700 Days Since Lockdown

Educators, Students, Parents and Researchers Reflect on Pandemic’s ‘Seismic Interruption to Education’

By Linda Jacobson | February 14, 2022

700 days. 

That’s how long it’s been since more than half the nation’s schools crossed into the pandemic era.

On March 16, 2020, districts in 27 states, encompassing almost 80,000 schools, closed their doors for the first long educational lockdown. Within nine days, the nation’s remaining districts followed suit.

Since then, schools have reopened, closed and reopened again. The effects have been immediate — students lost parents; teachers mourned fallen colleagues — and hopelessly abstract, as educators weighed “pandemic learning loss,” the sometimes crude measure of COVID’s impact on students’ academic performance.

To mark what will soon stretch into a third spring of educational disruption, The 74 spoke with educators, parents, students and researchers about what Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, called “a seismic interruption to education unlike anything we’ve ever seen.” They talked movingly, often unsparingly, about their missteps and occasional triumphs, their moments of despair and fragile optimism for the future. [You can scan through our expanding archive of testimonials right here.]

As spring approaches, there are additional reasons to be hopeful. More children are being vaccinated. Mask mandates are lifting. But even if the pandemic recedes and a “new normal” emerges, there are clear signs that the issues surfaced during this period will linger. COVID heightened inequities long baked into the American educational system. The social contract between parents and schools has frayed. Teachers are burning out.

“There are kind of two camps,” said Beth Lehr, an assistant principal of Sahuarita High School, south of Tucson, Arizona. “There’s the one camp of ‘This too shall pass,’ and then there’s the other camp of ‘Yeah, it’s going to pass, but I don’t know if I want to wait for it to.’”

But none of this was on anyone’s mind on March 16, 2020.

The World Health Organization had declared a pandemic only five days earlier. Two days after that, then-President Donald Trump called a national emergency. And in the Northshore School District, a system of 22,000 students northeast of Seattle, schools had already been closed for over a week. In late February, one of its schools shut for deep cleaning after an employee traveled out of the country with a family member who had become ill. The district’s closure offered a glimpse into what many thought would be a short-term disruption.

‘I realized it wasn’t science fiction’

Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington: A very good friend of mine who works in the Northshore School District called me, end of February, and said, “I think we’re going to close … and I think the rest of you won’t be far behind.” I said, “No way, there’s no way they’re going to close schools.” I mean, I really was incredulous.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education: I was having brunch with my sister in Kirkland, Washington, when the news broke that there were multiple cases and deaths at the Life Care Center nursing home just a few miles away. My husband sent me a text telling me to get out of Kirkland right away, and everything felt ominous.

Marguerite Roza, Seattle-based director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University: My daughter and I were driving to go pick up some fish for dinner. In the car, they announced the governor’s order — it was with a bigger lockdown kind of order — and we walked into the fish market place, and the guy behind the counter goes, “Have you heard anything yet?” We were like, “Yep.” And he goes, “What did he say?” We said, “Lockdown.” And he [grunts], “Uhhhh.” Already, the streets were pretty empty, and the first person we talked to was the guy packaging up our salmon.

Bothell High School in the Northshore School District, near Seattle, was the first in the nation to close due to COVID-19. (Karen Ducey / Getty Images)

Tony Sanders, superintendent, School District U-46, near Chicago: I was asked to serve on a statewide panel of superintendents … to provide guidance to school district leaders across the state. Our first meeting, held on Sunday, March 15, was attended by prominent legislators, state health officials, the deputy governor for education and state superintendent of schools. Hearing the projections of worst-case scenarios should we not “flatten the curve” was surreal. At the conclusion of that meeting, where we worked to socially distance, but had no idea yet about the need to wear a mask, I made the four-hour journey home in complete silence and disbelief.

Michael Mulgrew, president, United Federation of Teachers, New York City: We started tracking this during the Christmas holiday. We had some teachers who were in China. We had them quarantine when they came back. I didn’t realize [things had changed] until March 16, the day after the New York City public schools closed. I was in my car driving around the city and I was shocked that the streets were empty. That’s when I realized it wasn’t science fiction. 

Bridgette Adu-Wadier: freshman, Northwestern University, graduate of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandra, Virginia: By the end of March, Gov. Ralph Northam basically announced that all the schools would be closed due to the pandemic for the rest of the school year. I watched the livestream, and I was texting my friends. One of them was actually really upset and crying about it, just because it was such a stressful situation to be in — like, things are never going to be the same again.

