Students and Teachers feel long-term effects of a COVID classroom

Ally Guo | Staff Writer

Ann Vettikkal | News Editor

Although school is back in session, the past few months have been anything but a return to normalcy. 

The pandemic has hit the country with continuous waves, and an end does not seem to be in sight. On Election Day, November 3, the United States hit its second highest number of new COVID cases, a sign that the increasingly cold weather could be playing out as fuel for the virus’ potency and spread. This means that the guidelines that have been mandated by schools (masks, social distancing, in-person vs. online classes) are not going away anytime soon. More than two months into the school year, both students and teachers are witnessing the effects of an unprecedented learning environment.

The Mask Effect

When the school year first began, AP Statistics and Advanced Quantitative Reasoning teacher Stephen Mays noticed a decrease in engagement within his classroom. Students were less willing to converse with each other, whether to socialize or to discuss questions. Though conversation was still happening, it was “a little less natural,” and Mays said he believes masks were deterring discourse.

Similarly, French teacher Abigail Gist has found certain aspects of her regular instruction hindered by masks. Part of learning a new language is speaking, and masks make it difficult for her students to practice “forming their sounds” and proper “mouth shape.”

Masks have also inhibited nonverbal communication. Mays said it is much more challenging for him to read his students’ faces this year, which limits his ability to tell whether or not they understand his lessons.

Likewise, fifth grade Social Studies and Writing teacher Amy Whitling said it was not until she had to wear a mask that she realized how much she depended on her facial expressions to communicate with her students.

“I’ll mouth something to a kid across the room because I’m trying not to be obvious and call them out in front of their peers,” Whitling said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, you can’t tell that I just told you to close your Chromebook or sit down.’”

On the students’ side, junior Lyra Mamacos is part of Lori Roth’s AP Language and Composition class, which entails a large amount of collaboration modeled after the reality TV show The Apprentice. She emphasized the importance of mask-wearing and believes that outweighs any of its negatives, claiming that if “you realize that [masks] are going to protect you, then it won’t bother you as much.”

A Changed Classroom

Mamacos explained how it was her teacher Roth that was instrumental in creating a learning environment able to thrive despite these trying circumstances. Roth has created a balance of safety while still ensuring the passion and rigor of the course is kept alive. 

“She has been one of my best teachers in terms of in-school collaboration,” Mamacos said, as she explained how Roth has altered some of past traditions to fit social distancing and less interactions. “Most of our collaboration is flexible — it’s usually on zoom.” But Mamacos found that the virtual platform was effective, their meetings with her fellow team members at one time going from 7 pm to 2 am. The continued engagement, in her eyes, is because “it is a fun class — the activities are so engaging that you want to be in it.”

The effect of new safety guidelines extends beyond Mason City Schools. According to Shaobo Li, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas (KU) who teaches Business Analytics, though his courses were initially hybrid, with at least one in-person session a week, many of his students stopped showing up for coronavirus-related reasons, such as testing positive, being around roommates, friends, or family who tested positive, or developing symptoms.

In response to this, Li adapted his structure to be more like a remote course. Though he continues to teach in person, he opens up Zoom meetings and leaves video recordings for the students who do not attend — which eventually became all of them.

“I remember there’s one meeting [where] there [were] no students,” Li said. “In the entire classroom, there’s only one person — me. And I’m talking to nobody.”

The rise of remote learning and consequent feeling that teachers are “talking to nobody” has been worrying. Dr. Kathryn Leugers has been a licensed psychologist since 2008 and also owns a private practice. This past year, along with providing therapy to clients of all ages, Luegers has also written an initiative centered around COVID and calling on the state and larger organizations to help health and safety responders build resilience.

She explained why remote learning — or even social distance and less frequent interactions — can serve as an obstruction to creating a productive classroom environment. 

“Humans are social animals – we historically have lived and died by our ability to live together in a social context,” Leugers said. “There is well-established research that most people — infants through older adults — do very poorly psychologically and even physically when isolated from others.”

No Longer Face-to-Face

Quarantine — voluntary or not — is an obstacle hindering students and teachers across all ages and disciplines this year. 

 “I think the biggest challenge students are facing is the fear of being quarantined,” Mays said. “Students do not want to be quarantined for any reason. [Even the students] that choose voluntary quarantine, I get the feeling that [they] don’t want to choose, but they’re choosing it because they have the fear of missing out on something else.”

Leugers explained how this fear is actually based in science. “Chronic worry is correlated with increased cortisol in the body,” Luegers said. “Some research has shown that ongoing elevated levels of cortisol in human bodies is correlated with decreased immune system as well as increased risk of developing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health disorders.”

 correlated with decreased immune system as well as increased risk of developing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health disorders.”

