College of Education faculty offer tips on returning to K-12 classes

First published in Around the O on May 19, 2021.

Returning to the classroom after a year’s worth of pandemic-induced absence is sure to spark a range of challenges and stresses for students, teachers and parents alike.

Leaving the safety of Zoom and being among masked-up peers and others, along with the stimuli that accompanies being in public for the first time in a year in a classroom setting, will affect everyone differently.

However, College of Education faculty members Jennifer Ruef and Sarah Stapleton have advice for parents and teachers to help address some of those concerns, how to approach the coming summer and what opportunities to do things better may have emerged over the past year.

Kids will still learn

One of the biggest concerns you hear about is the idea of “learning loss” — that kids will have forgotten much of what they’ve learned over the past year or backtracked during remote learning.

Jennifer Ruef said not to worry.

“Learning loss is a misleading term, and likely to cause anxiety,” said Ruef, an assistant professor who teaches best practices for learning and making sense of math and was a longtime math teacher before that.

“As humans, we are constantly learning,” she said. “The question is what were kids learning in this time of COVID? And then how can we leverage that? Kids are going to come back to schools with really varied experiences having been at home or away from school for about a year. What's worth hanging on to? How can what kids bring into schools be part of where we're picking up?”

Reuf said people should plan for flexibility.

“Look for every single way that a kid can show you that they are meeting the standards that you require for them to earn credit in your class,” she said. “Find a way to keep those kids moving along.”

Social situations

Everyone — students, teachers, parents — will have to go through a period of adjustment after being away from classmates and friends and the daily social interactions that come with that.

Ruef said patience is the key as everyone reacclimates to being among people in real life again.

“I think just as adults are trying to figure out how to do that, we need to have some patience with how kids are going come back and reconnect with their peers and reconnect with teachers,” Ruef said. “I suspect that learning how to sit in classrooms and just be present, just paying attention to something that's not a screen, may be a challenge for some of our teens.”

Mental health awareness

The pandemic and its myriad effects have taken a toll on educators, students and parents in different ways, and everyone needs to keep that in mind in the coming year.

“Parents: Give yourself some grace,” Ruef said. “We have all had a very challenging year. It was not your job to make sure that your kid had a truly excellent educational experience this year. Whatever you did, let it be enough.”

Teachers should be mindful of experiences students could be bringing with them into the classroom, such as the loss of a family member, or someone who was out of work or facing food insecurity.

“I think it's important to acknowledge the challenges that kids have faced and then not simply define them in terms of that trauma but to consistently see kids as capable of brilliance and full of knowledge and assets that they can bring with them,” Ruef said.

Supporting teachers

Teachers, administrators, support personnel — they’ve all been working double and triple time since last March, and one key step parents can do is to put their trust in them as in-person instruction resumes.

“Every teacher I know is working their heart out,” said Sarah Stapleton, an assistant professor in the UO Department of Education Studies and an affiliate faculty member with the UO Environmental Studies and UO Food Studies programs who taught the sciences to middle and high schoolers before coming to the UO. “They're also frustrated because it's impossible to feel like you're serving everyone's needs given the situation.”

After playing a larger role in their children’s education during the pandemic, parents shouldn’t completely step back once their kids return to school, Stapleton said.

“Parents and schools should always be in partnership,” she said.

Ruef added that parents should see their children’s teachers as allies and resources for help during the transition back to the classroom.

“Please find some way to thank your kids' teachers,” Ruef added. “I don't know if it's possible to express enough gratitude for what they're doing.”

Taking advantage of opportunities

In some cases, some subjects, such as science, were marginalized during the pandemic because of the challenges brought along by remote teaching and the hurdles to hands-on learning opportunities. And if there was ever a time that showed how important understanding science is, it was the past year, the faculty members said.

Ruef and Stapleton said there are numerous ways to keep kids engaged in learning without even trying.

“We live in a beautiful place, so go hiking and just take them outside,” Stapleton said.

She recommended using several available apps, such as Seek and Merlin, that can help users identify plants and birds respectively.

Household tasks like cooking, gardening or shopping offer other ways to include math problems into your daily routine, Ruef said.

Silver linings

Changes implemented during the pandemic also illustrated valuable lessons that can be applied going forward.

“Zoom and other digital tools have given us a lot of options to do things online if we need to,” Stapleton said. “As an instructor, I feel like I have an expanded toolbox of instructional strategies I can use when we go back to in-person teaching.”

“If it's distance or illness or whatever it is that is keeping you from being physically present, there are now ways to include people in a meaningful way,” Ruef added.

After seeing how some kids thrived in an online environment, keeping an online component might be something schools will want to look at more closely, Stapleton said.

Stapleton also sees the pandemic as an opportunity to reexamine teaching environments.

“If we had better outdoor education infrastructure in our schools, we could have perhaps returned sooner and in safer ways or in ways that make families feel better,” Stapleton said.

One major need that came to light during the pandemic was the critical role school food programs play. Stapleton, whose research focuses on food-related issues, said food program employees and volunteers stepped up once schools shut down and found ways to still fill this critical need for many families.

As a result, schools redesigned many programs, partnering with nonprofits and others, to get food into the hands of families and students who were no longer gathering in a central location for school.

“This whole experience can really help us appreciate the essentialness of school food,” Stapleton said. “Let the food service workers know that they are appreciated. They've all been working ceaselessly throughout impossible situations.”

Summer ahead

With a year like everyone has had, once the school year is done, people should feel guilt-free in taking some down time and resist the compulsion to play catch-up over the summer.

“Turn the computer off for a long period of time — days even weeks,” Stapleton said. “Just take a break.”

“Prioritize the break,” Ruef added. “Because teachers and kids will be more resilient if they are more whole. Teachers are going to be more effective if their batteries are recharged. If you come in strong and ready to go, you're just much better off and everybody's going to have a better experience.”

By Jim Murez, University Communications