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Remote learning has cost us, but what has it taught us?

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

Illustration of diverse people interacting online during remote learning..
Remote learning has changed how students and educators interact.

With each passing week, educators, children and families inch closer to a scenario that has felt like fantasy since March, 2020: safe school re-openings nationwide. After pushing for teachers to be prioritized in access to vaccination, President Biden has urged communities nationwide to return to in-person learning. The CDC recently announced new physical distancing guidelines — recommending just three feet (not six) between students in classrooms in most circumstances — making it easier for schools to open their doors. Meanwhile, we know there is no way to move forward without deep reflection and action on the staggering inequities the pandemic has revealed. Remote learning has cost us, but what has it taught us?

"I'm worried for the children social-emotionally"

In the past year, ParentCorps has heard countless stories from pre-K educators as they navigate the unique challenges of remote, hybrid, and in-person teaching. “I'm worried for the children social-emotionally,” Ms. Walters, a ParentCorps teacher in Brooklyn, said after one year of remote teaching. “Even after this whole year, when they come online, we have to remind them, 'Say hi to your friends. Say good morning.’” Ms. Vazquez, her co-teacher, wondered if she really got to know her students at all. "On the screen, I don't know if the children feel like they can be themselves. The parent is always right there, so they're always looking up at their parent,” she said. “I want to know who they are, their personalities."

Meanwhile, teachers leading in-person instruction have faced a different set of challenges, like scaffolding children’s social and emotional skills while also keeping them safe. Masks mean that emotions are hard to read and convey. Social distancing means less chances to share toys, build, play, and solve problems together. Rather than enjoying family-style meals together, children and educators often eat prepackaged meals at their own tables. In some pre-K classrooms, even singing has become an outdoors-only activity.

Now, educators are cautiously preparing to turn the page. Some are seeing their students in person for the first time after months of trying to connect and form authentic relationships on Zoom. In addition, the possibility of teaching teams coming together again for meaningful in-person collaboration feels increasingly plausible, yet also potentially uncomfortable. “I think I'll have a hard time interacting with all the adults!" Ms. Vazquez said.

Remote learning as a mirror

A full year in, one fact is clear: the pandemic has shone a glaring light on long-time educational inequities for communities of color in historically disinvested neighborhoods. In many pre-K programs in these neighborhoods, educators lacked access to technology — sometimes going without a single reliable desktop computer onsite — even before the pandemic began, creating a steep imbalance when early childhood education shifted to remote and hybrid learning models. Many teachers had minimal support to transition their materials online, let alone incorporate best practices. Designated as the lowest priority age group, pre-K students often waited months to receive devices, which families then had to learn how to use, stalling critical home-school connections.

Yet the remote learning narrative is not wholly negative. For some Black children, remote learning offered an unexpected chance to thrive, as eighth grader Josh Secrett and his family shared with NPR: at home with his family, he no longer had to spend constant emotional and cognitive energy making white teachers and classmates comfortable with his presence.

“I was floored at how when we shut down schools, how so much became possible."

“I was floored at how when we shut down schools, how so much became possible,” University of Georgia Professor Dr. Bettina Love said in a conversation about abolitionist teaching. She eloquently captured what the pandemic has exposed:

“Why did it take a pandemic to see the humanity in teaching? Why did it take a pandemic to see how extraordinary this job is? Why did it take a pandemic to see that we needed resources? Why did it take the pandemic for them to say well, you know, because of the pandemic, the gaps are going to be exacerbated? No shit! The pandemic has shown us a hand that they were willing to play in crisis that they were never willing to play before, and now we have to say we’re not going back. The managing of inequality -- we are not going back. And we have to be clear about that as educators. That’s what abolition is about.”

Our own learning

Internally, we at ParentCorps are also trying to extract lessons from this year like no other.

When school safety measures first forced our team to move all programs online, ParentCorps Educator Olayemi Otun grappled with whether safe spaces for connection among families were even possible in a virtual context. “The thought of not having that was hard for me! That was one of my anchors for this work,” she said. In close partnership with one of her school sites, she made a targeted outreach plan to invite families to ParentCorps’ newly developed Parenting Through the Pandemic series, a group-based, virtual program developed to support pre-K families through the challenges of grief, loss, and fostering predictability in an unpredictable world. These outreach efforts paid off, and Otun carries this early win with her. “I don't know how many spaces teachers and caregivers get to be together to share about loss and how they've been impacted by COVID-19. That was really a beautiful collection of experiences... to share and support one another,” she said.

For Otun, this past year, which happened to be her first full year in a coaching role, also meant confronting her feelings of imposter syndrome. “As a Black, young, cis woman who does not have a child… the little experience I have felt like nothing compared to the people I’ve been coaching,” she said. “[But] even with my small time frame of my experience, I have something there. I’m realizing there is strength in my experience.”

Cindy Gray is a ParentCorps Educator.

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