When the pandemic is finally over, many people envision life returning to the way it was before COVID-19. But for teachers and their students, life may never return to “normal,” according to California State University, Northridge special education professor Wendy Murawski.
While the pandemic has disrupted learning and underscored inequities in resources and access to support between affluent and poor communities, it also has opened a door to new ways of teaching and learning, said Murawski, executive director and Eisner Endowed Chair for the Center for Teaching and Learning in CSUN’s Michael D. Eisner College of Education.
“Teachers are re-examining how they use their time to make sure they are using it as effectively as possible, and they are using technology in ways many of them never thought they would before the pandemic, to reach students in new and different ways,” Murawski said. “And then there are the questions about snow days and sick days, now that we know that kids can learn from home, if they have the resources. What if some kids don’t want to return to a traditional school environment?
“Right now, most educators are concentrating on getting through this period,” she continued. “But when the pandemic is over, these are just some of the questions those of us in education will be considering as we move forward. Many school districts have already started the conversation.”
Murawski said the priority, at the moment, is getting back into the classroom.
“Teachers want to resume that social connection with their kids,” she said. “That social connection with students is very, very important, whether you are at the K-12 level or the university level. Everyone is concerned about the emotional well-being of our students without those personal connections. There are people who truly miss being in the classroom. But when we return to the classroom, what happens in that classroom may be totally different from what it was like before the pandemic.”
Murawski said teachers scrambled to create a whole new virtual curriculum when schools were forced closed by the pandemic. Many educators struggled to figure out how they were going to teach virtually and make sure their students had the resources they needed to connect with their teachers and school.
Some educators told Murawski that teaching virtually forced them to re-examine the time they actually spent with their students to ensure that they used it to truly connect with their students, ensure they understood the subject matter, field questions and listen to students’ concerns.
“Since they had less time, they realized that time they had with their students needed to be used to its fullest,” she said. “They also learned that students were able to make faster connections between learning and real-life application than they had given them credit for.”
Murawski said the pandemic has opened the door for many educators, parents and students to the idea of “universal design for learning,” an educational framework that guides the development of flexible learning environments and learning spaces that can accommodate individual learning differences.
“Going forward, there will be students who will say, ‘You know, I don’t want to come to school every single day. I want to come three times a week, or I want to learn at home,’” she said. “Schools are going to have to actively address these issues. They are going to have to embrace hybrid models. Some kids are going to want to learn online. I think we’re going to have a lot more parents who say, ‘this worked for my student and I want this option.’”
For those students who choose to remain in the classroom, educators will be tapping into the new ways of teaching they developed during the pandemic, Murawski said.
“Using technology in all its forms, from Zoom to YouTube, has become an essential tool for educators during the pandemic, and it will continue to be so after,” she said. “I can see many educators using it to reach their students in a variety of ways. I can see some teachers turning their classrooms into hybrid environments where some students work independently with the help of technology, freeing the teacher to work more closely with students who need individual help.”
One of the benefits of using technology, she said, has been time.
“I’ve heard from teachers who said using technology during the pandemic has really expanded their ability to provide additional support and intervention for their students,” she said. “Pre-pandemic, because everything had to be done before or after school, they had to limit the number of kids who could come to see them or the time would be inconvenient for the family. Now, they can leverage technology to meet when it’s convenient for everyone, and no one has to worry about driving in from work or picking up their child on time.”
That flexibility also applies to such things as staff meetings and the scheduling of guest speakers or classroom visitors.
“Before, you had to worry about travel time, which in Los Angeles can be a lot, and other things,” she said. “Now, all someone has to do is set up a time on Zoom, and you are taking part in an important meeting or you have a guest speaker for your class.”
Murawski acknowledged that teaching and learning during the pandemic has not been easy for students, their parents and teachers.
“There are probably going to be a lot of retirements when this is over, particularly among those who were close to retirement before all this started,” she said. “They are done.”
She said she hopes that the experience during the pandemic will teach the community the value of educators.
“Teaching is so much more than what most people realize,” Murawski said. “Hopefully, they understand now how important teachers are, and value what they do much more than they did before.”