What teaching is like during the pandemic—and a reminder that listening to teachers is critical to solving the challenges the coronavirus has brought to public education

As we mark this year’s World Teachers’ Day and reflect on this year’s theme, “Teachers: Leading in crisis, reimagining the future,” we are especially reminded of the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has added to teachers and to their jobs, as well as of the need to consider teachers’ expertise and judgment in the future of education. In this blog post, we offer a first-person account of what teaching and being a teacher during the pandemic are like, using Ms. Ivey Welshans’s remarks at a recent webinar, reproduced below. Welshans’s and her colleagues’ viewpoints, which are frequently unheard in policy, research, and the media, should be deemed more irreplaceable than ever on this occasion: Teachers are the closest witnesses of the challenges the pandemic has brought for their students, for themselves, and for their jobs, and their expertise and judgment are critically important to solving these challenges as the pandemic continues and in its aftermath.

Recently, we joined a webinar with EPI president Thea Lee, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and special education teacher (and co-author of this blog post) Ivey Welshans, where we discussed the goals and key findings of our latest report, COVID-19 and Student Performance, Equity, and U.S. Education Policy: Lessons from Pre-Pandemic Research to Inform Relief, Recovery, and Rebuilding.

During the presentation, we explained our goals as authors to describe what has been happening to students with respect to learning and development since the pandemic closed virtually all schools. We emphasized that we wanted to move from a focus on student outcomes—which tend to reflect underlying, systemic trends—to understanding the inputs that shape learning and development and developing relevant policy actions. We also presented some of the lessons learned from relevant research and explained how they inform our recommendations for policymakers regarding how best to address the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on education and rebuild a stronger, more equitable public education system.

Although the report explores the challenges teachers face in these uniquely difficult circumstances, we were eager to have a real-time description of a teacher’s experiences in a classroom during COVID-19. Luckily, we had the opportunity to be joined at the webinar by Ivey Welshans. Ms. Welshans works as a special education liaison at Middle Years Alternative School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her remarks illuminated the realities of teaching during these months and reflect the underlying condition of public education in schools across the country that poses persistent challenges to effective teaching and learning:

If this pandemic has done nothing else, it has glaringly shown the disparities that urban and rural districts, in particular, have been dealing with for years. The lack of technology/up-to-date technology, lack of teacher experience with technology, limited digital resources, and the lack of financial resources has hindered the ability for many school districts to quickly springboard into a digital teaching model. Underfunded districts and children are suffering during this pandemic.

The transition into the digital classroom has made several things clearstudents have been provided technology and internet access, but now many do not know how to use that technology. This is cause for concern because schools are supposed to be teaching 21st-century skills and, as evidenced by their students’ lack of digital literacy, many underfunded schools have done a poor job in this area.

Many children in underserved communities have working parents who are essential workers and thus are left with little to no assistance at home. These families do not have the luxury of having parents who can afford to join forces to hire a retired teacher to run learning pods so that their parents can still work.

As a result, teachers are spending their free time working with students so that they can simply access the digital classrooms. This additional help occurs only after the teachers have spent copious amounts of time planning lessons to keep students engaged and spending boundless energy to motivate students who are highly distracted.

It is the beginning of the school year, and we already feel like we would normally feel in June. We are exhausted and have serious concerns about the recoupment of skills for missed academic time and the safety of our students. Teachers are working hard to fill the learning gaps and are also addressing the social-emotional needs and safety concerns for students as schools are the ultimate checks and balances, but all of these factors are taking an emotional toll on teachers and school staff.

We need to take a hard look at where we are in education right now and change how we invest in our children, especially in our underserved communities. Your zip code should not determine your worth, the resources that you are provided, or the type of education that you are afforded.

During her remarks, Ms. Welshans also emphasized teachers’ preoccupation with their inability to reach some of their students during the early weeks of the pandemic; the large variation in instruction children were receiving then (ranging from none to fairly intensive); and the key role schools have played as part of the social safety net—even as they struggle to scale resources to current needs and to sustain safety-net supports over time.

As we say in our report, we cannot emphasize enough the degree to which disparities in learning factors and opportunity gaps associated with uneven access to food, shelter, health insurance, and financial relief can substantially widen and deepen learning gaps between worse-off and better-off students. And we are well aware of the fierce competition for resources that is ahead, with state budgets at historic crisis levels and the economy continuing to struggle. But this is not the time to wring our hands and give up. This moment provides a unique opportunity to rebuild our public education system better, through investing with renewed vigor in relief, recovery, and rebuilding. And the amassed evidence about what works also demonstrates that failing to do so will cost far more, and deliver far less, in the long run. What’s needed now is to look at all that evidence, and to listen to educators, because all of them are telling us loudly and clearly what must be done, and the consequences if we do not.