Looking back on two years of pandemic education

Zoom is open on a laptop with class notes on the side. Sophie Dolan / The Tufts Daily

The pandemic has forced a reckoning in all aspects of education. While initially blindsiding educators and administrators across the world, looking back on the past two years, this process seems to have been a long time coming. COVID-19’s impacts on education continue to devastate, but they have also revealed the possibility of a new way forward — a more thoughtful, if complicated, way of teaching that emphasizes individual learning styles and allows experimentation to lead the way.

When Tufts students were first sent home in March 2020 due to the pandemic, the TCU Senate Education Committee, then chaired by senior Iyra Chandra, immediately sprang into action. The Committee called for Exceptional Pass Fail (EP/F) grading to offer more accommodation to students whose education had just been upended. Later recommendations included encouraging professors to record class Zoom meetings and enable closed-captioning on Zoom calls.

“A lot of the shift [during the pandemic] became how to make … learning more accessible for students, but also make teacher-student relationships easier with COVID,” Chandra said. “Because I think there’s definitely a communication gap that just inherently happens when everything is online.”

To that end, the Education Committee passed a resolution calling for all courses in the fall 2021 semester to have some in-person component. The Committee also presented at a full faculty meeting to give advice on how professors can best accommodate their students. While these actions did not result in an institutional policy that faculty must adhere to, the Committee’s work has still improved the lives of students.

“[Senate has] realized in the last two years that it’s helpful to bring things up to faculty members and admin even if it doesn’t result in an actual concrete change because, in the lives of students, if their teacher changes how they’re doing things, it’s still a concrete change,” Chandra said.

The forced experiments of the past two years have provided educators and administrators a host of considerations for the future. Many of these are hopeful — the benefits of Zoom mean it is likely to grace computer screens for years to come — but they are tempered by countless challenges that the pandemic highlighted and created.

“Learning how to do things collaboratively online is a strength, and so I think that some professors who have figured that out in a good way will continue using some of those programs,” Chandra said.

Chandra noted virtual classes are much more comfortable for some students, especially those with learning disabilities.

Hazel Ostrowski, a first-year orientation coordinator, enjoyed being able to fast forward in pre-recorded lectures and felt more at ease attending virtual office hours.

“It can be really intimidating, especially as a first-year, to go to professors’ office hours and only have one question … but the virtual aspect of that I feel really helped me during COVID to actually go and meet my professors, so it broke down some type of barrier,” Ostrowski, a junior, said.

Some new procedures outside of the classroom have improved student life as well. Patti Klos, director of Dining and Business Services, sees Tufts’ Mobile Order app and takeout model as a success, despite initial issues. The takeout model offers more flexibility with students, and has been popular.

“I loved going to Dewick my freshman year and sitting down, but sometimes you don’t want to … sit there and eat your whole meal,” Ostrowski said. “Now you can ask for a to-go container … and you can also sit in Dewick now.”

However, there have been plenty of unsuccessful efforts to adapt to the pandemic. Many accommodations did little to ease the incredible stress for students and staff of living in such uncertain times, perhaps the most detrimental impact.

“Everybody’s just on edge at all times, especially being an RA — I was an RA in the spring — and having to remind people to wear their masks and having to hold other people accountable,” Ostrowski said.

Steve Cohen, senior lecturer in the Department of Education, believes the biggest fumbles during the pandemic were not specific actions, but rather opportunities for action that were not taken.

“I don’t, unfortunately, think we learned an awful lot, because we didn’t try very much,” Cohen said. “Most K-12 systems nationwide did not handle the pandemic particularly creatively … For most of them, they just tried to do online what they do in school.”

Tufts’ Educational Policy Committee, a group of faculty and students that works closely with the TCU Education Committee, identified a racial divide created by the EP/F policy which it hopes to reconcile in the future.

“In the course of analyzing which students took EP grades, we discovered a large discrepancy between Black students’ grades and others: Black students in general received lower grades than Latinx students, who had lower grades than white or Asian students,” an EPC report stated.

The EPC further noted students chose to take EP grades to avoid getting low grades, but found many students considered B+ low enough to take an EP grade.

“We have spent the spring thinking about how to fix the inequities in the grade system and how to combat the grades-first mentality so many students developed in the course of trying to earn admission to a selective college,” the report stated.

The largely successful efforts of Tufts Dining were not without issue either. While meal swipes were accepted at all dining locations last year — in addition to the two dining halls, Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run and Pax et Lox — Klos said this was an unsustainable change.

“The other locations are designed to provide services for third- and fourth-year students, graduate students, staff, faculty and visitors,” Klos wrote in an email to the Daily. “They do not have the production or service capacity to accommodate all the undergraduates, which is why meal swipes are generally restricted in these locations.”

These lessons have informed a range of new ideas going into the 2021–22 school year. This fall is a critical point that will demonstrate whether or not lasting positive change has come out of the pandemic.

“Everybody in some capacity has some type of trauma from COVID and the past year, and doing some type of personal work to reflect on that and acknowledge that year was really hard, and it’s okay to not go back to your previous self,” Ostrowski said.

The transition will be difficult for everyone, but it has the potential to improve the education of many. Many colleges, including Tufts, have long considered making standardized tests like the SAT and ACT optional for admission, and saw the pandemic as a good opportunity to try out the practice.

Cohen enthusiastically supported the action, hoping students’ individual differences can be considered more carefully in the college admissions process.

“[Students] have different strengths and weaknesses, and one of the most important jobs of a teacher is to understand who your students are so you know them and can help them learn in the best way possible,” Cohen said. “And yet, recognizing that students learn differently, we then give everybody the same assessment.”

Ostrowski explained that freshman orientation this year did largely return to its pre-pandemic form, with a few key lessons from the last year. Most social events were held in-person, but more administrative programs, such as placement exams and alcohol/drug trainings, occurred virtually over the summer. A few virtual orientation events, like game and movie nights, allow those concerned about the rapidly spreading Delta variant to participate socially as well.

A path forward that takes into account individual students’ differences, the stress of a rapidly changing world and an honest appraisal of what students should take away from their education brings inherent complexities.

Without relying on standardized approaches, assessing students is difficult, but such streamlined ways of educating never effectively represented students or enabled them to make the most of their education. 

The trade-off is well worth it, though. Constant experimentation and analysis of the results could provide much better solutions to issues that have long plagued U.S. K-12 and higher education. A compassionate and critical thinking-centered education system could go far to maximize students’ potential, creating a more able and well-adjusted population.