‘We were completely unprepared’

Parents, superintendents and others — many in a state of shock — had little time to plan as events unfolded at frightening speed.

Toni Rochelle Baker: family liaison for Oakland REACH, a parent advocacy organization, Walnut Creek, California: They gave us curfews in our city and then they told us to stock up for food. I don’t live my life like that. I’m a single mother. I go grocery shopping when I can. We get what we need, and now you’re telling me to stock up on food? That was scary. I didn’t have a deep freezer. I didn’t have extra money just laying around [to] go spend $300 on food. I didn’t have Wi-Fi at the time because I didn’t really need it. I have my phone, and now I need Wi-Fi for three people.

A mother tries to get out of bed in the morning after continuous news of a pandemic, isolation at home and school being canceled for her two children, on March 17, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Getty Images)

Maria Amado, family child care provider, Hartford, Connecticut, who opened her program for school-age children during remote learning: [Translated from Spanish] Educators, including myself, sewed masks for the children, and we looked for resources to support each other. Some gave fabric to make the masks, others the elastic. It may not have been in big ways, but they all contributed. And now I remember this and think, “Where did I find the time to make the masks?” It was the adrenaline to survive, knowing this would protect me and I had to do it.

Tony Sanders: We needed to place emergency orders for Chromebooks and other devices. We had to completely transform our approach to food service so that by March 17 we were feeding our students and community at food pickup locations throughout the district. There were decisions that had to be made that I would never have thought of. We had to determine how we would ensure employees would continue to be paid. During the first days of the pandemic, I recall sitting alone in my office. The view from my window was a large parking lot with one vehicle.

Sherrice Dorsey-Smith, deputy director of programs, planning and grants, San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Their Families: I had to figure out how we were going to open what we called emergency child and youth centers. These were spaces for essential workers to leave their children for the day while they were at work. Child care centers were closed, schools were closed, but some people needed or were required to continue working. They needed a safe place for their children during the day. I had to figure out how to get breakfast, lunch and snacks to all the sites. I remember working through the weekend nonstop, literally 48 hours.

Michael Mulgrew: It was a mad scramble to get everyone trained quickly how to get their classrooms up. How do we teach parents how to help their kids? It was non-stop. It was hundreds of decisions every day. Even though everything was closed, we were still moving stuff literally, like laptops and iPads and different things, trying to get them to our members’ houses so they had something to work off. [Former] Mayor [Bill de Blasio] had resolved never to close the schools, so he would not allow the Department of Ed to put any contingency plans in place. On the Friday before the schools closed, at 3 p.m., the mayor would be banging on the table saying he was going to keep the schools open. And that Sunday afternoon he closed the schools. So we were completely unprepared.

A teacher from Yung Wing School P.S. 124, who wished not to be identified, remote teaches on her laptop from her roof on March 24, 2020, in New York City. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

School, interrupted

As the deadline for lifting lockdown kept slipping away, some took longer to grasp the new reality: Life wouldn’t be returning to normal anytime soon.

Mariela Garcia: freshman at the University of Houston, graduate of Eastwood Academy High School in Houston: It was during spring break when we ended up having two weeks instead of one. And two weeks turned into three. This went on for a couple of weeks before we noticed that we weren’t going to go back to school. Stores started closing down, schools started closing, many things started closing because everyone was scared. That’s when I noticed that this was becoming very serious.

Dale Chu, senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute: I realized everything had changed … on May 10, 2020. How do I remember the date? My at-the-time 5-year-old daughter — after nearly two months on Zoom — drew a picture of her class for me. Seeing Kellan’s classmates through her eyes on a Zoom grid really hit things home for me.

Almost two months into remote learning, Dale Chu’s daughter Kellan drew a picture of her Zoom class. That’s when the gravity of the pandemic hit him. (Courtesy of Dale Chu)

Ricardo Miguel Martinez, president, Latino Parents for Public Schools, Atlanta: I had people worried about getting kicked out, evicted, lights being turned off, not having groceries. These are people who weren’t making excuses. The people who are fighting masks and stuff, they have a choice to either follow the data or not follow the data. God bless them in their fight. But these people didn’t have a choice. They got thrown into the chicken factories and died. They got thrown into manufacturing and died so that we could have chicken at the grocery store.

