A dejected high school junior came to my office to ask if she had any chance of passing the year. It was only November but, like many others choosing virtual instruction, her semester averages in most classes were unrecoverable without an alternative program. The traditional stereotype of failing students being exceptionally disinterested no longer applies. Until last year, she was an A-and-B honor roll student with high goals and unrelenting ambition. After being isolated from school since March due to high-risk family members, she could no longer verbalize hopes, dreams, or a desire for college. The one word that she could verbalize, which I have heard from dozens of other students this year, was “unmotivated.” The world didn’t end, but she felt that her world had ended.
The phone rang, and on the other end was a mom who had done everything right. Her boundaries, support, consequences, and counsel for her twelfth-grade son were in alignment with any advice that a school counselor would give. Yet he, at eighteen, refused to do schoolwork and his senior online gradebook boasted zeros across the board. Since asynchronous virtual instruction became an option, he had started a full-time job in August—and the immediate gratification of a paycheck outweighed his desire for a high school diploma. Education is still a priority in the world, but not for him.
A sophomore athlete stormed into my office, one of many who were righteously angry over a rising injustice: his teacher was out sick and, due to a substitute shortage, his class had to sit in the cafeteria waiting for the next bell to ring. He, alongside his classmates, wouldn’t be learning anything that period. More importantly to him, his grade was still failing, which meant he was ineligible to play in the upcoming game. I agree: it is wrong and unfair for students to sit through full periods without instruction. But who do we blame? Do we blame him for having a failing grade in the first place? Do we blame the teacher for not grading while she was in the hospital? Do we blame substitutes for not wanting to work in a global pandemic? From the outside, it looked like our school had gone back to normal with added social distancing and virtual options. But looks can be deceiving.
Away from the public’s view, teachers and staff members are struggling emotionally. The grades are unending, the schedules are ever-changing, and the phone calls and emails have tripled at minimum. It is not just an 8- to 10-hour workday for many of them. These frontline workers have families also. They have children in school also. They have dinner to make also. But sometimes, other people forget this. The pressure and demands are high. I am not sure that all of them will be returning next year.
Increased mental health concerns, dropouts, learning gaps, and educator career changes are painfully obvious possibilities. As a public-school counselor in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I can say with assurance that these are only four of the many short-term and long-term effects the current season will have. I believe there will be some effects that we won’t see for many years.
Where do we go from here? How do we make up time lost in education? How do we foster a culture where education is still a priority? How do we keep great educators in the education field who could easily change careers and make the same salary with fewer demands on their time and energy? The system as-is will not last much longer.
Policymakers who have never experienced the inner workings of a public school on a daily basis, in the shoes of a teacher or administrator for at least six weeks in this school year, cannot logically have the answer to the problems school districts—or students—are facing right now. We cannot attempt to solve a new issue in the mindset and structure of a past world.