Brooke Bourgeois

“Stratified and Fragmented” | Teaching and Learning in a Pandemic

Andrew DiPrinzio, Bix Archer, Bryan Bejarano, Chet Ozmun, Dylan Hardenbergh, Emily Tian, George Duoblys, James McAsh, John Tormey, Julia Martins, Juliette Bretan, Kiva Uhuru, Lucas Cassoli, Mia Wood, Shoaib Shafi, Tryggvi Brynjarsson

From day care to graduate school, teaching and learning have been upended as never before. Schools closed in March, teaching was relegated to Zoom, and parents became reluctant homeschoolers. While the wealthy assembled pods to avoid the risks of ordinary in-person schooling, the poor juggled full time childcare with essential work. Now, we’re seeing a patchwork of half-measures and ill-advised, staggered reopenings as another year begins — and rising rates of infection are likely to follow.  

Meanwhile, academia is in dire straits. In a cynical bid to stay financially afloat, universities have all but conned students out of a semester’s tuition. First-years are consigned mainly to their rooms, barred from the social and residential life that defines the American college experience. Jobs in higher education, already slim, have dwindled further. The words existential crisis” are on everyone’s lips. 

School impacts our schedules and our work lives, our childhoods and our families, parents and their coworkers, how we’re socialized, what adults know and don’t know — almost every aspect of our society. We asked educators, education workers, and students of all kinds to tell us what the current crisis looks like in community college, med school, elementary school — for essential workers and childcare providers, in reopened schools, and over Zoom. Is our attitude toward school idiosyncratically American? What does education look like abroad in this strange season? Will Covid-19 exacerbate existing inequalities, or is there time to reevaluate the education system, and the role it plays in our lives?

Damion is trying to convince me he’s in Britain. This rising sixth grader does not want to discuss the differences between fact and opinion, so he’s explaining that even though it’s 4pm Eastern, in the UK it’s past his bedtime and he needs to log off our Zoom session. I’m watching him dramatically yawn and stretch in a box in the top-right corner of my laptop screen. I can see his classmates laughing, scattered around the remainder of my monitor. 

“I didn’t know you were British.” I decide to see how far and in what directions he wants to take his stunt. 

“I’m visiting my cousin,” Damion replies. But before he can carry the charade any further, his mother has crowded her face into the frame, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. One of Damion’s friends pretends to fall out of his chair laughing. 

One day, during my first year teaching in my own room, a student disappeared. My entire body froze. I could not lose a student. No way. This was not happening. “Has anyone seen Stefan?” The rest of the class shook their heads, faces blank. “Jeremy! Go check the restroom!” Jeremy returned, shaking his head. I was on the edge, about to topple into panic. 

Finally, Samantha, first row, couldn’t take my suffering any longer. “Mr. Oz, check your desk.” I stared at her for a second, puzzled, but quickly complied. The class could no longer contain their laughter. Sure enough, underneath my desk, curled up in a ball and grinning from ear to ear, was Stefan. 

While Stefan’s prank nearly gave me a heart attack, and Damion’s barely caused me to blink, I think I prefer the former to the latter. I never want my students to be so distant from me that they can reasonably suggest they’re an ocean away. 

Old-fashioned is rewarding your class with a pizza party or a field trip. Now, if a student is deserving of a “prize” of some kind, I might grant him or her the chance to “share their screen” for two minutes. Thankfully, this particular incentive has yet to backfire (we can all imagine how pranksters of Damion’s caliber might take advantage). Students show off breathtaking photos of mountains they find via image searches, or some video game, Mineshaft or whatever it’s called. 

I want to be as optimistic as possible, but it’s difficult for me to say with any honesty that “virtual learning” has earned the second half of its label. The students certainly find ways to keep things lively, and I’m proud of the ways I’ve stayed creative, but the sooner we can be together in the classroom again, the better. 

Chet Ozmun, special education teacher, Chicago Public Schools

The shutdown didn’t change much for me. I work in the manual labor side of a public transportation agency, so there was no going remote. Can’t fix the train tracks from a laptop at home. In my day to day, quarantine meant empty highways in the morning and afternoon, less overtime on the weekends, a deserted world during the day. For my wife, a special education teacher for middle schoolers in a Boston suburb of moderate wealth, it’s been as though gravity suddenly reversed, the world flipped on its end.

After the shutdown started, she spent her days at home juggling improvised assignments for faraway students and helping our three school-age kids negotiate their own newly enforced isolation from friends, teachers, extended family, and the world at large. The school district, the state, and the federal government offered no help — no guidelines, no special quarantine syllabi. No help would be coming. The government cut some checks, juiced unemployment, gave the store away to the guys who already owned everything and told the rest of us to fuck off, no more handouts.