Mourning the lost

Some felt the pandemic’s effects up close: sick parents, dead teachers. This month, the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. reached 900,000, with an estimated 2,200 of them educators. Many of the effects have been harder to measure, but are certain to leave lasting damage. Recent RAND Corp. data shows four out of five secondary school principals experienced “frequent job-related stress” last year, and educator surveys show increasing concerns over students’ mental health, including anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Susan Enfield: We lost two middle school students to suicide early in the pandemic. We lost staff members.

A woman attended an October 2020 vigil to remember her sister, a sixth grade teacher in the Bronx, New York, who died from COVID-19. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Getty Images)

Michael Mulgrew: I had to read the names of our members who passed away. I had to make the phone calls to those families. We lost a lot of members, and I always think that if we could have closed earlier, how many more would we not have lost.

Shawnie Bennett, a COVID-19 investigator, Oakland, California: I lost my brother [from COVID] in May of 2020. He was only 32. As a family, when we would gather to try and go see him or just sit outside the hospital window. We were afraid to touch each other, so it was hard to comfort each other. [My son] came home [from college] for Christmas, and he saw me so weak and broken. He had always seen a very strong Black woman as a mother. I was gone, emotionally wrecked, mentally, physically, and it broke him down to the point that he did not want to return to school. He’s in Atlanta now, got an apartment and he’s just trying to figure life out. He was very close to my brother. That loss, on top of what he physically saw me go through, was detrimental for him.

David Brown, principal, Hillcrest Heights Elementary, Prince George’s County, Maryland: Family vacations, going out to eat, visiting family — I think all of those things disappearing created a milieu where it was tough to manage. And when you’re in charge of leading a large group of individuals, how do you help and support them? How do you keep your teachers upbeat? Because the mental health of every adult who receives a paycheck from our county impacts the mental health and the wellness of children who are just simply here to learn. I remember there was discussion that we’ll be able to eat and enjoy ourselves come the 4th of July, and then that didn’t happen. You’re holding out hope that it’s going away, but it’s not, and [you’re] trying to remain that positive, invigorating leader that the principal has to be.

Bridgette Adu-Wadier: Graduation was a really tough time. I don’t remember enjoying it, honestly. Just collectively, it was like a year or so of the pandemic, and then also, my family was impacted a lot financially, which was stressful. I was basically helping my two younger brothers through virtual school for the whole year. I had a lot more family responsibilities, and it took a toll on me mentally. I had trouble balancing things, especially with Zoom class sessions while my brothers needed help or were playing loudly in the other room. I relied on music and audiobooks as a form of escape.

Ashiley Lee, tech and operations coordinator, Para Los Niños, a Los Angeles charter school, where last year she taught seventh-grade history: I remember being in a class full of blank screens, because we no longer required cameras on, and then after that, putting my grades in for the semester and realizing just how low they were. I was trying to brainstorm with my team: What is something, anything, we can do to encourage our students to at least get the one assignment we post a week in by the end of the semester? My kids, it was so funny, we started a joke where I would call on a student to answer a question and they wouldn’t be there — kind of a ghost in the call. And the kids would comment in the chat, “Ghostbuster! Ms. Lee caught him.”

Marguerite Roza: The hardest part was when it looked like there was no reopening school. This was November of 2020. The governor had established these metrics by which you could open schools, and as far out as the modelers had modeled, it was never going to reopen. My then-high school daughter [a cross-country runner] was getting more and more discouraged. You could just see it was really not healthy for her, just to be home all alone every day. And you, as a parent, start to feel desperate. I used to listen to press conferences constantly. You could see that there wasn’t going to be any movement. I was very worried about her. The sports season had come and gone. School was online. I think that was probably the darkest time, which coincides in Seattle with it being really dark, [at] like 3:45. 

Mariela Garcia: Hundreds and thousands of people were dying because of COVID, and I was scared. I remember I had no interactions with the outside world for — I kid you not — at least three months straight. My family just did not want to leave our home. At the time, we had to adjust to online school. I had no Wi-Fi or laptop at the time, so it was hard to be in class and even submit assignments from my phone. It was definitely a very hard time, especially when family members started to get COVID.

Toni Baker: I had two kids at the table with computers doing virtual learning and I had no idea what that meant. They told us to sign on to some Zoom that I’ve never heard of before. I’m in love with my kids, but my kids were on my last nerves during the pandemic. Those four walls just weren’t enough.