Teachers are also affected when there are students missing from their classes. According to Li, one of the best parts of teaching is the “interaction with students,” and it was 

difficult for him to adjust when the lack of students transformed teaching into “talking to the laptop.”

Other teachers have also noted the impact new health and safety measures have had on relationships, both between students and with teachers.

“I had a student say, ‘Can I see you without your mask?’” Whitling said. “It kinda broke my heart, but we got to [wear masks] to keep everybody safe.”

Mays said masks have impeded his ability to recognize individuals. While he does still know all his students well, there have been instances where he struggled to match names to faces he can only see the top half of. Whitling has also observed some obstacles for her students in the cafeteria, such as being spaced out from friends on dots and being unable to hear each other through dividers. Additionally, Lee has noticed a massive shift in the overall atmosphere of the KU campus.

“When you’re on campus, you can feel [the environment] is totally different from before,” Li said. “The population is very low. You can hardly see people around you, and students are not allowed to top by [a] professor’s office. Communication and social networking [has] definitely [been greatly impacted].”

Overcoming the Obstacles

However, because of these challenges to relationships, Whitling said she was better able to prioritize both the bonds she was forming with her students and the content she was teaching.

“We were super intentional about making connections early on,” Whitling said. “I feel like in the back of everybody’s mind it’s been like, ‘How long is this going to last that we’re in-person?’ So I hit the ground running with relationships–and with writing because I was like, ‘I want to teach writing in person.’ I feel like it really made me more laser-focused on what matters.”

This type of active support may be vital as Mamacos noticed some students “kind of giving up” as she sensed “apathy” when she entered the school in September, both in regards to caring about their work and classes and ensuring the safety of themselves and people around them. 

To combat these sorts of emotions, Leugers gave advice on ways to, as she puts it, “rally resilience.”

“Stay present,” Leugers said. “Do something each day to build your personal resilience – take a walk in nature, talk to someone you truly care about and feel connected to, exercise, get good sleep, nutrition, and hydration, help someone you care about.” 

Overall, many teachers feel that both they and their students have adapted well to the situation. Mays has noted improvements in his classroom, with students increasing in engagement and acting the same way they used to. Whitling also said that there has been less of an impact on her classroom than she initially feared.

“I feel like I’m still able to get to know the students,” Whitling said. “I feel like [we’re] still trying to do group work, we’re still having good discussions. I feel like all those core elements of what good in-person instruction looks like are still there.”

It takes a bit more thought and effort to ensure safety, Whitling said, but ultimately, her students are still able to participate in most of the fun activities her classes have always done, such as creating dreamcatchers during the Native American unit.

In addition, there have been some positive changes made this year as well. Gist, who regularly allows her class to take breaks outdoors, said she loves being able to “take a break” and “get fresh air in the middle of the day.” She hopes this practice continues even after the pandemic.

Mays also enjoys the new schedule and hopes a version of it stays, saying it lessens the homework load of students when they only have three or four classes each day. He also believes people in general have become more personally responsible during the pandemic, whether it’s keeping better hygiene or making better use of their time.

In some cases, students’ academics are even improving. Based on test scores, Li said he thinks some aspects of his mostly-remote structure might be more effective than traditional in-person instruction. Student feedback to the new format has also been positive, despite Li’s belief that they are actually doing more work online than they would have done in person.

Overall, the general consensus is that the best way for teachers to support students and for students to support teachers is to provide understanding and forgiveness.

“There are young kids,” Li said. “They need [to] get together, but now they cannot. The flexibility is probably one way to support students, to make [it] not [as] stressful. [And] as a student, you should follow your instructor because they have been working hard to adapt to this new way of teaching, new way of learning.”

In addition, Mays encourages teachers to understand the different ways students might be stumbling and students to communicate with their teachers, who are more than willing to help them.

“Some students are adjusting to this situation just fine,” Mays said. “Some students are struggling with this in different ways. When teachers recognize that they have some students that are struggling, I think it’s important that they adjust and empathize with those students, like they would in any situation. And so I would encourage students to be open and honest with their teacher.”

As teachers strive to create as supportive of an atmosphere as possible, the circumstances that initiated this problem-solving and hard work will be long-lasting, meaning these conversations may be for the long-haul. Although Leugers pointed out specific groups that may receive the most psychological distress from this time (such as students transitioning to a new school or college freshman moving, oftentimes, to a new city) she believes that the entire public going through this shared experience will be affected, no matter the individual. 

“Everyone has their COVID journey,” Leugers said. “We all will be impacted by COVID for journeying through this time.”