The beginning of the next school year, the uncertainty of it, loomed over the summer months like a bank of black clouds, thick with torrential downpours and thunder and lightning, the kind of storm that stalks the horizon on hot afternoons in late July and August. I tried to keep track of the trickle of calls, texts and emails about forming steering committees; potential guidelines from the district on hybrid and full-remote models; concerns over poor ventilation systems in school buildings both old and new. The governor did not release statewide rules for reopening schools, something he managed to do for restaurants and bars. Officials shot down safe plans for reopening and boosted the plan that would keep the loudest cohort of parents happy. The teachers union fought back as much as it could. 

My wife was assigned a full-remote caseload (kids at home, teachers lecturing from empty classrooms) this year — a change that happened a week before school started. She’s been at school, in the building along with all the other teachers, for ten hours a day since the year began. There was no clear plan to start the year, so the teachers have had to create one themselves. 

Now — as in ordinary times — public school teachers are tasked with repairing societal damage that they did not inflict and serve as a convenient scapegoat for anyone who is too terrified to admit the obvious: our broader system of accumulation and distribution cannot be repaired because it is operating as designed. Those at the top can mess up as much as they want, and those who face the gravest danger will be left to take the blame and find the solutions. 

I have the same question about my wife’s job as I have about my own and every other workplace: if we’re going to catch all the shit and do all the work anyway, why aren’t we just running things?  

—John Tormey, track laborer, Massachusetts

As Iceland, a junior partner to the Nordic economic model, enters a new round of large-scale lockdowns, authorities remain resolved to keep the country’s elementary schools (up to and including grade ten) wide open. Whereas the first wave saw a more cautious scheme, this time around, only minimal readjustments from the pre-Covid norm are mandated.

For the first wave, we settled on a sensible mixture of in-person and remote teaching, tilted towards the latter. The goal back then was to maintain the semblance of a routine while preventing different groups from mingling by reducing hours, separating classes, and restricting movement in hallways and cafeterias. This mixed plan was made possible because all students over the age of nine (in my township and several others) are lent iPads for regular school use.

From where I stood, as a teacher in this (almost entirely) public and relatively uniform school system, the children responded with incredible understanding, flexibility and responsibility. They made the policy work. Rarely have they used their time so efficiently, or I been as competitive in the struggle for attention, as during that narrow window we shared together.

But this is not to suggest that the partial opening scheme was without challenges. Many school workers felt unfairly pressed to head daily for the pandemic’s frontlines. Others took unpaid leave to protect themselves and their families.

What I have yet to shake off, however, is the feeling that lingers as a result of the frustration directed at us – from parents and policy-pushing pundits alike – for not doing enough: not staying open long enough, not keeping the kids at home occupied enough. As if the class of teachers was getting the better end of some zero-sum bargain, stifling parents’ careers in turn.

Perhaps this bothered me to an unreasonable extent – my colleagues say I lack the thick skin that teachers invariably develop. But it also stung because here was a missed opportunity for acknowledgment. 

Teachers are increasingly expected, when things are normal, to care for and rear, on top of educating, the children of ever-busier people generally in higher economic rungs than teachers themselves, already an unprecedented arrangement. Indeed, more responsibility has not translated into higher wages as Icelandic teachers, let alone other school workers, lag well behind the national mean. At the same time, however, there is enough public cash around to entrust thousands of iPads to young children.

The crisis created by the pandemic momentarily shifted an entire society’s attention to pedagogy — questions of what children need to grow as learners and young persons. While this could have opened people’s eyes to societal priorities that are far from opportune, it did the opposite: teachers found their subservient status vis-à-vis the “job market” (which includes plenty of jobs for the state itself) reinforced, rather than rectified. Hence, undoubtedly, the decision now to steamroll compromise and place all the weight on schools.

A concluding lesson, perhaps? The fact of social democracy is by no means enough; there can be no peace for good social policies like public education under capitalism.

—Tryggvi Brynjarsson, Hafnarfjörður, Iceland

British schoolchildren returned to classrooms in September. I’m a high school science teacher in a deprived borough of inner London, and some of my students were barely recognizable — six months is a long time when you’re a teenager. Yet buried beneath freshly-grown facial hair, newly developed cheekbones, and some distinctly dodgy haircuts were the same children we’d been teaching before the lockdown was announced in March.

During that time, the role of the teacher has become stratified and fragmented. The school is responsible for everything from maintaining democracy and public health to social mobility and supplying the nation’s workforce. In normal times, at least in the context I teach in, a teacher is a fountain of knowledge, a coach, a social worker, a policeman, and a parent all at once.

When the school gates closed and classrooms migrated online, the nature of the job changed. Online teaching is a desiccated experience, stripped back and scripted to the point of being slightly inhuman. There is no room for jokes, no mischief to apprehend, no opportunity to coax, nurture, or cajole. It is information transmission, pure and simple, and I wasn’t alone among the staff body in missing the rough and tumble of “real” schooling.