Couch sitting, watching ‘Friends’

The monotony of being stuck at home sparked new coping strategies: Cooking, at-home workouts, walking the dog — and of course TikTok dances. Some took long couch breaks. Others became entrepreneurs. Mariela Garcia started baking and ran a business from a local farmer’s market.

Mariela Garcia: My family actually bought the DVD set of “Friends” and we just watched “Friends” over and over and over. We’ve already seen each episode at least 10 times. We just keep it playing throughout the whole day because we don’t have any Wi-Fi or anything at home. I would not have started my business if it wasn’t for being in quarantine. I had so much more free time. I hate being that person, but the first time I ever tried my empanadas, they came out great, and I have not changed anything. 

Susan Enfield: A group of female superintendents from around the country — we refer to ourselves as “sister supes” — had a standing Sunday afternoon Zoom where we would just check in and get together. In the early months, that proved to be incredibly helpful, just remembering that we weren’t alone. Going for walks with my husband and also, frankly, allowing myself to feel pain and to grieve. I think as leaders we do need to inspire hope and let people know it’s going to be OK and be strong, but we also have to balance that strength and courage with vulnerability. There were weekends where I didn’t get off the couch. I’ve been pretty honest about that in conversations with others. I said to someone once, “If one more person says, ‘You got this,’ I’m gonna smack ‘em.” A year and a half ago, I didn’t “got this,” and people were just lying. I’m sorry, they were just lying. I don’t think we do ourselves or our colleagues or anyone any service by faking it.

Beth Lehr, assistant principal, Sahuarita High School, Sahuarita, Arizona: I do not check my email at all on the weekends.

Malchester Brown IV, 6, takes a photo of the rainbow he painted to submit to his teacher online at his home on Monday, March 15, 2021 in Oakland, California. (Gabrielle Lurie / Getty Images)

Toni Baker: I had a support system. They gave us vouchers for food. They gave my kids free computers. They gave us Wi-Fi. They had these teachers — I don’t even know where they found these beautiful teachers with these loving hearts for these kids. There was a teacher who had a grandma’s touch and a mom’s heart, and she was just so warm. This is through a computer. I’ve never met this woman to this day in real life. I had the community of Oakland REACH behind me. I wouldn’t have made it without them.

David Brown: When we were in person, I had “lunch bunches” where I would eat lunch with the kids. So I went back to eating lunch virtually with the kids, and I found that really gave me a lot of positive energy. You find that you are equally, if not more, excited to see them in this virtual world than they are to see you. So it’s the, “Hey, Mr. Brown.” It’s the big smile. It’s the camera coming on. It’s the home environment. It’s the parents waving in the background. I think all of that does a good amount to lift your spirits.

‘The system itself is not changing’

Confusing guidance and vitriolic debate left many parents feeling lost. They watched helplessly as their children disengaged from learning, but also worried that their kids would get sick if they returned to school. School leaders were caught in what felt like a non-stop, high-volume war of words with unions, parents and state officials. 

Pedro Martinez, CEO, Chicago Public Schools; former superintendent, San Antonio Independent School District: Texas did not prioritize teachers [for vaccines] in the first round, but they were pushing hard and threatening districts about keeping schools open. Meanwhile, the positivity rate, I remember in San Antonio, was over 21 percent. The death rate was five times higher in my district than it was in the more affluent parts of the county. I just remember the frustration. You want these things, but yet you’re not providing vaccines to my staff, who actually want to keep the schools open. 

The polarizing debate over mask mandates escalated into an intense legal battle in Texas. (Sergio Flores / Getty Image)

Michael Mulgrew: The city doctors are telling us it’s going to be nothing but a cold and the schools could remain open. The kids are going to be fine. They’re not going to get it, and we’ll create herd immunity, and we’ll be safer faster than everybody else. Literally, that’s the conversation I was having with the mayor and his doctors. Our doctors are telling us the absolute opposite. They’re saying, “Listen, children might not be getting this at this point in time, but this is a serious virus and people are going to die.” The big conflict was that first one. 

Marguerite Roza: I’m a data person. I really study the numbers, and I didn’t understand how a lot of people were driven by fear and couldn’t recognize what I was seeing. [They’re saying], “Your child could die,” and I was like, “Well, not really. The numbers here say, really, your child isn’t going to die. I promise you, driving to Grandma’s is more dangerous for your kid than this thing.” You’re having two different conversations if you’re talking about numbers and you’re talking about fear. The fear was so dominant that the numbers people probably felt, out of respect, we should step back and be quiet. I don’t want to tell somebody who’s having a panic attack, “You’re overreacting.” Looking back on it, I think that I probably kept my real views about the data quieter than I should have. I thought people were going to bounce out of it.

