How COVID-19 Is Affecting Teens According to Four Philly High School Teachers

The crisis is bringing issues of equity into sharp focus, testing students' resilience, creating uncertainty for the fall, and maybe spelling the end of snow days.

Coronavirus and learning: How will students be affected by the crisis? Photo: Prostock Studio/Getty Images

Who knows kids better than teachers? That’s why we asked four of them at different high schools in the Philadelphia region about how COVID-19 was affecting their classrooms (or lack thereof) and wellbeing, as well as what students, educators and parents might expect in the fall.

Some takeaways? There’s a stark lack of equity regarding online resources and supportive home environments, and that’s a major concern for all of them. The school district’s Chromebook Loaner Program has been crucial. Flexibility is key right now. Homeschooling parents can step up to assist a world that’s suddenly entirely homeschooling. The 2020-2021 school year is going to be weird. Oh, and one teacher said all this online businesses means “goodbye to snow days.” (We hope not.)

“Digital learning can take place, but it will never replace meeting in a physical space.”

Angela Crawford: high school English and AP literature teacher of 24 years, Martin Luther King High School

In all of your years of teaching, have you experienced anything even remotely comparable to this?
No, this is probably unprecedented.

Take me through the moments when you realized how impactful this would be.
I felt like the writing was on the wall first when I learned that we were going to close for a short period of time, and then again maybe a few days into the actual closure. Even though learning and education is important, it’s not a priority in terms of life or death.

How have you and your classroom adjusted?
The kids have had my phone number all year long, so staying in contact with them was not an issue. At first I would text them to give them updates because they were concerned about graduation and prom. We had Zoom check-ins. With my 11th graders, we were in the midst of reading The Alchemist, so we created a schedule that included book talks twice a week. But there’s a lot of students I have not spoken with.

What is the school doing to reach those students?
I helped out last week with distributing Chromebooks. Once [the School District] made a decision to pass out Chromebooks and got grant money to buy them, we figured school wasn’t going to happen again. Every Wednesday Dr. Hite, our superintendent, does Facebook Live, and he stated that he would be expecting students to grab a Chromebook and be accessible online by the 17th of April. Two and a half months without students activating their mind is just not healthy. With our seniors, many were going to college, so I encouraged them to read because they don’t want to have a total brain fart come September.

What’s the plan from here?
I make sure my students have reading materials and time for questions, and I offer an hour for check-in and conversations. High school teachers should be a little better at adapting to this because we’ve had Google Classroom for the last four or five years. So using the technology is not completely strange; however, that’s not the case for some of my colleagues.

Is the technology falling short in any way?
There is a pushback against using technology because we know there are some forces in our country that would rather do away with [in-person] public education because it’s an expense. Digital learning can take place, but it will never replace meeting in a physical space. So there are academic challenges. But I’m more concerned about mental health. We have children who try to run away from home. We have to realize not every child goes home and feels loved and safe. I have to turn my humanizing pedagogy style over to a digital perspective. [Digital learning] is going to make [everyone] further behind academically, but [some students] can be much more damaged in a household that is, additionally, not encouraging to them. Also, especially with our special education population — and that includes students who are autistic and emotionally disturbed — how do they progress? Because a computer is not going to give them the skills they need.

How will this affect students in the long run?
I think for some of them it will give them a new outlook on life, like not to take things like school for granted. But I also think they will appreciate the predicaments that they are in financially, because some of them who are a little more privileged are appreciating the fact that they’re able to be comfortable at home.

“This will be a great opportunity for the homeschooling community to share their resources.”

Dominic A.: high school Spanish teacher

Take me through the moments when you realized how impactful this would be.
Maybe I was an optimist in the beginning, but when the governor recently said we’re going to be shut down for the rest of the year, I felt a little depressed as a teacher. As a parent, it wasn’t an upset for me because I homeschool my kids. So it was like, I guess we’ll just go back to business as usual.

What are some of your concerns as a teacher?
I miss my kids. I know a few of them are not going to graduate. Or they will, but it will be like, what does that mean? A few of my students, it’s like, how are they being affected or disenfranchised? We have a large population of students with IEPs [Individualized Education Plans]. They’re not in class getting the services they deserve. It’s been hard because I’m used to being in the classroom. I teach just a few blocks from where I live, and I chose the school on purpose to be more intentional in the students’ lives. Not being able to meet with them face-to-face short-circuits that. I talked to one student today — and this disheartened me a bit — and I said, ‘So am I interrupting your other classes?’ And he said, ‘No, actually you’re the only one reaching out.’ But I don’t think I am [the only one]. I think it’s a matter of other teachers adapting to the technology.

How will this affect students in the future?
I hope they’ll look back at the school district and at their individual teachers with gratitude because we are, sadly, trying to make this up as we go along, and trying to work in a vacuum of leadership at the federal level and state level. And hopefully they’ll keep a sense of resiliency. We’re Philadelphians. We’re resilient. We can handle this.

What do you think will happen in the fall?
There’s going to be a lot of confusion — that’s my fear. If I have students who come into my Spanish II class who didn’t finish Spanish I one last year, I need to understand that 2021 is going to be an odd year. There’s going to be makeup work and we’ll have to revisit last year’s curriculum. We’re going to miss about six weeks, which is quite a lot but not insurmountable.