Returning was a joy, even if it all felt more exhausting than any of us remembered. Performing in front of a class of students takes far more out of you than recording a video on your laptop, but the adrenaline and endorphin rush is why we joined the profession in the first place. The teachers weren’t alone in feeling the pace: bleary-eyed students complained about having to get up so early, and support staff have been frantically trying to keep the building Covid-secure.

Inevitably, there have been restrictions. Students have been separated out into year-group “bubbles,” with no mixing allowed between cohorts. Teachers are discouraged from circulating in the room, keeping their distance from students at the front of the classroom. In my science classes, practical lessons are out: too much touching of equipment, a limitation that carries over to music, art, drama, and other courses. 

New protocols have also been introduced. Students are required to sanitize their hands on the way into class. They compete over who will be the designated “squirter” of alcohol gel for each lesson. Desks are cleaned with disinfectant at the end of each lesson, which has showcased some spectacularly poor housekeeping skills, especially among the boys. One-size-fit-all masks are worn only in the corridors, which has been a problem for some of our younger students, who have to wrap the bands around their ears three or four times to keep them in place. 

Is it all worth it? I put this question to students at the end of the first week back. “If the school were closed tomorrow,” I asked them, “who would be happy?”

At least 80 percent of the hands shot up. In physical terms, they’re certainly more grown up, but they’re still the same old schoolchildren after all.

—George Duoblys, high school science teacher, London

I taped a sign outside my classroom, “We were human once, though we’ve become trees.” It’s from Dante’s Inferno, a poem I am currently teaching to my 12th graders. Half are on Zoom, half are in person, and they’re all dyslexic — I teach at a small school outside Philadelphia for students with learning differences.  The quote is about sinners who, having committed suicide, are confined to the seventh circle of hell, but the kids know the feeling. That day in class we discussed how a human spirit atrophies into a gnarled and thorny tree. They talked about modern accelerants: isolation in quarantine, Zoom fatigue, and how they cannot get a break from politics. Mostly, though, they contemplated what it means to be rooted. How can they be carefree teenagers when everyone around them is being extremely careful?

Our school banned microwaves because of Covid-19, then reversed their decision. A teacher friend said last week during lunch as he ate from his container that there is no better metaphor for what being a teacher is like in 2020 than eating cold chili. Reading the Inferno, a student said that 2020 felt like walking through hell. They don’t know yet what becomes of Dante; they don’t know yet what will become of their senior years, or what will become of their futures. Each day the students read on to a new circle in Dante’s hell and reflexively compare it to their realities.  

We search for Dante’s hopeful flickers. My favorite, a moment I ranted on for most of Wednesday’s class, is when he sees his former teacher, Brunetto Latini, burning in a barren desert. Even in hell, as he walks through scorching sand, Latini, the matchless teacher, looks up at Dante and tries, one last time, to teach him something. “Follow your star,” he says, “for if in all of the sweet life I saw one truth clearly, you cannot miss your glorious arrival.” I was leery of our school reopening during a global pandemic, but these kids need us, their teachers, antidotes to atrophy. 

—Andrew DiPrinzio, English and Writing Instructor, Philadelphia, PA

As an SAT and ACT tutor for international students, I was delivering the majority of my lessons via Zoom before ‘remote learning’ became the norm. These students’ lives are carefully curated by concierges, consultants and strategists; I am merely a cog in the wheel rolling them towards a degree in finance or business, ensuring that their understanding of trigonometry and semicolons garners a satisfactory SAT score. Those who can afford the cost of a private tutor hired through an agency, which marks up my take-home fee by 60-75 percent, can also afford to attend the kinds of schools where class sizes are small enough to ensure low transmission of communicable diseases. The biggest impact to their education is the cancellation of testing dates in their home country, a problem that can be solved with a trip to a nearby nation, or even the US, to take a necessary exam.

I often grapple with the moral quandary that is helping wealthy students get into selective schools and thus ensuring that wealth remains concentrated and grows. In education, as with the economy, I fear we are on the path to a “K-shaped recovery” — the privileged become better off while the poor bear the brunt of the pain. 

In response to the pandemic, some universities, including those in the University of California system, have abolished the use of standardized test scores in admissions entirely. Others have become “test optional,” an unprecedented softening of the rigid rules that precluded so many from even considering applying to highly ranked institutions for decades. You have to wonder what took them so long — for years, elite colleges bragged about how many valedictorians and students with perfect 1600s they rejected, in some sort of apparent desire to communicate the intangible ‘special stuff’ they seek in an incoming freshman. But the eventual elimination of standardized testing might make college admissions even more infuriating. Many of my students have had parental assistance founding start-ups and charities to brag about on their Common Apps; for a lower income student, it’s much more affordable and within reach to just take the damn tests. 

The fear of standardized exam abolition has not yet hit the college preparation industry; if anything, international students are advised that “test optional” is a big wink that means only the laziest and disorganized of students will actually deign to submit an application sans scores, thus propelling their applications to the bottom of the pile. So for now, I soldier on, hopping from one Zoom meeting to the next, teaching imaginary number theory to kids whose weekly allowance is bigger than my salary. 

