There is no doubt that the pandemic created enormous challenges for the students and teachers navigating uncharted territory, under the microscope of an angry and fearful public, with a looming threat to their health around every corner. The pandemic revealed existing inequities and barriers in our education system and emphasized the enormous expectations placed on teachers, who, armed with few resources and little support, continued to show up day after day for our children.

In addition to the challenges the pandemic presented, it also brought about new avenues of reaching and supporting students and revealed paths different than anything we had tried before. In order to learn more about the experiences of those intimately involved with the public school system over the past two and a half years, and to envision a path forward, we asked students and teachers to share their perspectives with us.

COVID and the power of NO

Mark Russell

I have the dubious honor of being the first teacher of the new school year to process a ‘Step 4’ for a student. A ‘Step 4’ happens when a student acts out to such an extent that they require a parent to come to school to discuss their behavior before they can rejoin class. I shouldn’t be proud of this, but I’m starting this year with a no nonsense approach to certain students.

Here’s my hypothesis: Kids haven’t heard the word ‘NO’ as much as they needed to during lockdown. I absolutely get it. I’m not a huge fan of confrontation, and every time I say ‘no’ to any kids, I feel like I’ve sacrificed a bit of my soul in return for trying to improve that person. Lockdown seems to have strained the ability of a lot of us parents to consistently and persistently say ‘no’ and challenge the knuckle-headed ideas our kids get.

As I’ve mentioned before, Westgate has always had a number of students who come from refugee families that have settled in Kennewick. We get students arriving in all grades K–5 having never attended school, and having spent the majority of their lives in refugee camps across the world. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job, and I relish the challenge of helping these kids find their voice and personality. When COVID hit, places like the Family Learning Center in the Central Park apartments became essential for these families, who needed an internet connection and a suitable study area.

The Zoom era gave specialists like us an insight into the home lives of some of our students that the homeroom teachers didn’t really get to see. We already get to watch our students grow from kinders into fifth graders, but watching them go through lockdown and come out the other side has been an emotional journey. When the two-days-per-week hybrid era started in October 2020, we were rushing and repeating ourselves through ten half-hour sessions a day over Zoom. We would read stories, play videos, present lessons, and attempt choppy conversations with the kids, and thirty minutes later do it all again. Sometimes I would find myself reading a book to one sleeping first grader. Most of the time, students would be at a kitchen table with their family in the background, on their bed, at the Family Learning Center, or in a corner at the Boys and Girls club, watching and listening, thankful for the time we would spend together. It was a rough time for us emotionally, due to the schedule and the loneliness of teaching in an empty room.

Seeing a student in their home environment reveals a side that you rarely see at school. It became a lot more apparent to us which students had a family that would create a learning space for their kids, and who would set expectations for their behavior. There were also the students who seemed to have no supervision at home; they would bounce off the furniture, or chase friends or family members. They would fill the chat with random words in all caps or just mashed keyboard letters, to the frustration of the other students. When we confronted them about their behavior, they were generally confused that they were being called on something. It was as if we were the first people to confront them on their behavior, and in hindsight, I suspect we were.

Now that we are back in person, it seems that there are still a couple of kids in each class who are impulsive with their behavior, without thinking through what they are doing. The grown ups raising them have apparently been caving in to most of the kids’ demands; saying ‘no’ and meaning it has become too much for them. I’m somewhat guilty of this when it comes to screen time and my own kids, but that’s a conversation for next month. The surprise to me is that some of our new refugee kids are showing these behaviors, as well. It almost seems like more of the kids have learned to hustle and persist when they want something and hear the word ‘no’. Instead of accepting or asking why, they either start pleading comically, or they just go ahead and do it anyway to see what will happen. I imagine that in their home environment, this probably works at least some of the time.

As a caring educator, though, I find myself unable to let this pass. The great Paul Dowdy, who ran my Masters course at Heritage University, would say: “If you permit it, you promote it.” I once told a kid in my first year that it was okay for him to show his friend a couple of Pokemon cards. The next day, five of them came in with a fifteen pound binder of cards each, which they knew was pushing the boundaries. I can’t let a cheeky first grader get away with ignoring the expectations, partly because it affects the wellbeing of others but also because I can’t let them leave school thinking that it’s okay to do so. This may mean making connections with the family — so that I can more easily contact them when they act out — or just helping them understand that unless something changes they’re going to be coming to school to sort out behavior issues more than they would like to. Either way, I care too much about the kids to let it slide.

By the way, the ‘Step 4’ student had a good meeting with his father the morning after the incident occurred, and ran up to me during assembly to give me a hug and say sorry. It was such a good feeling for me. Of course, he’s probably going to do something similar a few more times, but I know there’s a good kid there who trusts us to do the right thing. I can’t wait to see his journey through to fifth grade.

Nasir U.

The start of the pandemic was an extremely happy time for me; as a middle schooler I couldn't think of anything better than two weeks off of school. So when we heard an announcement that we'd get two weeks off, we all cheered. We assumed that we'd get a two-week break then everything would go back to normal.

Those first two weeks were perfect. We got a much needed break to recuperate from the 100 or so days of waking up at 6 a.m. to get to school on time. I stayed in touch with my friends and we frequently played games and talked through text. But as weeks turned to months, my friends weren’t able to be there to play games or talk as often. There was no way to see them. We had to stay inside, isolated, alone. I was trapped in my home, which felt more and more like prison by the day.