How can people help students and teachers right now?
There’s a plethora of different resources and a myriad of ways we can reach out at this time. As a homeschooling parent, I think it’s upon me and other homeschooling parents to educate parents on practical ways they can homeschool their kids. I know parents who say, ‘But I can’t do algebra!’ But there are places you can go that provide the resources you need. This will be great for the homeschooling community to come out of their bubble — give your resources to the community so we can benefit as well.

Any silver linings?
I’m a union person, but I will say the school district is doing well. We can complain about what they could’ve done, should’ve done, but what they’re doing is quite commendable. Getting the Chromebooks out is incredible. I think the most frustrating part to this, as a teacher, is that people are not getting graded. The school district is still working on a plan on grading. As much as we want students to learn for the sake of learning, grades are like being paid.

“I think we are looking at goodbye to snow days.”

Hector Wangia: high school biology teacher of nine years, Pottsgrove High School

Anything that’s ever compared to this in your history of teaching?
The closest is that week off for a snow storm in 2012 or 2013. But if you would’ve asked me as a biology teacher, “Do you think there’s a virus that could take over the world in a few weeks?” I would’ve said, “Are you crazy, there’s no chance.” And here we are.

How is your school handling this?
We are fortunate that in my district we are 1:1 where every student has a laptop or iPad. So we thought Hey, if this were to happen, learning can continue online. But as much as we racked our brains, there was no way to prepare for this. You have to figure it out as you go.

What are you concerned about?
The equity gap between my students. If I have my students sitting in front of me, I am able to address that on a one-on-one basis. But in this online module, my greatest concern is we are going to see a lot of students falling short in this new mode of education, because logging in isn’t the same as someone checking in over your shoulder saying, “Did you get your work done today?” If there’s no one doing that for you, you may be a less motivated student. I will say the district is doing a good job of trying to reach out and saying, “Hey, so and so hasn’t been online in three days, let’s call home.” But there’s only so much you can do from a distance.

Are there any silver linings?
It forces our hand as educators to diversify, to move into the modern world and automate a lot of our learning. I think based on what we have been able to do in the last four to six weeks, we are looking at goodbye to snow days. It’s also forcing us to come together as a school community. As a teacher, my number one role is to make sure that my students with mental health needs are being taken care of, that my students who come to school for two meals a day are being provided for. It’s forcing us to look across and see each other.

How will this affect students in the long term?
I think the seniors will be really wrecked and gutted thinking about their senior year. But I hope they are better at self-managing and get to know themselves more.

What will happen in the fall? Will some students be held back?
I think if you’re really going to look at the equity portion of it, it would be really tough to hold students back based on their performances. As teachers, we’ve done our best with the situation in front of us, but that is not the expected standard. I cannot reach my students like I would in person. It just makes it so unfair to hold students back based on their out-of-school performance. The more proactive thing would be to plan for the coming year and say, ‘Hey, based on what I can see here, teachers will have to go in and reteach this.”

“Some of our older kids say this is preparing them for college.”

Deb Galler: high school English teacher of 15 years, Moorestown Friends High School

Take me through the moments when you realized how impactful this would be.
Things seemed to move really rapidly. We canceled school for two days with plans for an in-service day that we were never even able to come in for. So we did an online training program. It has been jarring, but I will say I’m lucky to be not only in a small school but in a school that’s part of an online community. We put together an intensive online program in three days. Teachers who are experienced online helped others. All of our faculty and staff are so concerned about how students are doing — how are they living this? We all recognize our privilege. Obviously there are gross inequalities in our country in education and those differences are being made so stark when we see what one student has resources to do at home versus another.

What do online classes look like?
Some of my classes look a little like what an in-person class could be. I raise some discussion questions and we talk about it. But obviously that’s harder to do in a virtual environment, so I found myself using tools like this program EDpuzzle where you can take video clips and cut them with discussion questions students have to answer. That’s a tool I probably never would have discovered in, well … I keep calling it real school, but this is real school, too.

How will this affect students in the fall?
Some of our older kids say they feel like this is preparing them for college well. They have to do a little more on their own. So there is a sense of self sufficiency that’s required in college that could be beneficial to them. Maybe that’s optimistic, but who else is going to look for teachable moments more than teachers?

What are some challenges?
It’s a challenge every day. As someone who’s taught in the same school for 15 years, there are certain things you’re on autopilot about. So it’s been interesting to have to upend all of that.

What’s going to happen in the fall?
Right now our school is planning for every possibility — reopening, not reopening, somewhere in between. This is an instance where we need flexibility. We’re all assuming next year won’t look like a “normal school year,” but I’m not sure what that means yet.

How will this affect students in the long run?
What I’m noticing is a lot of openness to reflection. A good chunk of my sessions with my students is saying, “How are you? Where are you? How are you feeling?” And asking them to reflect on that. I hope that they’ll look back and remember feeling resilient, like they faced a sort of worst-case scenario and found a way through it. I think educators talk about wanting students to have the skills you can’t teach directly, like resilience. Our seniors are doing an impressive job of both feeling this terrible disappointment at having what has always seemed like a right of passage taken away from them but also acknowledging that perspective is necessary in that disappointment. In the world right now, there are things way worse than not having prom, but that also doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck to not have prom. I hope we’re all going to come out of this with some gained perspective about how we need to take care of each other in the world.