Dr. Diane Casale-Giannola and Dr. Lauren Delisio
As we enter a new school year, we should take a look at the differences between the expectations placed on teachers and students and the actual realities of the post-pandemic classroom last year, or should we say, the “transition pandemic year.”
With great optimism, Gov. Phil Murphy mandated in-person school instruction for the 2021-22 school year. While schools opened with masked students and faculty in September 2021, the mandate for in-person education was an optimistic move toward ensuring socialization and relationship-building between teachers and students, which are critical components of a strong learning community and a positive school environment.
It seemed to be the year schools were expected to close the “pandemic gap.” In the prior academic year (2020-21), there was still a mix of remote and hybrid teaching across the state, and many schools still had a choice regarding delivery models of instruction, often forcing teachers to teach both modalities (face-to-face and a virtual/online class) simultaneously.
In 2021-22, the hope was that we could return to normalcy. With the vaccine widely available, we could rest assured that most of the school population was vaccinated, and those adults who were not vaccinated were tested weekly to ensure they were attending school without the risk of COVID-19 exposure or transmission.
While students and teachers were still wearing masks, a return to in-person or face-to-face education marked a progressive milestone in the pandemic since March 2020. Educators and school districts sensitive to the emotional needs of their school community created by the remote learning and the aftermath of the pandemic, such as lost loved ones, lost income, and increased anxiety and trauma, implemented a social-emotional curriculum, often referred to as social-emotional learning (SEL).
Some schools offered increased counseling opportunities and mindfulness activities for both staff and students. Despite good intentions and preparation, it seems that the aftermath of the pandemic continued to create further unforeseen issues.
Discovering unexpected outcomes
Last year, we led a grant initiative to support two school districts and students with disabilities through the implementation of trauma-informed instruction and sensory supports. During this experience, participating school districts were provided with professional development. The school districts also were given funds to purchase sensory tools to develop calming sensory experiences for students including items such as fidgets, weighted materials, special lighting, flexible seating, tents, multiple textured items, and other tools to help students relax, reduce anxiety, refocus, attend, and self-regulate. Such practices help students, both those with and without disabilities, to self-regulate and participate more appropriately academically and socially with their peers and others.
While our efforts were somewhat successful in alleviating trauma among students, we learned more about the unexpected outcomes of the pandemic that plagued our schools and educators. Such surprises, challenges and hurdles made us realize that returning to “normalcy” or a pre-pandemic school experience might take years—and there may never be a return, but a “new normal” instead.
At both the elementary and secondary levels, teachers reported problems related to severe teacher shortages, absences, and staff turnover. Teachers and other staff who experienced COVID-19 symptoms and/or possible COVID-19 exposure led to high absenteeism rates. Many teachers retired, leaving the system early due to remote learning challenges and health risks related to the job.
The 2021-22 school year began with classrooms that did not have full-time, assigned teachers. Additionally, substitute teacher shortages left school staff—sometimes those who were not certified teachers—to cover classes, which exhausted all school human resources, both literally and figuratively.
In the winter months, many schools closed intermittently with new COVID strains, such as Omicron, and spikes in COVID-19 rates. This led to even more disruptions related to both the academic and social-emotional growth of students. Wearing masks may have reduced COVID-19 transmission risks but led to further isolation and social limitations in the learning process.
Many teachers reported students acting younger than expected and other unusual behaviors. They attributed such behavior to missed developmental milestones as students remained isolated from peers. Teachers reported a loss of nonverbal communication and relationship building, critical to the positive learning experience. Teachers could not see smiles, grimaces, or signs of interest, wonder, or boredom that often helped them assess the learning process and meet student needs.
Some teachers shared that while remote instruction had its own challenges, teachers could at least see their students’ faces. Masks also hindered sound. Trying to understand students and teachers was difficult, and many times students just gave up trying to repeat themselves in order to be understood. In lower grades, emergent readers struggled to learn new sounds because they were not able to decode and encode words without the visual support of imitating the teacher’s mouth and sounds clearly.
Struggling to regain interest and motivation
In a time when it was more important than ever to foster or regain the relationships between students and teachers, those teachers who typically might have an “open door policy” for lunch and other meetings had to suspend these invitations as students had to be in assigned locations for tracking purposes. In the second half of last year, when the mask mandate was lifted, we asked teachers if they renewed their open-door policies and they simply told us “no.” They felt so mentally burnt out that they had to save any possible down time to collect themselves in order to finish out the rest of the day.
At the elementary schools, teachers purchased tents, which became places where students could isolate, sit and refocus. We learned the staff were using the tents on their own time in order to decompress.
To further exasperate teachers who were already feeling overworked and underappreciated, both districts coincidentally struggled with administrative problems that required union intervention. One district had a shortage of paraprofessionals to support students with special needs, a legally binding accommodation in their individualized educational programs. Another school was in the midst of collective bargaining. This heightened tensions between association members and administrators, leaving staff to feel unappreciated during negotiations.
Overall, the greatest challenges were seen at the high school level. While there was a sense of urgency last year to prepare secondary students for college or employment after graduation, teachers found students who were once motivated to excel in college preparation and Advanced Placement courses, were now checked out and burned out. It seemed the teachers felt the urgency, but the students remained uninterested and unmotivated.
Teachers attributed such lax attitudes and work ethic to the lack of accountability and social promotion accepted during remote learning, often referred to as “crisis teaching.” It seems students struggled to regain interest and personal responsibility for their performance once they returned to in-person school.
More time needed to find equilibrium
When discussing the effectiveness of social-emotional supports provided by the schools, teachers across all grades appreciated initiatives and efforts, sharing anecdotal gains in some circumstances, but overall, teacher expectations were not met. All realized that the losses incurred during pandemic learning experiences were now deeply rooted in the fabric of student performance and behavior.
Additional support such as sensory equipment and SEL lessons were welcomed but took time away from competing academic goals and high-stakes testing preparation, which remained constant. The equipment and lessons provided only a “Band-Aid” for deep wounds. There were always competing goals for time before but adding pandemic initiatives to support students’ emotional stability added just more to the teacher’s plate without the class time to address these additional needs.
Toward the end of the school year, new societal issues further exacerbated tensions and anxiety in the school community. Students’ concerns about the war between Russia and Ukraine, soaring inflation, an economic recession looming, and the loss of many goods and services, and most critically, the baby formula shortage that affected the families of many staff and students were often discussed. Most devastating was the number of massacres, especially the Uvalde school tragedy. All of these concerns continue to bring fear and trepidation to a community already working so hard to return to pre-pandemic stability.
One of the greatest lessons learned this year is that much more time will be needed to heal and develop permanent change, and greater appreciation and support for educators and school communities are necessary. For many, the “new normal” has not yet been defined, but as one teacher reflected, “We tried, but we just could not go from surviving to thriving.”
Closer to the end of the school year, ceremonies such as awards and honors, proms, and school ending celebrations that were now fully reinstated, often for the first time, helped to lift the school community’s spirits. Students and staff looked forward to the rest and renewal of the summer break to start again in the fall.
Dr. Diane Casale-Giannola is a professor and the director of Graduate Special Education in the College of Education and Human Services at Rider University. She has been an educator and administrator at the secondary level in general and special education. Her research and publications are on inclusion and global education.
Dr. Lauren Delisio is an associate professor of special education at Rider University. She taught special education and general education at the elementary level, and currently conducts research related to Universal Design for Learning, educational technology, and interventions for students with autism spectrum disorder. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.