Across the world, teachers and school administrators have had to adjust to what is increasingly referred to as the “new normal” in education. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only impacted school operations, but it will continue to affect how we educate our children. While many hoped the sudden transition to online learning in the spring of 2020 would end quickly, it did not and the pandemic has revealed outdated educational systems, heightened educational inequities, and surfaced unique challenges that will shape the future of elementary education.
The most obvious issue schools face is keeping their communities safe. While schools in some states have tried to offer minimal distance options to encourage entirely face-to-face classroom instruction, the rising rates of infection have demonstrated that this approach is not feasible. In their statement on reopening schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that schools offer a number of virtual learning and hybrid options and that students who meet in face-to-face classrooms are kept at least six feet away from one another. They also recommend all staff, faculty, and students wear face masks and maintain strict cleaning and sanitizing standards.
Masks in the Classroom
While these safety precautions sound simple enough, in theory, they are much more difficult to implement consistently in elementary schools. It is difficult to get Pre-K through 3rd-grade students to wear masks and distance themselves from others consistently. Furthermore, when faculty wear face masks, it becomes difficult for them to meet the needs of young children, English Language Learners, and children who are hard of hearing. When students need to clearly hear and see how a teacher pronounces a word or phrase, a mask can make learning exceedingly more difficult.
Many teachers have switched to clear masks and face shields to mitigate the effects of mask-wearing. However, this does not make it any easier to get small children to consistently wear masks and stay six feet away from one another. Edutopia has issued a list of fun suggestions to help elementary students grow accustomed to these new ways of interacting, such as establishing routines surrounding masks, providing students with focused attention practice, offering theme weeks, and communicating regularly with parents.
Many elementary students will not be returning to the classroom anytime soon. Students with disabilities, those who live with immune-compromised parents or who have been exposed to or contracted COVID-19 need more options for learning outside of traditional classrooms.
Technology and Online Learning
Research shows online teaching and learning are only effective when students have consistent access to the internet and computers and teachers receive targeted training and support for online instruction. Unfortunately, these tools are not available to many educators, exposing the outdated nature of most professional development networks in elementary education.
An Education Week study found that tackling new technologies is eating into teachers’ valuable instruction time. However, these struggles are likely to improve teacher familiarity with educational technologies. In the same survey, 87% of teachers reported an improvement in their ability to work with technology during the pandemic.
While many administrators and teachers are working hard to keep clear lines of communication to comfort their students and connect with them, communication is often complicated by digital equity gaps. While nonprofit organizations like EveryoneOn are stepping in to connect low-income families to computers, internet service, and digital training, educators also must get creative with their distance learning methods. Examples of how districts work together to meet the needs of their communities include providing hard copies of required materials via curbside pick-up, utilizing flexible schedules, and offering a choice of assignments based on access (such as this learning menu created by an Oklahoma teacher).
The world of elementary education looks significantly different than it did just one year ago. The ongoing changes shape approaches to classroom education, with technology use and educational equity playing an important part. Administrators, teachers, and organizations are working together to collaborate on new and creative methods of promoting student success.