—Anonymous, London

My six-year-old‌ nephew ‌Hasnain‌ ‌wakes up in the morning before anyone else in the family. He ‌places‌ ‌his‌ ‌tricycle‌ ‌in‌ the corridor leading to the living room and blocks the passage. With a broom in hand, which he uses as a baton, he stands guard at this makeshift checkpoint, imitating the Indian armed forces stationed in Kashmir. Anyone who ‌tries to cross his tricycle-border without an identity card or “curfew pass” gets a broom-beating. ‌‌

Confined at home in Kashmir, Hasnain makes do with activities like this one; his vocabulary and imagination reflect the conflict he’s grown up in: “show your ID,” “trespassers will be shot.” 

He already knows the words for army jeeps and machine guns, and is quick to respond to the ubiquitous question ‌“Hum‌ ‌kya‌ ‌chahte?” (“What do we want?”): “Azaadi!”‌ (“‌Freedom!”)

Here, lockdown preceded months before the pandemic. Since August 2019,  educational institutions  from elementary schools to universities were shut as the Indian government revoked the region’s autonomy as part of a longer-term project to alter the demography and escalate their settler-colonial project in the Muslim-dominated region.

In February, schools re-opened briefly, only to be shut again indefinitely in March due to Covid-19. As the world embraces online learning, Kashmir’s school-going children face another trial: India’s government throttled high-speed internet in Kashmir. Videos often freeze, leaving pupils staring helplessly at their phone’s screen. 

Double lockdown and low-speed internet have severely impacted academic performance and psychological well-being. For children in Kashmir, in-person school is an increasingly distant memory.  

It’s difficult to stay optimistic: the Covid-19 pandemic may recede after a year or two, but there is no end in sight to the Indian occupation.

Shoaib Shafi, Indian-administered Kashmir

Our school year started a week after it was supposed to, because they hadn’t lined up content for the kids who chose the virtual option. This semester, I’m teaching both virtually and in-person. About 20 percent of our students chose the virtual option, and I have to pre-record my classes for them. Nonetheless, I’m getting paid over $5,000 less than I was last year, because the school stripped our extra pay, and I’m not getting a stipend from two clubs that I used to run. But our administrators didn’t lose any pay, and high school coaches are still getting their stipends because sports have been declared safe, even indoor ones like wrestling. Morale is pretty low for all the teachers right now.

We are in a conservative-leaning county, so we never had a mask mandate for indoor spaces or public places in general. Inside our school, everyone is supposed to wear a mask. But teachers are allowed to take off their masks to lecture when they are six feet apart from students. Last week, some of my students told me I am the only teacher whose whole face they have never seen. Their other teachers all take off their masks unless they are helping out with something up-close. When I call on students, they often pull down their masks to answer me, which makes me think: is this happening in their other classes? Are other teachers allowing it? They’re removing their masks at exactly the worst moments, as if to optimize how much aerosols they’re spraying around the room. I’m far away from them and using a microphone to speak, so I’m not too scared for myself. 

Before schools reopened, the big question, at least in the popular discourse, was how we were going to get elementary kids to wear masks. But the younger kids are adaptable. It’s mostly my older students who have problems with the masks. I don’t know if it’s from what they’ve heard at home, but my guess is they’re not wearing masks outside of school at all. 

We never got any guidelines for what schools should do. We were pretty much left to our own devices to set up our classrooms. I put tape on the ground and measured out the chairs to be at least six feet apart. But some teachers can’t socially distance because their classrooms are too small, or they have too many students since not enough chose the virtual option. 

When the mailings for our district were sent out for the new school year, they promised that staff, students, and faculty would all be “socially distanced.” My principal later said “six feet” was never specified by the district. In another mailing, the school used a photo with staff members fist-bumping. Meanwhile I’m telling my students not to touch each other. 

I am still upset that our teacher’s union did not support us more. They didn’t communicate with the school board until after the in-person reopening was announced, so all we got was an extra week before the start of the semester. I’m surprised there has been no teacher’s strike.  

Last month, I got an email saying that a student in one of my classes had tested positive. My principal told me I didn’t have to get tested because, due to the social distancing I had instituted in my classroom, I had not been in close proximity with the student. I wanted to get tested anyway, but I didn’t do it in the end: I would have had to quarantine at home until I got the results, and we aren’t getting any extra time off. For now, I’m asymptomatic, but scared. If I do get sick, I’m just screwed.

Anonymous, middle-school teacher, Missouri

As told to Krithika Varagur

In March, medical students across the country were removed from hospitals and clinics, due to both concerns about our safety and in an effort to conserve PPE supplies. However, given that there are no viable virtual alternatives for much of the training we receive (e.g. learning how to suture a wound or deliver a baby), we have since been reintroduced to the clinical arena, albeit with some safeguards in place.

