend each day on Monday through Thursday, with Friday to continue as a teacher workday for the remainder of the school year.
There were several issues that complicated matters further. Regarding mask-wearing, our district’s policy was to strongly encourage it but not require it because of lack of a mayoral or gubernatorial mandate and, thus, perhaps some hesitation due to potential community pushback. Some wore masks, but most did not.
Moreover, while our district retained a separate virtual school, where students who attended were removed from our individual main-campus rosters, we also had a new, temporary program titled “Reconnect,” where students who were on our rosters could work at home asynchronously on assignments, posted on Google Classroom, without physically attending school. A student’s Reconnect status was also fluid and could change at any time. A student could begin in-person and, at any point, supposedly with administrative notification by parents, transition into working remotely under Reconnect.
Theoretically, this approach might work well for students who have both some level of ability in a subject, along with discipline and self-regulation. And a small group of students thrived under this methodology. However, lacking one or more of those traits could set up a student for disaster, and it often did, creating students who essentially became “phantoms.”
Some of our best students, who usually had no problem completing work and earning satisfactory grades or even well-above ended up getting bogged down in the lack of structure and the domino effect happened. A student might get behind on an assignment or two, missing an important deadline, and before he or she truly realized it, half of the semester was gone, and there were several assignments that had not been completed and submitted. For some students, it became a fiasco that was not corrected until early May, when administrators dismissed passing students and “required” failing students to attend in-person to make up missing work and rectify failing grades to avert attending summer school.
As an educator, I missed having a connection with my students. Not only were the ones who were in attendance each day spread out for social distancing, but the attendance in my classes was scant. For instance, in my first block English IV class in which fifteen seniors were enrolled, I regularly saw about five of them each day. It was difficult to generate classroom discussion because of the combination of the social distancing and the small numbers. My junior-level English III classes were a little better in attendance but not by a great deal. I felt, in the end, that I didn’t really know my students in the way that I had in previous years, and I yearned for that missing element.
Next year should be a better one for both educators and students. Granted, I’m sure we will witness learning loss. Although we haven’t entirely left pandemic status just yet, about half of all U.S. adults are now vaccinated, and our nations’ numbers of the COVID virus are steadily declining. The Tennessee State Board of Education has declared that no students in our state will learn in a hybrid fashion next year. If a student wants to learn virtually, he or she must enroll in a separate virtual school. I am, therefore, envisioning a return to a more regular structure, a consistent schedule, and some level of normalcy in getting our students prepared for their futures.
Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and as an adjunct instructor at UT-Martin. She is pursuing an Ed.S. degree in Educational Leadership through Lipscomb University in Nashville. She enjoys downtown Corinth.