The Class of COVID

“Change is never easy,” Michelle Young says. “But the right changes can have a truly profound and positive impact on our communities, our country and the world.” 

Young is the dean of the LMU School of Education and a professor of educational leadership and policy. She — and alumni of the SOE — are well-versed lately in change and impact. Considering the plethora of industries, institutions and vocations that were radically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, K–12 schools and education in general are at the top of a crowded list.

But, what if we knew in March 2020 what we know today? What would schools in the United States have done differently?

“We would have a well-thought-out plan for moving quickly and effectively to distance learning,” Young says. “We would have invested in the provision of high-quality technology for all children, full access to broadband for all children and wrap-around systems of support — food services, counseling, special education, tutoring. We would have identified ways to individualize learning for students — even virtually — early on. And we would have organized and supported ways for students to engage in socially distanced, masked, physical and intellectual activity outside in small pods led by a trained educational professional.”

The same COVID-19 crisis that brutally revealed flaws in the nation’s education systems may lead to ways to improve them.

How much of the dean’s prescription already is in progress? Like so much else during the past 500 days or so, society seems to have more questions than answers. Will education see the impact of the pandemic-era experience for years to come? Will it shape today’s elementary school students all through their remaining secondary and college-level educations? What is the role of technology? Was COVID-19 the only fundamental problem to deal with? 

Matt Hill Ed.D. ’18 is the superintendent of the Burbank Unified School District in Burbank, California. He resets the early pandemic-era scene: “We were very similar to other school districts in Los Angeles County. The pandemic started spiking on March 13, 2020, and we decided to close schools. Our spring break was the next week, so we thought we could close for just a couple of weeks, have a couple of weeks online learning. We quickly realized that we had to completely pivot.”

His district, like others, went completely to online distance learning throughout 2020 and into spring 2021. Recently, the district completed the school year with students either maintaining distance learning or in a home-and-school hybrid. 

The question of “where” students were learning was also a question about “how.” Hill’s students who needed Chromebooks and hotspots received them, such that the superintendent can state, for the moment at least, “We no longer have a digital divide in Burbank.”

There are other pandemic-era improvements — or “learnings” — that the district plans to keep: a continuing emphasis on mental health and social-emotional learning, leveraging online courses where appropriate, virtual field trips, and increased student agency and empowerment.

“I’ve really seen a lot of shift in pedagogical practices in the past year. I’ve seen more student creativity, more ownership,” Hill says. “When you have first-graders developing Google Slides and posting on Google Docs, it just expands their world.”

Adds Hill: “I think we underestimate how we have a group of digital natives who can really thrive in that kind of environment. And now that we’re embedding that more in our curriculum, I think it is going to help in-person teaching a lot more.”

Jocelyn Velez M.A. ’11 is principal of PUC Community Charter Elementary School in Sylmar, California. Her first pandemic semester was conducted entirely online. During her second, 25% of the students were on campus. Laptops and hotspots for students were standard, although due to high demand in general, tech ordered in August sometimes didn’t arrive until December. 

Research and theory are one thing, but crafting and implementing universal policy can be daunting, particularly when the U.S. Secretary of Education is not the nation’s principal.

Meanwhile, some parents or grandparents of her students needed to be taught Laptop 101, including how to turn on the machines. School personnel would get on the phone with family members, talking them through the process. “Our teachers were not just teaching to students anymore,” Velez says. “They were teaching to grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and even younger siblings. It became this family affair.”

Educators had been trying to keep families involved prior to the pandemic, but not having students in the classroom heightened the need, and families felt the same. “Engagement with our community and parents has drastically increased,” Hill says, citing, for instance, the use of video tools to host meetings and town halls. “We saw higher attendance rates for parents because we were meeting parents and families where they were, rather than saying, ‘You have to show up to a PTA meeting at 10 o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday,’ which isn’t realistic for most families.”

Are anecdotes like these emblematic of national trends? While pandemic-era research continues, educators compare notes. Big picture, what is Velez hearing? “The term we’re hearing a lot is, ‘learning loss,’” she says. “That’s the huge term that came about in the last year.”

