The following is a column submitted by Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins, published here as a letter-to-the-editor:
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present challenges none of us could have imagined a year ago. As confirmed cases rise in Lake and Mendocino Counties, school boards are forced to choose between unpleasant options: distance learning or a return to the classroom with unprecedented restrictions, both of which make it harder for teachers to teach and students to learn.
Information about how COVID-19 spreads changes as scientists around the globe share new discoveries. One day, the data suggest we can return to the classroom safely and days later, public health experts tell us we cannot. It’s frustrating for everyone—families with schoolchildren, teachers, administrators, and employers. In addition to worrying about everyone’s health and safety, the inability to plan has strained already frayed nerves.
The general consensus of educators, backed by scientific research, tells us that in-classroom education is by far the best for most students—academically, socially, and emotionally—unless being in the classroom puts them at risk of contracting and/or spreading a deadly virus, of course. I thought it would be interesting to hear from the students themselves, so I asked several of them to share their thoughts, to tell me about teachers they appreciate, things they like about school, and what they would change if they could wave a magic wand. I spoke with children as young as fourth grade and as old as a junior in high school, boys and girls, public school and charter school, inland and coastal. Here’s what they told me.
OUR TEACHERS DO AN AMAZING JOB CONNECTING WITH KIDS
Every student could quickly name a teacher who’d had a positive influence on them, often several teachers.
A junior from Redwood Academy said her history teacher, Mr. Cimmiyotti, brought historical figures to life by sharing anecdotes that made them real (and often made her laugh).
A fourth grader from Oak Manor Elementary School said, “I liked Mr. Butler because in Kindergarten, I was a goofball and I was really funny, and he came in and he was exactly the same… I learned a lot—a lot, a lot. At the end of the school year, he made a treat for us of chocolate pudding, then he crushed Oreos like dirt, and then he put in gummy worms – so then it looked like soil because [during a class project] we planted a seed and watched it grow.”
A freshman at Ukiah High School appreciated his middle school science teacher, Mr. Percy, who started a band and invited students to practice after school until they were good enough to perform at a school rally. The student also loved Mr. Percy’s hands-on science projects “like rockets and CO2-powered cars.”
I heard example after example of teachers connecting with students, finding ways to engage them through humor, hands-on projects, and common interests. The students I spoke with felt seen, heard, and cared for, and this helped them learn.
STUDENTS MISS BEING AT SCHOOL
Whether students reported liking school or not, every single one wanted to return to “normal” school. They miss their friends, they miss having a distraction-free environment with the tools and technology to do assignments, and many of them miss interacting with their teachers. Yet, when I asked if they wanted to go back to the classroom based on what they know right now, they said they felt more comfortable with full distance learning. They worried that returning to the classroom would put them and/or their families at risk.
EVEN WITH A MAGIC WAND, THEY WOULDN’T CHANGE MUCH
When I asked students what they would change about pre-COVID school, given the option, many said they wouldn’t change a thing. They talked about how their schools make them feel safe and welcome, using examples like the Buddy Bench at Oak Manor Elementary where students sit if they don’t have someone to play with and other kids immediately invite them to join in. They talked about how much fun they have with their friends and how much they learn from their teachers.
They did, however, have some recommendations to improve distance learning. In a nutshell, they asked for a consistent schedule and more interaction. Many of them said they feel lonely and having a routine with more interaction would help. They also noted that distance learning made it harder to keep track of assignments and that poor internet connections sometimes made online interactions feel disjointed and frustrating.
LET’S TAKE A PAGE FROM THEIR BOOKS
After speaking with these students, I felt so encouraged. They made no secret of the fact that they are struggling in the midst of this pandemic, but their resilience shined through. They didn’t blame others or point fingers, and they enthusiastically jumped in to brainstorm on ways to solve problems. As a society, we often discount the wisdom of children when we shouldn’t. They are listening and learning from us all the time. If we were smart, we’d spend a little more time listening and learning from them.