School children are spaced apart in one of the rooms used for lunch at Woodland Elementary School in Milford, Massachusetts, on Sept. 11, 2020. Milford was one of the first school districts to reopen in the state. (Suzanne Kreiter / Getty Images)

Mariela Garcia: We were able to pick whether to go back in person or stay online. I definitely wanted to go back. I missed my friends. I missed having class with a teacher right in front of me. My parents thought it was not a good idea. I was conflicted in making a decision, but for the good of my family, I decided to stay online for my whole senior year. That also meant no sports. I was so heartbroken because sports meant everything to me. I was unable to play my senior year. I had already claimed the captain position in my previous year playing, and I was looking forward to a great season. 

Parent power

The pandemic has dramatically changed parents’ relationships with their public schools, prompting some to seek new options and others to demand more from the schools their children attend. “I think the pandemic has created some sort of awakening in parents that we’ve not seen before,” Roza said. “I don’t think there’s any putting that genie back in the bottle.” 

Wendy Neal, executive director of My Child My Voice, a Houston-based advocacy group: I’m not saying the teachers are bad, I’m just saying that the parents were finding creative ways of being more of a teacher to their own child. Some parents were like, “Well, if you’re not going to help my child, I’m pulling my kid out of your school. Either I’m going to homeschool, go to an education pod or go to a private school.” Some of these parents really didn’t believe in charter schools either, and then all of a sudden, they’re putting their kid in a virtual charter school.

Volunteer Jill Ause helps a 5-year-old kindergartner learn about sounds and the letters of the alphabet at a learning pod for homeless children, located in the carport at the Hyland Motel in Van Nuys, California. (Mel Melcon / Getty Images)

Marguerite Roza: In March of 2021, [my daughter’s school] finally got around to having their cross-country season outside, and they banned all parents from coming. They run three miles. They’re outside. It just got to the point where it was eye roll upon eye roll. A lot of parents showed up anyway, ’cause how are you going to keep parents off of a three-mile course, right? And we’re popping out of the bushes waving at each other. [It had been] a year, and we knew better. I should have marched out and said, “The evidence suggests we’re fine here,” but they were going to ban you and ban your team if you weren’t cooperating.

Sonya Thomas, executive director, Nashville PROPEL, a parent advocacy group: You would think that a pandemic would bring about a sense of urgency. We’re talking about decades of educational inequities, and what I’m seeing is that the system itself is not changing. It has actually grown richer in money. It has grown more savvy in messaging. And it’s hurtful. I’ve got tears coming down my face now. I just had a friend who died this weekend. He couldn’t read. And I have to ask myself, “What has changed?” 

Toni Baker: When this school year came around, the COVID was just everywhere. The previous year, they did the COVID tests, they did the sanitizer, they did the masks, they did all these precautions. And when school started back the next semester, all of that went out the window. I let it slide the first two days of school, but by the third day, I’m like, “What’s going on? Where are the masks? Where is this? Where is that? We’re still in this stuff, and it’s worse now.” I had to make an executive decision as a parent. My kid’s class got exposed and I didn’t like the safety of it. I was worrying, like I had knots in my stomach. I had to remove my children from there. [My son’s] class went on quarantine for a week and then I just never took them back.

Beth Lehr: I have one teacher. This is her ninth year. She has already resigned for next year. She said, “I can’t do this anymore. I dread coming to work every day.” She goes, “You know, I love the day-to-day of being in front of our kids. The second I have to open my email or grade their assignments is when I realize why I resigned.” The emails. The constant onslaught of the very vocal unhappy parents. We have some amazing families, but we don’t hear the “Thank yous” as often as we hear the “You sucks.”

Lost learning

Educators love jargon. It’s not surprising, then, that lockdown introduced new terms like “COVID slide” and “pandemic learning loss” to describe the academic fallout students experienced from months of remote learning. In June 2020, researchers at nonprofit assessment group NWEA were among the first to predict the extent of the chaos. The return to in-person learning helped. But as recently as December, data from McKinsey & Co. showed that academic recovery has been uneven and gaps between Black and white students have widened. Educators also report challenges with student behavior, which many attribute to the lack of socialization during remote learning.