Previous research demonstrates a “summer slide,” Velez says. “Students take a dip of approximately two levels during the summer because they’re not being exposed to educational programs or resources or anything that has to do with academics.”

With the pandemic era’s acceleration of online learning and movement towards device-access equity, Velez sees a ladder. “This is our opportunity to provide those pieces so that they’re equipped,” she says, “and perhaps down the road, we won’t see that huge summer slide that we’ve been seeing for decades.”

“The U.S. has long been resistant to federal- and national-level approaches to education,” Young says.

If the past year-plus opened up longer-term opportunities, it also spotlighted intense and fundamental challenges — not only for students, and not only those caused directly by COVID-19.

Martinique Starnes ’02, Ed.D. ’15 is director of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice at the Westside Neighborhood School in Los Angeles.

“In an effort to properly educate students in the midst of a global pandemic, educators found themselves consumed with trying to keep their heads above water,” Starnes says. “Even beyond logistics, which were excellent or poor depending on what resources were available, the impact of illness, death, isolation, sadness, lack of resources, little to no faculty/student engagement and lack of motivation has and will have a lasting effect on students. And although the focus on students is important, we cannot and should not ignore how this past year and a half has impacted our faculty and administrators.”

Supporting educators is essential, Starnes says. “Otherwise, the impact on school and students will be severe and irreparable.”

Starnes also points out that it is crucial to acknowledge and understand that COVID-19 isn’t the nation’s — nor the world’s — sole ongoing existential crisis. 

“There is a lasting trauma faced by students of color that has manifested from consequences of the pandemic, including financial insecurity, exposure to illness and death, isolation, fear of becoming sick, evictions, and deportations,” Starnes says. “Additionally, there is also trauma inflicted on our children stemming from the consequences of the ‘twin pandemic’ — the racial reckoning of 2020, from a heightened awareness of racism and bias to constant exposure to media that feature people of color being harmed and killed. More detrimental is the denial that racism even exists.”

Young has similar concerns. She points to an increasing trend of addressing and understanding racism. Schools are seeking to add staff to help the scholastic community cope with trauma — whether COVID-19-related or otherwise. Further, one says that “blended learning” — a mélange of virtual, digital and distance learning — is likely to continue to grow, bringing a more customizable path to education that could counter the “shortcomings of a one-size-fits-all approach.”

That means a reexamining of some of the most central elements of the American education system. “While our education system, which moves groups of students through a graded system of levels based foremost on age and secondarily on a combination of factors that relate to ability or assumed ability, has served some students better than others since its inception, relatively little has been done to address those shortcomings,” Young says.

Change is possible, she continues. “The approaches and interventions being proposed, adopted and discussed today by educators, educational researchers and education policy makers focus on the need to be more student-centered, the individualization of learning, and the importance of social and emotional well-being. And these are not being pulled out of thin air. They are supported by research on child development, brain science and learning theory.”

Research and theory are one thing, but crafting and implementing universal policy can be daunting, particularly when the U.S. Secretary of Education is not the nation’s principal. “The U.S. has long been resistant to federal- and national-level approaches to education,” Young says, “which is why we have 50-plus different state/territory systems further complexified by local control. That said, the infusion of federal funding is a proven way to implement education changes.”

During the pandemic, government policy and stimulus helped administrators such as Burbank’s Hill to purchase devices and other much-needed tech items. “We were lucky the federal government and the state government gave us a lot of money to focus on closing this digital divide,” Hill says. “Now let’s focus on how to make sure it stays closed, because these devices are going to wear out in three-to-five years.”

Students, in general, can be incredibly resilient. And sometimes adults are as well. How can the experience of the pandemic on education lead to a better educational future? Hill, for one, sounds realistic, and optimistic.

“Some students are struggling right now,” he says. “We need to focus on them and help them get back to where they were, but then see a new model that’s going to support kids in the long-term in a better way.” 

Jeremy Rosenberg, a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine, is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor and consultant. His “Under Spring, Voices + Art + Los Angeles” received the first California Historical Society Book Award. Rosenberg’s writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, in OC Weekly, at and elsewhere. Follow him @LosJeremy.