The COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons for Schools

Note: This blogpost was developed in collaboration with my project team, Dr. Lu (Priscilla) Liu and Sophia Ángeles. Thanks to all the families who are participating in our project.  Thanks to the Spencer Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and UCLA’s Bedari Kindness Institute for supporting our work.

The COVID-19 pandemic, with all the suffering and challenges it has brought, offers us all a tremendous opportunity to see our social worlds and to re-imagine them. In this blog we suggest a few lessons that we have learned from our research exploring the impact of the pandemic on the lives and learning experiences in a diverse set of 33 U.S. households, and offer suggestions for schools.

Three lessons

    1. Social processes and practices can change very quickly, and do, when circumstances force them. The rapidity with which we collectively moved our lives (and schooling) online and rearranged our social lives is really quite astounding. For sure, it wasn’t without upheaval, dissension, discord, and uneven-ness – partly because of the mixed messages we got from our leadership. And the changes may be more in form than in substance. But we did make certain kinds of changes very fast – changes that might have seemed impossible a year ago.
    1. Existing social inequities are illuminated and magnified. The pandemic has made more visible long-standing disparities in health, well-being, economic stability, and education. The rapid changes are enacted in unequal ways and their effects may further exacerbate those inequities.
  1. New possibilities emerge, if we are able to see them. This is where we find hope. We are trying to focus our attention here, as we draw lessons from the families in our project, for reimagining schools.

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Schooling

While schools have rather quickly gone “on-line” or adapted to remote instruction, for the most part they have not changed basic practices to respond to the moment. Generally, schools seem to be trying to do the same lessons they would do in person, in an effort to keep students “on track.”  (We might ask, on track to what?) The rapid changes have been largely in form – learning to work on line – than in substance.

What’s worse, on-line instruction has forced a retreat to practices that we know are not pedagogically sound: ones that magnify and exacerbate existing inequalities, as a report by my colleague John Rogers makes clear. This includes more disembodied approaches to teaching and learning; more reliance on decontextualized language (without the supports that would benefit all students, and English Learners in particular); more “reductionistic” tasks that students experience as disconnected from their lives and experiences, and boring.  More drill-and-kill, rather than working with the affordances of technology to open up the new possibilities that many of us are discovering for ourselves in our everyday lives, such as the fact that we can connect across great distances, build new social networks, and collaborate in new ways. More solo work rather than collaborative project-based learning.

This reinforces inequities. Some children in our project had the material and technological resources – and space within their home – to concentrate on schoolwork. Some had older siblings or parents who could tutor them, and help them “broker” technology, so they could address problems that arose as well as use the Internet to explore their own interests. Others used school-loaned Ipads mostly just to do the textbook-like exercises the school gave them, as best they could, on their own.

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Given these inequities, and given the stressors that  all families are experiencing right now, we have been asking: How could schools support all kids in engaging in rich learning at home during this time?

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There is an extensive body of educational research and practice that calls for recognizing and building on what Luis Moll and Norma González called “community funds of knowledge:” the knowledge and skills that are learned and shared in everyday contexts. This work calls for bridging homes and schools in the service of learning, equity, and educational opportunity.

Under the pandemic, the bridge between homes and schools has gotten much shorter. In fact, schools have moved into homes.  But movement across the bridge seems to go mostly in one direction, as teachers send home long lists of tasks for children to complete at home.

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We want to suggest a few ways in which teachers might cross the bridge themselves, and invite families to cross as well – bringing lived experiences during the pandemic into view and connecting schools and homes in more meaningful, generative, and engaging ways.

Household Activities as Source of Inquiry

One mother of three elementary-school aged children in our study described trying to supervise her children as they completed more than 30 discrete assignments on the iPads each had been loaned by the school. María’s own mother, Isabel, who lived with the family, had meanwhile moved her domestic work outside, so as not to disturb the children. She set up a portable stove on the porch where she prepared “mole,” a heritage-food from her native Oaxaca that involves toasting pumpkin seeds, grinding chocolate, chopping red chili peppers, and mixing some 20 other ingredients.

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María struggled with the transformation of her role as a mother into that of teacher/disciplinarian, especially having to enforce silence as the kids tuned into their separate “classrooms” from within the small space her living room offered. She wasn’t always sure what the tasks required or how to guide her children, in English.  She did, on the other hand, find creative ways to involve her children in everyday activities that involved all kinds of learning – to, as she put it, “reinvent” themselves, as they struggled with the challenges of the pandemic and its emotional impact. She regularly involved her children in food preparation.

