Kids First, Content Second: Teaching Through COVID-19
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2021 Issue
By Adam Stone
When kids came back to school in the fall of 2020, Mark Benigni had his concerns. Would K-12 students be able to maintain physical distance? Could they keep their mouths and noses covered? COVID-19 looked as if it might present an insurmountable classroom-management challenge.
“We all worried about it, but it hasn’t been an issue at all,” says Benigni, Superintendent of Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut. Kids keep their distance, and when it comes to masks, “our students understand, because there is consistency. You will wear a mask, and you will wear it all day long.”
He is not alone. Educators and administrators by and large say that with sound classroom management practices, students will rise to the pandemic challenge. It takes a steady hand and clear insight on the part of teachers, but those who’ve managed to navigate successfully say that even with the complications around masking and distancing, they’ve been able to keep on teaching.
Open and Honest
At Gowanda Middle School, about 30 miles outside of Buffalo, NY, 7th– and 8th-grade technology teacher Ryan Schwarzott says that clear and respectful communication has helped him manage his kids through the complexities of COVID-19. “You have to set the tone the first day of class: set up the expectations, explain why the procedures are there,” he says.
When kids eventually returned to school, he talked to them about the need for the masking and distancing rules, explaining the medical necessity. He knew that some families were not supportive of the mask requirements, and he needed to get the kids on board in order to position the classroom for success.
“I basically explained that we are doing everything possible to create a healthy environment for all,” he says. “I explained to them that in public schools we have all types of kids—kids come here with medical issues and compromised immune systems and things like that. I explained that it is protecting the families of the people coming to school.”
Schwarzott made the conversation personal, telling them about his own son who has a platelet condition and is thus susceptible to COVID-19. “I just leveled with my students on a personal basis, and I feel they responded very positively from that open conversation,” he says.
While candid conversation can help at the classroom level, he says, it’s important that teachers have support from higher up. “Your administration has to uphold the policies,” he continues. “There can be no compromise in allowing people to not follow the guidelines of the district.”
The Youngest Learners
As schools reopened, many expressed skepticism around whether the very youngest learners would have the ability to operate within the new parameters. For Brian Smith, a kindergarten teacher at Oxford Elementary School in Hickory, NC, strong classroom management techniques have helped to ensure the kids can learn safely.
Smith has made a number of classroom adjustments to support the new normal. Instead of having multiple activity areas—a kitchen zone, a castle zone, etc.—he now has Rubbermaid boxes filled with activities that kids can work on independently. “One box has the kitchen things in it, one box has a medieval castle set. There’s a box with airplanes and taxis. Mr. Potato Head has his own box, the Legos have their own box,” he says.
As the kids play independently, they may investigate each other’s activities, but only within certain parameters. “They want to get up and see what the other kids are doing. They have natural curiosity,” Smith says. “So I will let them walk over and say something, with their mask on, and then they have to go back to their seats.”
It can be trying for very little kids to be desk-bound for long hours, so Smith has implemented alternative seating arrangements that allow for some variety, while still supporting social-distancing needs. “I have half of my tables with the legs off, making them lower to the floor. Kids who need to move around can sit on the floor or sit on a mat, or they can sit on a scoop seat [a rocking chair with no legs],” he says. For those who feel too confined in a regular chair, “now they have options, and they can change position whenever they need to, when they get restless.”
When it’s time to go mobile—an outing to recess or to the lunchroom—Smith has a strategy. “I put calendar numbers on the floor and I put black electrical tape to connect the numbers, so it is a straight line that literally goes around the room,” he said. “When you have 19 kids lining up six feet apart, it can take an eternity…. Now they all know their numbers and they know where to go.”
The kids have generally risen to the new expectations. “For the most part, they have masks on,” he says. “It all seems strange to us as adults because we know what school was like for us. But our kindergartners have never known anything different. For the kindergartners, this is what school has looked like since day one.”
For those who occasionally miss the mark, Smith is careful not to embarrass or shame them—a key classroom management concern for those trying to get kids to comply with COVID-19 requirements. Instead of calling out an individual, he’ll lead the class in a song to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
“Mask, it covers nose and mouth—and then all the kids go ‘nose and mouth!’ Then everybody’s checking their mask and I am not calling them out individually,” he says. “I can be reading and I just stop and sing a line and everybody joins in, in the deepest little voice that a five-year-old can have! It cracks me up every time.”
For PJ Caposey, Superintendent of schools at Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois, masking and distancing haven’t been a big issue. The larger classroom concern, he says, is just the lack of normalcy and the consequences that come with that.
“Student performance is way down in terms of their academic progress. Our kids tell us ‘it doesn’t feel like school.’ When you enforce strict distancing at lunch, one-way traffic in the hallways, it just doesn’t feel normal, and they miss that,” he says. “As a result, we see increased social-emotional needs and decreased academic performance.”
To close the gap, Caposey asks his team to focus not just on the academics, but also on the interpersonal aspects of learning. “We are having kids engage with each other and with the instructor, rather than with content,” he says. In a more normal school year, “kids engage with the content first, and then with the instructor. In this environment, we want to invert that, to force kids to engage more with their peers and their teachers, using the content as the vehicle rather than as the centerpiece.” The aim here is “to create engagement at a human level,” he says. Whether that’s done in person or via a Zoom screen, “the point is to drive engagement in whatever form.”
Caposey also explains that adjusting the classroom style to focus on personal experience is part of a longer-term approach to coping with the impacts of COVID-19. “We have taken away all the fun parts of school: we’ve taken away lunch as we know it, we’ve taken away PE as we know it, we’ve taken away the conversations in the hallway,” he says. “That means we need to foster a different level of engagement, and we need to do that intentionally. Human interactions are what make this more than just a boring and exhausting process.”
In terms of practical classroom management, this may mean dialing back on academic expectations. Caposey encourages teachers to think about covering less content, and instead drill down more deeply into the material they do cover. “If we only get through 70 percent of the curriculum but the kids enjoy it more, no one is going to be any worse off,” he says.
“We need to talk about social-emotional health in the classroom all the time. We need to be asking the kids: are your needs being met? Are you feeling connected to other people?” he says. “We need to give the kids the tools to process through all this. The Ottoman Empire right now is less important than our responsibility as adults to help the kids through this very difficult situation.”
Unique to COVID-19 is the prospect of long-term absences: how to manage the classroom when one or more kids are forced to quarantine for up to two weeks at a time? “How do you engage those students and get them back? If a whole group of four or five students has to quarantine, that presents challenges,” Benigni says.
Technology can be a key classroom management support for teachers who find themselves in such a situation. In Benigni’s districts, kids all have school-issued Chromebooks and collaboration via Google Classroom, “and the teachers are maximizing those tools in order to keep those students engaged,” he says.
“When a third of your class is in quarantine and you need to give them a seamless and comfortable transition back to class, technology is extremely important to making that work,” he says. “It’s not just the device, it’s about having staff and students who are comfortable using the device. We are fortunate in that these tools have already been embedded into our core curriculum, so the student comfort level is already there.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.