Teaching Through the Pandemic
Pandemic costs students in project-based and interactive learning
By T. J. Bonzon
Let’s remember. What did school look like before the COVID pandemic lockdown?
No six feet distancing.
Handshakes, high fives and hugs were normal, not frowned upon.
No masks. (Yay, the wonder of facial expressions and cues!)
In-person, year-to-year, progressive schooling.
Less electronic device screen time.
Then Gov. Lujan Grisham made a Thursday announcement that shut schools down. I watched it online at school. On Friday, March 13, 2020, we all in New Mexico’s public schools were sent home for two weeks to slow the spread of this new virus. Some teachers said even then that they believed it would be longer than two weeks.
I was already using Google Classroom for my middle school computer science classes, so I was confident I could keep my three levels of young computer scientists learning new skills and concepts through some digital practice. We would simply be replacing in-class interactions with virtual Google Meetings. We can do this and get through this, I thought.
My students already had their own computer device, the Chromebook, provided by the Santa Fe Public Schools digital learning department, and they had some practice of using it in their classes. But WiFi speeds at home varied, and some parents had to make hard choices to make sure someone was home with the kids.
We did not return to the campus that spring semester, ending the 2019-2020 school year entirely online. I was sad, disappointed and frustrated because two of my classes were very hands-on, with micro:bit micro-controller kits and projects, and another class with VEX robotics and mechanical builds. Hands-on learning activates more of the brain, and I ached to give my students that project-based learning. My eighth-grade students lost the chance completely as they moved along to high school.
Still, I had already spent much of the school year with these students in person, so the last 2 ½ months of online learning didn’t cost them too much. We had already set a precedent with our in-person class routines, so we did our best to keep it up online.
But New Mexico public students did not return to campuses that fall and would not do so until a plan for hybrid learning was announced in January 2021. When we went to hybrid in February, we maintained our morning online classes and opened the campus for small groups in the afternoon.
What do I remember seeing during remote learning 2.0?
Profile pictures instead of faces.
Maybe ceilings, and a wave to say, “I am here and alive.”
Sometimes just the top of a head.
We shared pets. I shared my puppies.
We met from anywhere in the house, from bunk beds or outside on the trampoline.
A few joined us from other states.
“Can you at least flash on your camera?” I would ask. “At the very least, can you please respond and interact through Chat?” Then I’d type a question.
Not knowing if or when we would return to campus, I scrambled to provide hands-on kits for as many students as possible.
I was only able to provide robotic kits to one class. I was given permission to repurpose grant money for a robotic blimp and purchase toolboxes from our local hardware store. It took many hours and days, even Saturdays, to sort thousands of pieces into 14 toolboxes and then coordinate individual student pick-ups outside the front of school. Nevertheless, it was a joy and all worth it when I saw them spend extra time outside of online meetings to build mechanical systems and constructions and then share them with us.
Then for this current 2021-2022 school year, we went remote for a week in January because too many staff members were out sick or quarantined. Thankfully, we met online for four days only. But I had the most absences of any of these three remote learning rounds. The range of absences were about eight to 14 in a class. I think some students just saw the week as an off week.
I believe the pandemic and remote learning has led students to disconnect from learning and interacting with others, to play more video games and stay up later. Students were allowed to do less and to be distracted. I think students learned less. But how do we measure that? Anecdotally? Quantitatively?
Teachers try to stay positive and make the most of it, but teachers and students alike are having to learn again how to connect and interact.
I miss the days of teaching without a mask on to students without masks of their own. I hope remote learning does not become a lasting tool in our educational toolbox.
T.J. Bonzon teaches science and technology at Aspen Community School. He has been teaching for 19 years, elementary through college, and still finds joy and hope in providing education’s opportunities to his students.