In my role as Mikva Challenge DC’s Issues to Action program director, my primary goal
is to support and uplift our educators as they work to support and uplift their young
people as students, leaders, and community problem-solvers. Usually, my work with our
educators happens through hosting professional learning community dinners and
trainings, spending time out at schools as a thought-partner, teaching guest lessons,
and through planning our citywide youth events to create spaces for their young civic
leaders to be heard, connected, and celebrated.
Now, in navigating the realities of COVID-19 and all that has meant for our students
and teachers, I have been working to figure out what it means to continue to provide
encouragement, resources, and spaces that amplify student voice, while also
acknowledging that our lives, our routines, our practices, have collectively—and
radically—shifted overnight. Many of the same challenges that our teachers and
students in this city face on a daily basis are now only exacerbated, which at times
renders me feeling powerless. However, instead of screaming into the void, i.e. the
walls of my living room, we at Mikva DC thought it would be more productive to highlight
some teacher voices from the frontlines as they have continued to serve this city’s
young people day in and day out.
In this spirit, we interviewed three Mikva DC educators in the hopes that their responses
could provide some valuable insight to the public, and to city leaders, into how distance
learning in the time of a global pandemic is directly impacting their practice, their
communities, and their students. Our hope is that these perspectives are taken into
account as school and city leaders work to make important decisions about what
academic and social-emotional learning will look for our young people like this fall.
Our participating Mikva DC educators are:
Zachary Larson, Pathways Coordinator, Ballou High School, Ward 8
Karen Lee, High School Social Studies teacher, Thurgood Marshall Academy, Ward 8
Deanna Vaughn, Middle School English Language Arts teacher, Brightwood Education Campus, Ward 4
What is it like to be a teacher or student support staff who is trying to support
your students from home during COVID-19?
Zack Larson: It has been very challenging. The main questions the students and
parents ask, I do not have the answers for as I await for policy to be released. It’s
important to provide care, compassion and communication during these unprecedented
times and provide students with assistance regarding their needs at this time. The
biggest challenge is ensuring that students remain on a schedule to complete course
work while adhering to their and their families’ needs.
Karen Lee: I have sat with my computer open trying to answer this question for the
better part of the day and I guess still don’t quite know how to. It isn’t easy- there are
even fewer boundaries for when my teaching day starts and ends than before. I do
better work in the mornings, but my students are mostly online in the afternoon and
evenings. So, I end up working really long hours and I am not the kind of teacher who
won’t respond when a student reaches out for help. I guess like most people, some
days are really good ones and I feel like I can connect and help my students through
whatever they are going through. Other days I feel pretty helpless – families are losing
jobs, the community is struggling to still stay home and social distance, the number of
COVID-19 cases in Ward 8 is increasing rapidly, my students have had to go out and
get jobs. I can’t help with any of that and all of it is more important than school right
Deanna Vaughn: Being a teacher who is trying to teach and support students from
home during COVID-19 is overwhelming and frustrating. It is overwhelming because
you have to familiarize yourself with and learn a whole new platform such as Google
Classroom and Microsoft Teams in such little time with little to no training. Trying to get
all the students’ emails or find ways to reach them has been a hassle. In addition,
navigating through the daily technical difficulties–that can be resolved quickly and in
person in the classroom–now adds more of a challenge when students are contacting
you saying that a powerpoint won’t load or they can’t hear the audio. When you are
also a teacher who finds assurance in knowing ALL of your students are learning,
interacting, and engaging with your instruction and learning material, it is defeating
when that number of engaged students has dwindled to about a quarter of the normal
engagement you see with your students inside the classroom. Finally, it has been a
challenge, especially when you view your home as your sanctuary to get away from the
strains of work ,but then you somehow have to force yourself to stay focused and
construct a makeshift workplace inside your own living room.
What are you noticing from your students as they engage in distance learning?
Zack Larson: I am noticing some students who are normally quiet and soft-spoken have
now taken advantage of the opportunities to connect with teachers and staff that
normally would not have. I am noticing that our students care for us as we care for
them. I have had a number of students, check in on me realizing that we are all human
and we are in this together.
Karen Lee: I teach mostly seniors and it feels a little like they are disappearing. We
had a lot of engagement at first when we thought this would be a few weeks. Some
students who were really quiet in class became more vocal and leaders in the lessons
and office hours. Others had a hard time finding quiet spaces so they were distracted in
trying to connect with their teachers. As more and more time has passed, the focus on
distance learning has changed. Seniors are realizing that their high school life is over and are already pivoting to think about next year. They are morning the loss of prom
and graduation and wondering what campus life will look like at colleges across the
country next year. Conversations are less about government and more about these
uncertainties. Most of my time is spend reassuring that we will figure it out as
information comes in and make sense of it together.
Deanna Vaughn: About 25% of my students have stayed the course and continued to
invest in their learning by viewing assignments, participating in video
conferences, meeting deadlines, and contacting teachers when they need clarification.
These students are highly motivated and quickly respond to feedback on Google
Classroom and Microsoft Teams.
There is another category of students who started off strong with distance learning, but
as the days have passed, they have lost interest and motivation. These students no
longer view assignments or bother to complete them, nor do they choose to participate
in any form of instruction. Some students also pick which teacher for which they will
submit work, and for others they fail to do any assignments. Another category of students are the students who never learned good time
management or organizational skills. They have expressed how overwhelmed they are
with the number of assignments that are being posted at one time. A large number of
them have given up and needed counseling and intervention to help.
The last category of students are students who do not have the resources or support
and have been unable to participate in distance learning.
What types of support do you think your students need the most during this
time? OR, What is something you wish more people (more city leaders?) knew
about the realities of distance learning in this time?
Zack Larson: I think students need social and emotional support at this time. A
number of students who are normally very social and are taking the pandemic seriously
are beginning to struggle with self-isolation and not being able to physically see and
interact with their peers and teachers on a daily basis. I wish more city leaders
understood the challenges our students face from caring for their families, mental health
issues and the lack of resources many families have. I wish city leaders knew how
fortunate Ballou High School was to have tablets on hand to distribute to students and
families the day before we all left for the pandemic.
Karen Lee: I wish more city leaders would understand that so many of the things that
students and families are struggling with are the same things they always are struggling
with – they are just heightened during this time. The digital divide has always been
there, the shortage of food and grocery stores have always been there and traveling to
and from places in this city has always felt unsafe. As DC rebuilds, there is a chance of making a real difference in the way the city runs and the role of students and families
should be centered in that. I also think we should learn from the citywide response of
“all hands on deck” to respond to issues that are critical to the health of our city:
reaching a no murder vision for DC, funding schools in an equitable manner, addressing
affordable housing. All of these issues could and should get the same whole city
attention, without it we will never truly be “safe and healthy.”
Deanna Vaughn: I think a lot of students need more social/emotional support than
anything else. For kids who need a lot of structure, this pandemic have upended the
routines and schedules that they were used to. I think a lot of students need help with
coping and with their emotions and feelings about not being able to come to school and
see their teachers and peers. Another type of support that I think students need during
this time is access to reliable technology and Wi-Fi. Moving forward, city leaders need
to consider allowing all students to have a laptop at the beginning of the school year so
that they have as many opportunities to learn the appropriate and professional uses of
technology outside of games and social media.