Beth Lehr: The learning loss is going to be there. There’s going to be a new norm, but trying to jam more and more and more down their throats is not helping. Continuing to create these high-stakes environments and making kids feel less than because of something that was totally out of their control is not helping. Meeting kids where they are is. Why do they have to learn all these things, right? They have to learn it to be successful in the future. Great, what does that success look like? How are we redefining success, because honestly, right now, for some of these kids, success is getting out of bed and showing up.

Mariela Garcia: I’ve always struggled in math, and since it was online I feel like I wasn’t really learning as much as I could. When I got to college, I took trigonometry, and it was difficult. I had to get a tutor or stay after school. I had to study more on my own time. I had to take a test in person for the first time in two years. I struggled the first couple weeks, but once I got help and once I started studying, it’s just like riding a bike.

Ricardo Martinez: Seems like we’ve already stopped talking about it. A lot of people refuse to acknowledge it. They’re trying to change the conversation to CRT [critical race theory], anti-CRT. Let’s not worry about what’s not really happening and worry about what’s actually happening. Kids are getting more aggressive. They’ve lost social skills. We’ve lost a lot of learning, and I don’t think that the parents have been able to help because we barely know how to do what they’re asking us to do. I hope that we’re talking about learning loss until we catch back up, which should be in a few years.

Beth Lehr: [Students are experiencing an] emotional stuntedness, for lack of a better term. Freshmen are notoriously immature, but what we’re used to seeing as freshman behavior isn’t even freshman behavior. The “devious licks” stuff [a TikTok challenge that included school property damage] — that was 100 percent only freshman. Oh my God, the soap dispensers were destroyed over and over and over again. We had to replace sinks. We had to replace toilets — not because they were stolen, but because they were destroyed. The older students were super-annoyed by the freshman because then we ended up having to lock our bathrooms during lunch. We’ve also had an increase in sexual infractions — not necessarily assaults. It’s consensual, but it’s much more frequent on our campus this year. This is my seventh year as assistant principal, and this year, hands down, we have had more issues with kids getting caught in positions that high schoolers should not be in.

Hosea Born, art and robotics teacher at Hope Academy of Public Service, Hope, Arkansas: We will be talking about it as long as there is the overwhelming reliance on standardized testing. The pandemic has shown us that adaptability is key, yet we are still measuring our students on how well they can take a test. Teaching a non-tested subject has allowed me to see the flexibility and amazing ways that students learn when there isn’t a looming requirement hanging over their heads. Some of my students haven’t had an art class since the start of the pandemic, but it is key for students to be able to create, and when given the opportunity, they have jumped right back in, and to me, are exceeding all expectations. 

A student picks up his diploma during a graduation ceremony at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School on May 6, 2020, in Bradley, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Pedro Martinez: Last year, our district had 100,000 students who were disengaged, including seniors who would have dropped out. We got the majority of seniors to graduate. Same thing happened in San Antonio. What I heard from teachers directly was, “These kids are coming every day. These are the same students who we couldn’t get to engage in remote. They’re coming every single day.” I saw the first-quarter grades. There are still gaps, but significant improvements over the remote year, and specifically with our kids of poverty and kids of color. That gives me a lot of hope. When we have the children in our schools, they actually do perform better.

Robin Lake: I think we will grapple with [learning loss] for as long as the COVID generation is alive. We’ll be looking at the immediate impacts for probably a decade, but there are sure to be lasting effects on individuals and on the economy for many decades unless we can change the trajectory of our response. The question is how we’ll be talking about it. Will the story be that we failed this generation of children, or will it be that we pulled together and found solutions for this generation, and designed a better education system for future generations?

A ‘five-alarm crisis’ for teachers

As they looked back, some recalled moments of doubt about perservering. According to recent data from the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, more than half of teachers intend to leave the profession sooner than they originally planned. While some are dubious about “the Big Quit,” NEA President Becky Pringle called teacher burnout and staff shortages a “five-alarm crisis.”

Michael Mulgrew: I think most people in this profession thought of quitting throughout this thing. There were some really really tough times. The only way out of this is to go through it.

Susan Enfield: I don’t think I ever thought of quitting. There were moments where I thought I don’t know if I can do this, but that’s different than quitting. I never just was like, “I’m out of here,” and my decision to leave Highline was not a response to the pandemic. I’m ready for a fresh challenge and Highline is ready for a fresh leader.