Despite the relative normalcy of this workflow (compared to other students who are engaged in completely remote education), there are certainly  aspects of my experience as a medical student that have been fundamentally altered by Covid-19. Typically, I arrive at the hospital before sunrise to get updates on my patients from overnight, presenting these to the team during morning rounds, and spending the afternoon assisting with admissions, discharges, and outpatient clinic appointments. 

Rounds previously consisted of all members of the team (in some cases as many as eleven people) walking from room to room. This model of rounding was understandably deemed suboptimal from an infection control standpoint, so many services in the hospital have transitioned to “virtual rounding,” where the patient interacts with the majority of team members via Zoom using an iPad in their room.

While families could previously be present at the bedside to hear medical updates from the team, they are now typically not permitted inside the hospital. Thus, their only source of information on how their loved one is faring are the daily phone calls they receive from a medical student or resident. Exceptions are made for end-of-life patients: while rotating on the oncology service in July, I was caring for a patient  my attending assessed had under 24 hours to live. Her grim prognosis granted her the privilege of two hospital visitors; however, her four children were given the heartbreaking task of deciding which two  would be allowed to see her one last time. 

—Dylan Hardenbergh, medical student, Baltimore, MD

What can a librarian do in an empty library, without students to shush and books to recommend? In all aspects of life during the pandemic, the routines which before had granted us feelings of stability and security had to give way to an agile way of thinking, almost instinctive, in order to deal with the present. In my private school in São Paulo, it was no different: the online format had to be reconsidered; faced with biosafety protocols, schoolchildren lost the right to get messy; and technology, once considered a threat to children’s mental health, became a strong ally in the process of learning.

In my three years working at a bilingual school, the library had always taken a central position in pedagogical dynamics. The elementary school students borrowed books during scheduled time slots every week, and the middle and high schoolers had access to a wide archive, in addition to databases like EBSCO. The Covid-19 crisis in Brazil unraveled very suddenly, quickly rendering this material inaccessible for students as they left the school for their homes. Yet what at first felt like a great loss later revealed itself to be an opportunity to reconsider the role of the librarian. 

During a time when the scientific literature is constantly being consulted, the function of the library as a center for research reemerged. The most drastic change for the librarian has been, perhaps, to step out of their role as a guardian of books and find active ways to assist students in their online research. The virtual classroom served as an opportunity to teach students adequate methods of research, as well as how to identify reliable sources of information. Much like the United States, Brazil has been afflicted with a rising tide of fake news, and I have found myself showing students how to question information they find online — perhaps one of the most crucial values to be taught in schools today. 

In an uncertain time, it is more urgent than ever to help students think critically. In this context, I’ve found myself revisiting the writings of Paulo Freire, Brazilian philosopher and educator: “To teach is not to transfer knowledge,” he writes, “but to create possibilities for its production or construction.” 

—Lucas Cassoli, São Paolo, Brazil
translated from Portuguese by Rafaela Bassili

I teach nine-year-olds at a state-run primary school in Brixton. My students had very different experiences during lockdown. Many are in overcrowded housing, often in multigenerational households. Some appear not to have picked up a book in six months, which has had a very clear impact on their reading and writing skills. Others seemed to have a very effective experience doing home learning. A few children who speak English as a second language learned to read in their parents’ language.

Now, everyone’s back in school. The government has said that parents who don’t send their children back will face fines, but there are a lot of absences, mostly due to insufficient testing. The government only provided ten for my school, but we have sixty students per year. We used our ten tests within the first week and a half. Children get coughs and colds quite easily, and until they’ve got a test saying otherwise, you have to assume it’s Covid. 

Meanwhile, our teachers’ union has become much more visible. Before I became our school’s representative to the National Education Union, we didn’t have meetings at all. Now, we meet regularly on Zoom and have won key demands from our school’s management. 

For instance, we have a lot of a contracted agency staff —  mainly teaching assistants, and it wasn’t clear whether they’d still be paid if the school closed or if they had to stay at home to self-isolate. We effectively argued that if we want to incentivize people staying home when they’re sick, we need to make sure they’re paid anyway. After we delivered an open letter signed by all the teachers and support staff, the school changed their mind and agreed to make those payments. 

Since then, the union has been deeply involved in every stage of reopening. In my school, we followed the Union’s national checklist for risk assessment — for cleaning requirements, personal protective equipment, and so on. The union essentially said we weren’t going to open until these criteria were met.  

The situation is still evolving: we are looking to open after-school care in the next couple of weeks. The logistics are still being negotiated by the union. These days, many more employees come to me as the union rep about pay issues, discrimination issues, effective training and so on. The union is a lot more visible, a lot higher-profile, and having a much greater impact on how the school is being run.

