The history books will, no doubt, mark 2020 as a year that changed American education. The rampant spread of coronavirus shuttered schools across the United States, and even those that reopened have had to upend schools as we knew it, as new safety precautions required morning temperature checks, masks worn by every single staff member and student and desks had to be spaced at least six feet apart.
But educators are a hardy and inspiring bunch. And just as they adapt every year to a new class of students with new ideas and challenges, many came out in full force to find ways to make education better than ever — pandemic be darned.
We read several stories and talked to parents, kids and educators about some of the education innovations that came out of necessity but also happen to be pretty darn awesome.
How the pandemic expanded teaching and learning
1. Synchronous learning
The term “hybrid school model” was a new one for 2020. In order to maintain social distancing, schools across the U.S. opted to split their student bodies up with certain groups of kids learning in the classroom and others learning from home. With that came the need for many schools to introduce “synchronous learning,” which allows remote students to attend class with their in-school peers via Zoom or another platform.
The good news? Studies are already showing that having a live teacher leading education — even if you’re not in the same room — has a positive effect on students’ GPA. The system is far from perfect — students with disabilities in particular have been left out in the cold. But there are some benefits to be gained here. In a post-COVID world, the boom in classrooms outfitted with videoconferencing technology could open up a whole new system of learning for children with health needs that keep them home or even when icy weather is keeping kids from boarding a bus. Could this be the end of snow days?
2. Virtual field trips
Ah, the field trip. Maybe you remember sending your child off on a big bus with a brown bag lunch clutched in their hands as they headed out on a big adventure. COVID put a pin in traditional field trips this year, but the virtual versions have given kids access to NASA’s space center, museums and more. No longer are kids limited to visiting the history center down the road — now they have a whole world to visit without even having to leave the house.
3. More 1:1 work
Teachers have long decried growing class sizes as a barrier to effective teaching, but the pandemic has given at least some educators more leave to shape their interactions with students. And for many, that has meant more dedicated time with kids one to one. Colorado mom Sarah Schalamom says her stepson benefited more from having short one-on-one sessions with his teachers throughout the day than his regular classes full of other students.
4. Gym class from anywhere
Sports may be canceled at schools across the country and gym classes moved out of the gym, but that hasn’t stopped physical education teachers from getting creative. Take the “Super Fitness Cards” dreamed up by teachers outside Sacramento, California to get kids off the couch. Kids are even learning to turn everyday household items into exercise equipment — water bottle soccer goals, anyone? The move to make gym class a home activity could do what most moms and dads have always wanted: Make exercise a part of daily life, not just school life.
5. Virtual college for high schoolers
While colleges across the country have traditionally offered programs for high school students to give younger teens a taste of the college experience, these programs have largely been in-person, creating a significant expense for out-of-area kids to attend. That changed in 2020, with colleges from New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology to Ohio’s Denison University moving their programs online. The result? A large accessibility barrier was removed, opening the doors for kids across the country to test out college programs they likely wouldn’t have been able to access before the pandemic.
How school resources evolved during the pandemic
6. Food accessibility
Children facing food insecurity at home are often eligible through school for their state’s free and reduced cost breakfast and lunch program, but getting those daily meals during school breaks has been an ongoing issue. Traditionally, rules have required kids to come together at a school building to eat those free and reduced meals, but the USDA has changed those rules in light of the COVID outbreak, allowing for families to pick the food up and take it home or for deliveries to be made directly to student homes. Could we keep these improved systems running even after we’re allowed to sit at lunch tables together and keep kids’ bellies full all year-round?
7. Mental health matters
During their school years, kids always learn emotional and social skills, along with the academic ones. However, the uncertainty of the pandemic has opened doors for teachers to help their students talk about mental health, too — and they say they want to keep this practice going well past the pandemic.
Take Jim Parry, an educator at the Stewartville High School/Middle School in Stewartville, Minnesota. Parry told the Post Bulletin he now films regular videos for students that address emotional well-being, along with ideas on how to get up and out of the house. In Nevada’s Clark County, meanwhile, the pandemic spurred the creation of a pilot program called Lifeline that sends volunteers out to check on students at home or meet with them on campus to keep their mental well-being in check. And in California, schools have been called upon to become “wellness centers,” where kids can connect with resources focused on their physical and mental well-being.
8. Storytelling for all
Story time is a treasured experience for most parents, but sometimes you’re just too exhausted to read another page. What if you could get help from someone your kids know and love? More teachers have taken to videoing themselves reading stories to their students, giving parents an extra hand on those nights when they could use someone else to read “just another chapter.”
9. Testing reassessed
SAT and ACT scores have long been markers that can make — or break — a child’s college application. But if you’ve always known your child was “more than a test,” take heart. The pandemic has prompted an increasing number of schools to drop these standardized tests from their requirements, and scientists also got a chance to do a deep dive on what they really mean. In 2020, researchers found out that using high school GPAs or test scores as a sign a student will achieve may not be the most reliable indicator.
How students are innovating education in the pandemic
10. Writing outside class
Writing has always been an outlet for some kids — and an extracurricular at schools with writing clubs or a campus newspaper. But with hours and hours to fill at home during the pandemic, 2020 saw kids around the U.S. taking their writing skills out of the classroom and into the real world. Tess Rowan, a Virginia teen who wrote a musical then took to IndieGoGo to rustle up funding to produce it on a real stage. Stella Bonner, the Massachusetts 10-year-old who penned an entire novel, used it to help raise funds for Feeding America. More of this, please!
11. Tutoring via TikTok
Not sure how to help your child with “new math?” Thanks to Harlem, New York high schooler and math TikToker, Alexis Loveraz, you don’t have to throw up your hands and tell them to Zoom their teacher. Loveraz has earned more than 700,000 followers on his channel, where he doles out tips on everything from deciphering the difference between mean, median, and mode to rational exponents.
Here’s a clip:
12. Making the world a better place
What do you do when you’re a kid stuck at home during a pandemic? Well, Texas teen Anika Chebrolu used the time to discover a molecule that could block how COVID-19 infects human cells while Seattle student Avi Schiffmann created a COVID case tracking website so robust it earned kudos from Dr. Anthony Fauci. The world has big problems, but no one’s too small to fix them … not even the kids.
The pandemic has tested and shaken our nation to its core and left many Americans worse off than they were before it started. For this reason, it’s important to celebrate the triumphs that are emerging from its havoc. It’s proof that we can evolve and grow and find a resolute path forward.