My kids go to a private parochial school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In early March, when Iowa’s first covid-19 cases were announced, the school sent emails assuring parents that if we had to keep our kids home it would be temporary. On March 13, when kids left for spring break, the school had everyone take their books and two weeks of assignments. We’d be back soon, they said.
We never went back.
The week of spring break the school was sending three to five emails a day. They explained how we’d do school from home, that there was a special text message service we could sign up for, that we’d be using Google classroom, RenWeb, Slideshows, YouTube videos. I couldn’t keep up.
I emailed the school to explain my tremendous workload, including my job at a newspaper and work on a book that is coming out in August. I was happy to have work, but still overwhelmed. I also explained that we have two households, and my ex and I split custody. His partner, a preschool teacher, could help the kids at his house, but at my house it was just me. I only had two computers. One barely worked, and the other was my work computer.
The kindergarten teacher was understanding. “It’s fine, your kid is fine,” she said. The third-grade teacher was less reassuring: Work was due every day, and if it didn’t get turned in it would affect my daughter’s grades. “Do your best,” she said.
We did. And our best was a C-.
Elena Mikalsen, chief of pediatric psychology at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, says that during the pandemic she’s seeing far more parents of elementary school parents who are stressed out.
“Teens can work independently,” she said, “and younger children don’t really have school work, but it’s elementary school where all the stress has been.”
She’s had parents sobbing to her saying they feel like they are failing their kids and are worried they are going to lose their jobs. Mikalsen tells those parents to quit trying to home-school.
“The most important thing is your mental health,” she tells them, “if they are not happy their kids will not be happy. This is a pandemic. We need to focus on what’s important and it’s not worksheets.”
Mikalsen shared that her own teen’s gym teacher had given the class a list of video workouts and healthy recipes, but then told them to stay happy and not get sick. That was it. That was the expectation.
But the assessments and expectations vary. Some schools are doing only pass/fail; others are telling kids that their grades won’t drop, only rise; and still others are just freezing grades at the last quarter before the lockdowns took effect. Colleges and universities are telling students not to worry about asterisks on their report cards, and this month nearly 80 schools announced they would not be requiring the SAT or ACT for college admissions for the class of 2021, and in some cases, beyond.
But while at the college and high school level there is some relief, elementary school students have less clarity. Mikalsen has heard stories about kids in dual-language schools where the parents are expected to now home-school in a language they don’t know. Parents in some rural areas are being expected to do home-school without access to WiFi or a printer. Other children are stuck at home in abusive situations or with insufficient food. Teachers and administrators also are just trying to figure this out, Mikalsen is quick to add, but it’s not about worksheets anymore.
“How can you even assess learning in a pandemic?” She says. “The only success is survival.”
Matt Townsley is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa and the co-author of “Making Grades Matter: Standards-Based Grading in a Secondary PLC at Work.” He points out that there are many problems with grading in a pandemic. For example, how can the teacher know if it was the student who filled out a worksheet, or if it was the parent? And how does the teacher know the answers weren’t just found online?
Townsley said a teacher suggested that perhaps students could submit videos of themselves filling out worksheets, but that approach is problematic as well. What about students who don’t have access to computers or technology, or whose parents don’t know how to use it?
Instead, Townsley says, the focus should be on survival, health and mental wellness right now. “This is about learning what is important to teach and what isn’t,” he says. “Maybe it’s not important to teach kids to memorize all 50 states, but what is the skill that correlates with that lesson? That’s what educators should focus on.”
He recommends something he calls Pandemic Priority Standards, which will assess kids as they come back first by their emotional and mental health. Then the schools can work on creating plans to meet those needs. After that is done, schools can assess students’ academic levels and cut to the core of what is important in the curriculum.
“What if we reduce instruction and assessment of our academic targets for next year, and increase our focus on instruction and self-assessment of nonacademic targets,” he says. “I wonder if students would learn more, and more effectively.”
I emailed my school again asking for clarity on the C-, and it turned out I hadn’t been emailing daily logs of my kid’s activity. After a lot of back and forth, the president of the school board told me they’re just trying to keep kids from falling behind.
My daughter is in third grade. She’s a small child. If her grades hadn’t slipped with everything that is going on, I’d be worried she was a sociopath, completely unaffected by a worldwide tragedy that was leaving us all lost and confused.
But Jessica Lahey, an educator and the author of “The Gift of Failure,” says that falling behind right now is meaningless. “There is no behind when we are all behind,” she says. Teachers and administrators have been arguing for a long time that grades and homework are meaningless for elementary students, but this situation has put all of that into sharp relief.
“We decide what is culturally behind or not and in a world where all children have missed school and they are all behind, assessment models need to change,” Lahey says.
She hopes that the pandemic helps schools move past letter grades and to a more complete assessment model. “Study after study shows if you want a student to be demotivated in learning you give them a grade. That’s only going to prove to be even more true in a crisis.”
She tells the story of her high school-aged son who missed a Zoom call with his gym teacher because he was on a walk in the woods. She laughs at the absurdity of him losing points because he was actually getting exercise.
For Lahey, like Townsley, assessing learning can only begin when students are safe and have their mental, physical and emotional needs taken care of.
“Parents are struggling, teachers are struggling, we are all struggling,” Lahey says. “Handing out grades only makes it worse on everyone.”
A friend of mine in Chicago, Patsy Werwie, told me her own story of home-schooling elementary-school-aged triplet boys. She was losing her mind and emailed her principal to tell him she was upset and stressed out. She couldn’t get anything done. After playing phone tag, Werwie and the principal connected and he told her to just let it go and forget about school. He told her things would be okay, and that it’s okay to stop schooling.
Werwie felt relieved.
With one week of school left, I finally got the principal to agree that my daughter would not fail gym. Her grades would revert to her last quarter grades; she’d be okay.
May 22 was our last day of school. We celebrated by drinking root beer and eating pizza and watching too many movies too late into the night, finally able to not worry about how we’d be graded.
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