—James McAsh, elementary school teacher and Labour councillor for the Southwark Borough Council, London, England

As told to Krithika Varagur

I’m teaching at a new school this fall, so I’ve never met the kids in my class, or any of my colleagues. I do know a fair amount about my students from their academic data and from talking to their families, but I have this weird feeling that if we go back to in-person, I’ll be meeting those kids for the first time.    

I feel like a YouTuber when I’m teaching on Zoom. You have to really dial up your personality to 110 percent, because if your positivity isn’t at 110 percent, it comes across like 20 percent. You have to exaggerate your emotional affectations. And I am genuinely excited to be there — you still have to be your authentic self, because middle-schoolers can sniff out fakeness immediately. 

Since schools went remote last spring, we’ve seen how they’re responsible for so many aspects of kids’ lives, like access to food, the Internet, and social development. We tend to assume that every kid has a phone, and every kid has access to social media, but that’s not necessarily true. For some of my students, Zoom school is the only way they can connect with classmates. There was this moment last week where my Wi-Fi cut out, and I got booted from the Zoom call. It took me a full ten minutes to get back, and when I returned, one kid was calling on other kids, and they were just talking about their lives. They were all saying, “We should do this more often.” The students are reluctant to say how they’re really feeling, but that’s nothing new. 

— Anonymous, middle school teacher, New York City

As told to Marella Gayla 

I’ve recently been assigned something called the “Student Life” beat at my college paper. I find this ironic, because as a would-be sophomore taking the fall term off, I’m technically neither a student nor participating in campus life. The ‘life’ part is ironic because I’ve been steeling myself to write obituaries.

I shouldn’t worry too much, especially not for my on-campus classmates, who are being tested twice a week. The university has the infrastructure and the money pot to keep virus risk low. Higher education hasn’t gone to the graveyard, at least certainly not elite, wealthy institutions. 

I’m dividing up my mornings working with a community grantmaking initiative and another research project on housing reform. During the rest of my week, I’m moving through a course syllabus with the aid of my philosophy professor and enlisting my mom to help me with my Chinese. I’m listening to pre-recorded open courseware lectures on my runs, and I’m reading Baldwin in the companionship of a book club. It’s decoupage, but I’m learning. 

And I’m lucky. “I’m proximate to too much beauty and too many good things and I don’t think I should let myself get used to it,” I texted a friend of mine a few weeks ago, on my visit to the shoreline in downeast Maine. Objects too close in view can pervert perspective. But retreating too far does, too.

I had fallen seriously ill two years ago and remember feeling angry, resistant, determined to retreat from my families and friends. “I think the selfish part of me liked rearranging my ordered life — my yielding parents, my good grades — into a school of tragedy. I wanted to play a part (Beth March, Ophelia, et cetera) that is not mine and still isn’t. I wanted to write myself into someone else’s prayers. Well, here I am,” I had written, then. 

There are too many obvious illness metaphors, but the pandemic reminds me of an open wound, its viscera excavated for viewing. In healing the skin grows tougher. 

—Emily Tian, college sophomore, Washington, D.C.

In the crumbling, chaotic world of “This War of Mine” — a Polish survival-based strategy war game released in 2014 depicting the civilian cost of conflict — everything is dreary and forlorn. Drenched in subdued colour and smacking of desperation, the game requires players to make difficult choices to keep characters alive, with a focus on moral decision-making and contemplation. It’s far from the fast-paced shooter and blind violence you might imagine a war game to be.

So far, in fact, that Poland recently decided to put it on school reading lists — the first country in the world to make a video game “required reading.”

The news came as Polish children were preparing for the return to in-person teaching. Since mid-March, educational institutions had been closed to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Poland, like much of the rest of Europe, is now experiencing a second wave, with record case numbers now reported.)

Through the spring, Polish schools were required by law to conduct teaching online, and alternatives to face-to-face teaching sprung up — including gaming. While some schools embraced VR in their remote lessons, the government launched an internet learning platform called Grarantanna, which included a Minecraft server.

Now in-person classes have resumed, and gaming is here to stay. When Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced the decision to bring “This War of Mine” into the curriculum earlier in the summer, he said this would help teach children to follow good paths in life, and bring something new to culture.

“Games put us into not only the shoes of someone but their mind in some way,” says Pawel Adamczewski, PR for game developer, 11 bit Studios. “And they should not tell only about space mercenaries dealing with alien invasion or secret agents rescuing the world. They could help us tackle everyday problems, reflect on our everyday life, and learn something in the process.”

—Juliette Bretan, freelance journalist covering Poland and Eastern Europe

When the pandemic hit, our graduate student union was in the middle of a contract campaign. From January to April, there had been a lot of preparation for an action. But when the university went virtual, it was hard to know how to continue applying pressure. We had an offer — not particularly impressive, but enough so that our membership felt comfortable voting to accept it.

Unfortunately, the contract didn’t cover anything related to Covid, because we had already voted on the plank months before. On top of that, my university, The University of Michigan, was uniquely opaque regarding pandemic measures. Despite complaints from faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, staff, and parents, we weren’t presented with an official plan until the end of July, with classes slated to start on August 31st. 