Beth Lehr: I’m so torn. I’ve applied for a principal position within the district, but at the same time I’m like, “Why? Why did I just do that? What am I thinking?” I haven’t yet gotten to the point where the stuff that I dislike about my job has outweighed the stuff that I like about it, but it’s hit or miss on a daily basis. 

‘I don’t use the term normal anymore’

Like a sequel to a bad horror movie, the Omicron variant arrived just as educators and families thought they’d made it through the worst of the crisis. The variant sparked a spike in cases, resulting in further school closures and quarantines. But now, with increasing vaccination rates and a recent decline in positive cases, some states are lifting mask mandates. The nation’s three largest districts aren’t ready to let masks go, but some are starting to use a word they haven’t uttered in a while: hope.

Pedro Martinez: We’re now at a point where cases have been very steadily declining. Our city is now close to an over-70 percent vaccination rate. There are still gaps within my district, but I’m seeing good momentum, especially with 5- to 11-year-olds. We’re close to maybe half of our district that should be fully vaccinated within the next couple weeks. Over 90 percent of my staff are fully vaccinated. So it really gives me hope that we’re on the other side of this. There’s a chance that by springtime we could be talking about not wearing masks.

Susan Enfield: I am hopeful that in the coming weeks and months we are going to collectively adapt to a way of living, a way of working, that will feel more familiar to what we knew prior to the pandemic. I don’t use the term “normal” anymore. I think entering that phase gives me hope.

Michael Mulgrew: The buildings built after the last pandemic have these really big windows. They actually were built that way so that you could open them to keep ventilation in case there was another pandemic. That literally became part of the code for schools after the pandemic of 1918. For a period of time last year, the teachers kept opening up the windows the whole way, and it’s like 7 degrees out. So, we had to produce this video for all the teachers about how you only have to open like half the windows about 3 inches each and you’ll be fine. One of the first cold days when we got back last month, I was in a school, and one of the teachers had windows open all the way. And I’m looking at the windows, and she touched my arm and she goes, “I know I don’t have to open it that much, but my team teacher for 20 years died of COVID a year ago.” I said, “You keep that window open any way you want.”

Shawnie Bennett: I don’t think I will ever take off my mask.

Kate Kahn, 5, Savannah Harper, 5 and Elyse Kahn, 7, from left, pose with their iHealth COVID-19 Antigen Rapid Tests, provided by the state of California, after receiving them at Tulita Elementary School, in Redondo Beach, on Thursday. (Jay L. Clendenin / Getty Images)

Mariela Garcia: I’ve always been the type of person to talk to anybody, but it was different seeing people that I’ve never met before [at the University of Houston]. People have been socially awkward, and it’s hard to start a conversation. With my personality, I’m a happy person and I talk to anyone. So I’m going up to someone [last fall] like, “Hi, nice to meet you,” and they’re just like, “Whoa, 6 feet apart.”

Beth Lehr: It’s so hard to see the end, and it’s so overwhelming. What I’ve heard more this year from my teachers than anything is, “We thought that last year was hard. This year is 10 times harder.” We’ve had very, very low turnover. I do not foresee that being the case next year. There are kind of two camps. There’s the one camp of “This too shall pass,” and then there’s the other camp of “Yeah, it’s going to pass, but I don’t know if I want to wait for it to.”

‘A true hunger for doing things differently’

Two years of scrambling and false starts has offered ample opportunity to think about what has — and perhaps more to the point, what hasn’t — worked for schools. If there’s another pandemic — and scientists say there undoubtedly will be, and soon — will anything change?

Christopher Nellum, executive director, Education Trust West: I think we now appreciate mental health in a different way. The past two years have been traumatic. We have been scared, sick, overworked, unemployed. We have missed vital human connection and even lost loved ones. We have witnessed a surge in racially motivated hate crimes and a national reckoning over police brutality toward Black and brown Americans. It’s OK to be struggling to feel OK in the face of all of that. It’s OK to talk about it. And we all deserve access to the resources we need to address it. 

Sonya Thomas: Parent engagement is not what we want. When you engage us, what you’re doing is bringing your own agenda and you’re saying, “This is what we’re going to do, so get with the program.” That’s what engagement means, right? “I’m bringing something to you, this is what you’re gonna get and you gotta just walk in line with it.” I think what they’re learning is that we’re not going anywhere and we want parent partnership. We don’t want to be engaged. Throw that in the trash. That has never gotten anything for our children. What we want is true partnership. We want school districts to partner with us, intentionally take our feedback and use it. That builds trust. It’s not a talking point or a PR move. 