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What if schools supported families in learning together,  as they participate in daily life?

While not all families may be preparing things as elaborate or culturally/historically rich as mole, most certainly they are all budgeting, shopping, cooking and sharing food. This everyday lived practice is going on around children as they try to “do school” at home, and many parents are struggling to juggle shopping, cooking, and cleaning with their new roles as tutors, teachers and school disciplinarians. How much stress might be alleviated if this work could be combined? What if we honored the work that is happening in homes, and invited children to learn about and share in this essential, everyday work?

Teachers could invite families to prepare a meal together from start to finish, and/or ask students to observe the preparation process. They could write lists of the ingredients, identify how much they cost (perhaps comparing the prices in several local stores), take pictures of the preparation process and the finished products, and write about the experience. Class lessons could involve writing out recipes (which families may never have written out before) to share, describing the meals, graphing favorite foods, comparing and contrasting different ways of preparing common foods such as rice. These activities could easily be connected with state standards in math, science, social studies and language arts.

Importantly, we want to caution against discussions of food preparation that simply reinforce cultural stereotypes or assume  cultural norms. We also urge teachers to be careful in the ways comparisons are made across households. Not all families prepare the elaborate kinds of traditional heritage-culture food that Helen, another participant in our study, displayed in photos.

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Some families may be struggling just to put food on the table. (In anticipation of that possibility, teachers might offer a list of local food bank resources.)

If families do share food that might be considered more “typical” of their cultural heritages, teachers can help elicit the stories behind these foods, contemplating the meanings these foods take on both historically and in households. Helen, for example, shared the history of the Dragon Boat Festival in China, explaining why people make rice dumplings and do boat racing on this day.

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Domestic work: Divisions of labor

The pandemic has increased the domestic labor required in many households, as families are spending more time at home, often combining paid and domestic labor in that space. As with food preparation, children may be witness to work that previously took place when they were away at school, or when their parents were out of the home.  This was true in María’s home, as the family stepped up food preparation partly in order to sell it as a new source of income after they lost their outside work.  It was true as well in the homes of professionals in our study, such as Luz, who taught her own third-graders from her living room while her two pre-school children played nearby. 

Why not make this a source of inquiry as well? Children could interview family members about the work they do at home (both domestic work and paid labor).  As with food preparation, they could take photos, write stories, share and compare. (See for example Wendy Luttrell’s article, A Camera Is a Big Responsibility”: A Lens for Analysing Children’s Visual Voices). Perhaps they could support their parents’ work in some way. Luz, for example, involved her own children in the work of recording videos for the classroom.

This might easily lead to discussions of equity. Who does what work, and how is that work valued both in homes and society? What kinds of work are more invisible in households? (For example, who does the work of brokering language, literacy and technology?  Here are some ideas about how this kind of everyday language work could be leveraged in school.)  They could discuss ways of distributing the work at home – and in society – more equitably.  

Healthy habits

The families in our study have described a number of new practices they have taken on to enhance their health, happiness and well-being during this time. This includes taking walks in nature, writing “gratitude journals,” hosting game nights, establishing family weight loss competitions, and more  Schools could be a place for sharing these practices. Teachers could support students in exploring how these new practices impact their health and well-being. They could also consider what practices interfere with health and well-being. (The stressors that “doing school” at home might be one of them.)

Learning together while easing family stress

We have offered just a few ideas for how schools could integrate learning activities with the things that families are doing every day.  The first step to doing this would involve talking with children and families about their daily lives: using the bridge that has opened between home and schools to cross both ways.

We are suggesting that this kind of integration could perhaps ease some of the stress that many households are experiencing at this time. Rather than adding additional, unrelated chores to family life, and forcing parents into untenable roles as disciplinarians while managing household tasks, families could better attend to their own health, well being, and social-emotional needs – which are surely greater than ever during this time. Schools would be supporting families in developing or solidifying practices that could enhance their well-being for the long-term.

For sure, this kind of creative, relational and dynamic approach to learning might not ensure that kids are prepared in exactly the same way for standardized tests at the end of the year. And projects like this might be hard to grade in equitable ways, especially given the diversity of household experiences. It requires creativity, adaptability and flexibility on the part of teachers – teachers who are also experiencing tremendous stress due to the pandemic.

This returns us to the first lesson outlined above: that practices can and do change very quickly when circumstances force them. Perhaps it’s time to re-imagine accountability processes to better respond to the needs and realities facing children, families and teachers during an incredibly challenging time.

And perhaps this re-imagining could help us make much-needed, substantive changes for education in the future as well.

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