We expected to return to an altered campus: plexiglass, hand sanitizer—at the very least more than a sign taped to an elevator reminding us, “don’t forget to social distance!” Incredibly, buildings were unchanged aside from makeshift signs like these, made of paper and affixed to walls with masking tape. That’s when we realized that we needed to act.

A faculty vote of no confidence in the university president squeaked by, and our graduate student union went on strike for several weeks. Eventually, we were offered small concessions, but there was no movement on our anti-policing demands, our Covid-testing demands, and, most remarkably, nothing on universal remote work. 

We chose to keep going. But then, on September 14, the university filed an injunction and a restraining order because we had shut down several on-campus construction sites. That was the beginning of the end. 

They gave us a new deal, only marginally better than the one we’d been offered the week before. But attached to it was the threat of being sued. Once the injunction was granted, they would be able to fine students $250 per day that they chose to picket, so it would have effectively bankrupted our union.

It turns out that the university would rather sue students and arrest union leaders than negotiate with us when we fight for our safety, as well as the safety of undergraduates.

Walking home one night, I saw a sign in somebody’s window, presumably an undergrad’s, that said, “GEO [our union] failed us all.” And I thought, “yeah, that’s what it feels like.” But, ultimately, it’s the university that failed its students. 

Julia Martins, PhD student, The University of Michigan

As told to Noah Kulwin

I’m an instructor and curriculum developer for middle and high school coding courses — kind of like boot camp for kids. My company provides after-school programs and summer camps around the Bay Area. The majority are at public schools, but I’ve been to a lot of Catholic schools as well. For those, I had to go through “How to Spot Child Abuse” and “How to Spot a Predator” trainings. But when things moved online, there was none of that. That seemed weird — not to be morbid, but abuse is obviously still possible when you’re on a computer.

There are varying levels of engagement and commitment to learning Java, which is what I usually teach. In person, I’d have classes of around twenty students. The breaks, when they would run around and socialize, were clearly the highlight for them. Often, I would see kids learn with the help of their friends; cooperation happening in real time. That’s one of the things missing most glaringly from distance learning: There is just no collaboration among students. 

I have two kids who know each other well, but didn’t even realize they were in the same class until the last day. This was in a class of four students. But they never used their cameras, and very rarely used their microphones. Their names showed up as their parents’ names because they’re using their parents’ Zoom accounts.

We have tried requiring kids to use their cameras and microphones, but it makes parents uncomfortable to have it be not optional. I think there is a bit of concern if a stranger is saying, ‘I need to see your child’s face.’ And because people are in their own houses, there’s a level of privacy that I think they’re not willing to fully relinquish. As an instructor, I must keep my camera on. The main rule for us is that we can never teach from a bedroom. Apparently, a bed in the background might look weird. So, the company said: Be in a kitchen! Be somewhere neutral.

Some kids take advantage of the group chat. They might try to play class clown by sending random letters — or, in one instance, typing a slur. The boy who did this was a bit of a class clown in person, too. He’s about 13, and was transferred to me because another instructor refused to teach him any longer. He verbally insulted her in front of the whole class when she tried to take his phone. On the one hand, it’s embarrassing to get into a fight with a child, but he was also saying very rude things.

His mother actually took his side. “That teacher didn’t know what she was doing. My child is great.” she said. “If he’s bored and acting out, that means that you’re not giving him a challenge.” I got to know him a little more, and  realized that he doesn’t actually know how to code, but has been telling everyone that he does. So I made sure to give him extra help and to try to actually build a connection. I was actually checking in with him when he decided to abuse the chat. 

I told him that his parents would be hearing about the incident. He sent me —this actually made me laugh, unfortunately — copy-and-pasted articles from Wikipedia over and over, burying what he’d written and making it impossible to use the chat. I just saw “lorem ipsum” and randomness about clouds —cumulonimbus, all that. Spam in its purest form. 

—Kiva Uhuru, Cupertino, CA

As told to Tarpley Hitt

When we transitioned to remote classes in March, my guiding principle was to make the transition to online learning, and remaining months of the semester, as seamless for students as possible. 

Our students run the gamut from high schoolers to seniors. They are veterans, undocumented, work full or part time, and take care of a family or family members. They are first-generation college students, aging out of the foster care system, homeless, or transient. They are severely impoverished, have psychiatric, developmental, mobility, sight, or hearing conditions. They work multiple jobs, or live paycheck-to-paycheck.

They are also some of the hardest working individuals around. Their strength of character — steely work ethics and commitments to improve their lives and the lives of others — humbles and inspires. Consider the young woman living with her school-aged children and husband in a one-room apartment — with one computer to split between them. Both parents work and attend college online, and the children would shortly be moved to remote learning.