I knew the reason for quarantining; it was important to protect ourselves and the people we love. But that didn't stop me from hating every moment of it. I would wake up, play games, eat, watch YouTube, lay in bed,  sleep, and repeat. I am usually an active kid. I’m a tri-sport athlete now in high school, and I'm in the gym every day. But during that time, I had no motivation to stay active. I felt trapped.

Time passed like this for months until one day, school started again. But things weren't back to normal. Instead of school taking place in a classroom, it took place in my house, my personal prison. With the start of school things changed... they got worse. I'd see my friends' faces through a screen, but never talk to them. I’d listen to my teacher lecture, but never ask questions. School used to be a place where I felt connected to my peers; it now felt like an empty wasteland with no one in sight.

I was hardly showing up to classes. I had no will to participate. When I did show up to classes, I sat on my phone barely paying attention. The teachers were too busy trying to figure out how Zoom works to notice my detachment. My grades plummeted — my worst year of school to date — but still, I didn't care. My focus was all on just making it through this time of school online. And I did. I scraped and crawled my way through online school. The worst of it was over.

I started in-person school around the winter time. I kept telling myself: it's a new semester and a clean slate, and there is still time to turn this around. Unfortunately that was easier said than done. I had missed a whole semester of knowledge; I was about 90 days behind on algebra, chemistry, and history. It was like trying to build a skyscraper but starting work on the 90th floor; it was doomed to come crashing down despite my best efforts.

On top of that, school was extremely different after the pandemic. Classes would be dead silent. No class clowns making jokes. No one would be chatting with their friends across the room. You couldn't even hear the light whispers of two people talking next to each other. Every student was changed by the pandemic. All the time alone had turned us into antisocial zombies. It got so bad, teachers were asking students to talk instead of asking us to be quiet. School just felt so foreign to me.

I struggled to even stay afloat that year, and it had a great impact on my self-confidence. I felt like I was an idiot or incompetent in some way. So I barely tried. I pretended… told myself I didn't care so that I'd be less disappointed, told myself excuses like “I didn't even try” so it hurt less when I failed. I did just enough to stay in sports and passed my classes with Cs and Ds that year.

I still have a voice in my head trying to convince me to stop trying, even to this day, trying to tell me to settle. As time has gone on, it's started to fade away. It's now just a distant whisper I hear from time to time instead of a prevalent voice in my head. The pandemic was not an easy time for me as a student and as a person; it was the most isolated and hopeless I've ever felt in my life. The things people endured for multiple years were extremely tough, and the effects can still be felt today in distant whispers from time to time.

Elijah U.

As I walk through the crowded halls of high school, I remember that not too long ago, doing this would have been ridiculous and reckless.

Not too long before that, it would have been normal.

As the times changed, so did our lives, and along with that came some change, for worse or for better, to our schools. At the beginning of the pandemic, we moved to virtual schooling, where some students thrived in academics, Others, like me, struggled with the integrity to do everything at home, by themselves. As the virus became better researched, we figured doing school half virtual and half physical, a hybrid schedule, would be most productive. In the coming year, we saw some sort of normalcy with regular schedules, but the environment was completely changed. All of us had grown more used to not seeing faces, and seating was so far apart that looking at someone else's test became a nearly impossible way of cheating (which I’d never do, of course). Though we were almost back to normal, something was off.

With the pushback against the required masks, many parents decided to keep kids home because of their outrage. For example, as one (in my opinion, delusional) lady in Florida put it, “They want to throw God's breathing system out the door.” This was in reference to public mask mandates in schools. With people divided over new laws and many kids preaching the same thing that their parents do, people were sometimes even shamed for wearing a mask. In my experience, at least one person a day would ask, “Why are you still wearing a mask?” Sometimes they would ask politely, and other times with confusion as to why anyone would want to wear one. And that was only early on.

As some people became more comfortable wearing masks, they proved to be a sort of hiding tool for those who were insecure about their faces. Many people hid behind their masks, therefore making their insecurities worse when the time would come to take off the masks (i.e at lunch, for pictures, etc.). As the year moved along, more and more people became comfortable without masks, and today you will only see around five to ten kids wearing one on any given day.

Although the masks have slowly fazed out, many changes have been made that have stuck around. For example, most work now is done on computers, because we all learned how to navigate these apps during the pandemic. Grades, late work, make-up assignments, and quizzes can all be checked in one app. Instead of having to keep ten different loose-leaf notebooks with work on them, it can all be easily organized automatically. Also, with some kids enjoying virtual school much more and even learning in new and better ways, many kids chose to continue with virtual school, opening a whole new world of learning that was never this widely available before. And finally, the last major difference for the better, in my opinion, is the time we spent/spend outside. Before COVID, there wasn’t a need to go outside, but as the pandemic hit, our lunch had to be eaten outside. Other things were held outside, too: study guides, mental check-ups (because of the pressure we were under), and more. Being outside gave us fresh air we really needed, so the pandemic changed schools in at least one pretty great way (though there are some downsides, obviously).

I think that continuing from here on out, we must try to keep all of the awesome things that were a side effect of COVID — keep the good parts and get rid of the bad ones. Though it was a rough patch in my school life, I think that even seeing any other way to approach school than what I already knew, which was quickly becoming a bore, was a welcome change that helped me decide how I wanted to learn, and what would help me the most.