An empty elementary classroom in Alaska. (Liz/via Flickr under Creative Commons license)
An empty elementary classroom in Alaska.

Liz/via Flickr under Creative Commons license

Collateral Damage of School Closures

May 26, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused school closures both nationwide, and subsequently requires students to transition to online learning. Missing real-time interaction with teachers in school may be a rather insignificant change in the education of high school students, particularly because much of the average high school student’s work was already online and independently based. However, at the elementary level, where students are still in their most formative educational years and building basic skills, losing valuable face-to-face instruction and hands-on social-emotional learning opportunities could be detrimental.

The transition to remote learning means students and teachers are no longer interacting in real-time. In an interview with district kindergarten teacher Linda McMahon, she says that without the personal and physical connection provided by hands-on learning, it makes instruction online difficult. “In kindergarten, the students learn through modeling, interacting in small groups, and using hands-on materials,” which she explains as something that is difficult to transfer to an online model. She says that she’s been able to connect via Zoom and other video instruction, “but it isn’t the same”.

Kathy O’Shea, a district second-grade teacher, says that when working with her second-grade classroom online, “it is challenging to maintain the level of class community that [they] had created”. Mrs. O’Shea’s class meets regularly online, but these virtual get-togethers do not offer the same type of connection that being together in a classroom would. She adds that it is difficult to address individual students’ needs in the larger class setting, but to her, “relationship building is a top priority” and along with teaching social/emotional learning, is something she will continue to work at as the school year draws to a close.

According to neaToday, social-emotional learning is, “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions”. It is an initiative that schools have been committed to integrating into education prior to this global pandemic, and has been emphasized, particularly in remote learning models.“Social-emotional learning is a key component of early childhood education,” explains McMahon. “However, this is very difficult to teach if we are not together physically”.

Maryann Sahagian, another Hamilton Wenham second grade teacher, adds that “students miss the daily interactions with friends/peers sitting at table groups, eating lunch together, riding the bus together, recess fun, building a classroom and school community”. She finds that, as school work has transitioned online, students are missing out on key skills that promote engagement and collaboration. Learning from personal connections has become “very challenging,” says Sahagian.

Despite the difficulties, O’Shea explains that for her students, staying home has been an “enriching” experience. She says that “many students have learned to be more independent” and particularly that working from home has given them new insight into “problem solv[ing]”. McMahon adds that her students are still able to connect, whether through driveway visits, going for walks, FaceTiming, even writing letters to one another. “However,” she says, “nothing takes the place of playing, taking turns, negotiating, and learning empathy” like in the classroom.

Missing months of face-to-face learning at the hands of COVID-19 has posed a particularly concerning detriment to early childhood education-missing out on valuable lessons involving social/emotional learning. Primary teachers across the district expressed concern over what the future could look like, but all agreed that their students are resilient. “It will take some time to catch up,” says McMahon, “but teachers and students will get there”.

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