Thankfully, faculty, staff, and administrators pulled together at my college, and across our district. I work in the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD), which is the largest consortium of community colleges in the United States, serving over 200,000 students. 

It was a monumental undertaking. At the college level, our administrators brainstormed how best to accommodate the diverse student body at Pierce, while at the District level, administrators scrambled to set up a program to provide laptops to all eligible LACCD students. Among the biggest challenges was getting faculty up to speed on Canvas, our learning platform. I heard horror stories about some faculty who never even used email, let alone more advanced digital technologies. The Distance Education Offices at all nine colleges worked tirelessly to move the enormous LACCD ship to online learning. 

Were it not for the incredible goodwill, dedication, expertise, and open-mindedness of students, faculty, staff, and administrators, the Spring 2020 semester would have been an unmitigated disaster. As it was, we were all deeply concerned about, and trying to support, those students whose circumstances made it all but impossible to continue studying. Countless hours were spent trying to identify, connect with, and restore their academic lives. In many cases, the first priority was helping with food and safe shelter. It’s what the power of institutions means when people need more help that one individual can provide. We may never know the reasons why some students did not return to classes, but it’s not hard to offer plausible explanations.

Having survived the spring, we worked through the summer to plan for fall, which we knew early on would be online. Now, almost two months in, we are developing routines and rhythms. More than ever, perhaps, students and faculty collaborate to succeed; we know in ways we couldn’t realize before that we are in this together. 

—Mia Wood, Professor of Philosophy, Pierce College

Being a university professor in a country like Costa Rica, where the technological infrastructure is relatively good (ranking third in mobile Internet coverage and fourth in fixed internet in Latin America), I thought that the transition from the traditional classroom to the virtual setting would be easy. I was wrong. Internet providers were unable to keep up with the increased demand for connections, and some companies suffered system failures, leaving more than 100,000 people without internet access for several days. 

Many of my students did not have the option of working from home since they work as journalists or salespeople, so they had to begin commuting home to connect to virtual classes; in many cases making trips of up to an hour and a half.

Commutes in the main urban areas of Costa Rica are complicated due to the lack of massive public transportation and poor urban planning. For these reasons, students tend to choose universities close to their workplaces to avoid long travels. Virtual learning disrupted all that. 

Then, there’s the human element of teaching, which is very difficult to transfer to a virtual environment; without it, lessons can easily become cold, monotonous, and overly complicated.

The first few weeks were quite frustrating: my students participated very little, did not ask questions, and when asked if they had understood everything, they answered with a simple “yes.” Later on, it became clear from their assessments that this was not the case.

I learned from  one-on-one interviews with several students that they felt the content had become more complex, but were reluctant to speak up. My students said that they felt much more observed during virtual classes than in the traditional classroom, which caused them to hold back from asking questions out of fear and bashfulness.

To reduce the students’ anxiety, the class dynamics were divided into two parts. The first leg where all the contents are presented and explained to the students and the second leg where students work in small groups of no more than six people. Students feel safer in these small groups, less observed, so they are not afraid to ask questions and clarify all their doubts about what they did not understand.

—Bryan Bejarano, San José, Costa Rica

I teach tenth graders at a small charter school in the Bay Area. The student body is around 65% Latinx, with an emerging Asian population, and more than half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. When we went remote last semester, our school opted for asynchronous teaching, and a number of kids just dropped off the radar. There were family situations; relatives got sick; some kids were working jobs. I had to upload assignments two times a week, and I would text every kid who didn’t turn in the work. Sometimes they’d respond, and sometimes they wouldn’t. Our school ended up having an intervention — for the last two weeks of the school year, we didn’t teach any new content, and we did “boot camp” for students who had more than two Ds or Fs. 

This semester, we’re doing live classes online, and our school has a 95% attendance rate. It’s still demoralizing not to have the energy of a classroom. Sometimes, after we read a passage, I’ll ask them to drop a one-word reaction to the text in the chat, and then I’ll call on people to expand on their answers. But some kids are getting wise, and they’ve figured out if they don’t say anything in the chat, I can’t make them talk. I just have to trust that they’re learning something, which is all I can ask right now. Usually between two and four kids keep their cameras on during class. Some teachers are really adamant about that, but I’ve chosen not to be. I don’t have time for cop shit. People find different ways of showing up. 

Right before the pandemic began, I had been so frustrated with teaching, and I was thinking about quitting at the end of the year. I was not good at teaching rigorous content. I was not good at classroom management. I felt like the things I could contribute to my school were not the things that the school wanted. But when Covid hit, in a weird way, I rose to the challenge. Before I became a teacher, I had worked with survivors of domestic violence, and that job was all about building relationships and trust. In the past few months, I’ve found that students are way more invested in doing the work when they know you have their back. So my old skills came out. I realized they were valuable all along.  

— Anonymous, high school teacher, Bay Area

As told to Marella Gayla 

—Bix Archer, Brooklyn, NY