Dale Chu: If anything, we’ve learned what doesn’t work. For example, asynchronous learning [without live teaching ] — homework, study hall — stunk. We also learned that huge doses of it left millions of students isolated from their peers, the toll from which we’re just starting to come to grips with.

Robin Lake: I hear a true hunger for doing things differently. People are saying, “You know, the way we ask teachers to teach alone in a classroom, trying to be expert in all things and serve vastly different needs, is crazy.” I believe there is a powerful confluence of parents, educators and civic leaders who know things have to change and are determined to make that happen.

Michael Mulgrew: We never said [remote learning] was going to be the be-all-and-end-all. It was always a way for us to keep in contact, to keep our students engaged. Through the end of that [2019-20] school year, it really was more of a lifeline between teachers and students and their families. We thought it should have been more of a centralized process, but [the department] figured it’s better off to just let every teacher do their own thing. The majority of students really do regress in a remote setting. There was a small percentage of students who actually thrived in remote, so that says there’s something there we have to look at. If there’s a subset of children who were not doing well when they were going to school — and there’s all sorts of different reasons for that — who all of a sudden did really well in a remote setting, we have to look at this going into the future.

A National Guard member drives a school bus around the base with a safety trainer in Reading, Massachusetts, on Sept. 15, 2021. The state deployed 200 members to help get students to school. (David L. Ryan / Getty Images)

Marguerite Roza: We have seen districts jump in and be nimble in a way that we never thought districts could be nimble before. People always say, “You know, turning a district around is like turning an aircraft carrier.” I’m like, an aircraft carrier turns around in a day. Why is everybody using that as something that’s slow? I was in the military. [From 1988 to 1992, Roza served at the Navy Nuclear Power School in Orlando.] Aircraft carriers are pretty maneuverable. There are thousands and thousands of people on an aircraft carrier, and that thing could spin around and change direction with the wind. I do think that we had thought districts couldn’t adjust, and many of them did.

Beth Lehr: I’ve had a lot of teachers really rethink their philosophies — some of my most dyed-in-the-wool [teachers]. This has truly opened their eyes when they’ve seen the disparities. Not everybody’s home looks the same. When we first started doing all of the remote, we had a lot of really serious conversations about requiring cameras to be on or not. A lot of our teachers were like, well, “Why wouldn’t the camera be on?” They never took into account that there might be 10 people in a two-bedroom house. There might be somebody being slapped, hit, cut, whatever while they’re there. They might be embarrassed because they’re doing your class from their car in the McDonald’s parking lot.

‘So long and so short’

Seven hundred days have flown by for some and painfully dragged on for others. For many, it’s been a bit of both. 

Michael Mulgrew: It feels like 7,000 days.

Laurie Corizzo, counselor, Ridge Ranch School, Paramus, New Jersey: This whole pandemic, the virus, the water cooler conversations are never-ending. If someone isn’t discussing a vaccine, a booster, the virus, who has it, who had it, who passed, it seems that conversations are stagnant. My point is, it encompasses every single aspect of our lives. It is as if there were some sort of imaginary force field that prevents any semblance of any other conversation to happen anywhere on the planet. In a word, it is quite exhausting.

Christopher Nellum: I hope that 700 days in, we are seeing our education systems for what they are and what they have been for a long, long time: profoundly inequitable.

Susan Enfield: I didn’t know that 700 days could both seem so long and so short simultaneously. I think the last couple of years have felt like a lifetime in and of themselves, and yet, at the same time, it feels like it’s gone by in a flash.

Zadie Williams, 8, gets her temperature checked before entering summer school in the fourth grade at Hooper Avenue School in Central Los Angeles on June 23, 2021. (Carolyn Cole / Getty Images)

Marguerite Roza: I mean, wow — what a seismic interruption to education unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Normally, we would say a 1 percent change in enrollment from one year to the next is earth-shattering to finance. We’re seeing 3, 4, 5, 6, 10 percent enrollment shifts in some districts. And some of those are large districts. Those kinds of things are going to change the structure of education forever.

Lead Image: Rippowam Middle School principal Matthew Laskowski looks on from a socially distanced cafeteria in September 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. (John Moore / Getty Images)

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