Our reporters have spent the last 10 months speaking with students, parents, teachers and school district leaders around the country about what this pandemic school year has been like.
Few are sad to see it end. This school year was a rocky one, marked by a tough transition back to buildings after months of virtual learning and Covid outbreaks that continued to disrupt learning.
But as spring arrived, some of the difficulties began to ease. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, field days and large, in-person graduation ceremonies returned. In Philadelphia, assessment tests showed that older students had more or less caught up to where they were pre-pandemic, although younger students still lagged behind, said William Hite, the outgoing superintendent of the city’s schools.
“We’re ready to have a really difficult year in the books,” said Eric Gordon, who leads the high-poverty Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “We’re closing the year with a combination of optimism that things are getting better but also an exhaustion of, Wow, this was a really tough year.”
While the educators, parents and students we spoke with predict next year will be easier, they also worry pandemic stresses will leave a lasting mark. Tensions are high, and rancor is spilling into school board meetings, classrooms and hallways. “The people who you thought were nice, normal people suddenly have all these nasty things to say,” said Betsy Bloodworth, a parent in Greenville, South Carolina.
Still, many people we talked to said the last two years had changed them for the better and brought some positives to the education system. More devices got into the hands of students. There was also a greater openness to moving away from outdated attendance rules and curriculum requirements that don’t necessarily engage students, school leaders told us.
Here are some voices from our third round of interviews, in which we asked people involved with their local public schools for their reflections on how the past year had shaped them, and their predictions for the next school year, among other topics. The interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Richmond Public Schools, which serves a high-poverty student body, has struggled this school year with chronic absenteeism, continued Covid outbreaks and staff shortages. Student mental health is also an issue of acute concern, according to Superintendent Jason Kamras. The district will be holding an expanded summer school this year and is investing in mental health counselors and early literacy.
Katina Harris, middle school English teacher and president of the local teachers’ union
Next year will be a better year, definitely. We had this year to support our students, and we’ll have summer to support our students academically.
Our district has realized some of our challenges. They have put extra support in place to support us. I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but maybe it’s more digestible for staff. … We have classroom tutors now. Every day there are more adults. Reading coaches hold small groups as well. If the district continues to advise safety precautions and provide mental health support to staff and students, next year will be a year of growth.
A lot of the damage of Covid, though, you will see for the next 10 years. Some of our students lost both parents or they lost grandparents. The health problems, the inflammation in our children who are exposed to it. We’ve had staff who’ve had Covid, and now they have effects from long Covid. We are going to see the effects for a while. As we open everything back up and start to remove masks, we will still be impacted by it. It’s out there, it’s still present.
Jason Kamras, superintendent
Honestly, students aren’t in a great place. The social and emotional toll of the pandemic and now of this horrific shooting in Texas, the massacre in Buffalo, we’ve seen rates of suicidal ideation go up, bullying go up, abuse, referrals to child protective services go up, shootings in our own community go up. It’s a very tough time.
Going into next year our focus is really about providing stability to our kids, some sense of routine, some sense of normalcy. … We’re spending about $3 million of our federal stimulus on that, and then of course we will continue to be extremely focused on our academic efforts, in particular early literacy. We feel that for really the next 10 years that’s very important.
I think there’s a funding cliff that comes with the federal money that’s going to be a massive problem for public education. … I’ve said previously that out of the pandemic our schools need a Marshall Plan-like investment, and I just don’t see it. I don’t see the political will.
- 7,469 students
- 76 percent of students are white, 18 percent are Hispanic
Redmond is an agricultural hub in Central Oregon. Mask mandates in place at the beginning of the school year faced some resistance and were lifted in the spring. Students will walk the stage at graduation this year decked out in their full robes and caps.
Ben Lawson, band and choir director at Redmond High School
Things are back to normal. Like, we’re acting like things are normal. There’s no masks, there’s no restrictions. We can plan events like we always had before. But it’s just kind of weird trying to put the year back together. We’re trying to make up for lost time. And I think we’re kind of working ourselves to exhaustion trying to return to normalcy, and not really remembering: “Well, the first six months was just obscene.”
I’m definitely worried about mental health, and there’s a lot of kids that have depression and they joke about it a lot: “Oh, yeah. You know, my depression, my anxiety, my ADHD meds.” It almost becomes like a normal occurrence.
I’ve seen an improvement in the [students] that are around me, but there are definitely multiple kids that were in my program two years ago, and they kind of just trickled along and then they just disappeared. I have no idea where they’re at or what they’re doing. …
Those are the type of kids that really needed to be in high school and be in that community and have something like band to get them through. And I don’t know where they went. I can’t speak to the kids I don’t see. Those are the ones I’ve worried about.
Kami Karr, senior at Redmond High School
There are just so many weird things happening one after another. Even when we were in elementary school, like with the stock market crash, everyone moved. I moved. All my friends would have lost their houses. And then you get into middle school, and then, like, the internet starts becoming a thing. You have to start dealing with that as a young child. Kids are growing up really fast because of the internet, and then you get to high school and Covid happens.
- 198,645 students
- 52 percent Black, 21 percent Hispanic
The Philadelphia school district is among many nationwide facing a leadership change. The district announced in April that Tony B. Watlington Sr., the superintendent of North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury Schools, would replace William Hite, who led Philadelphia schools for a decade. Watlington joins the district as it tries to help students cope with Philadelphia’s high rates of gun violence and more than two years of disrupted pandemic learning. This spring, the district repeatedly dropped and then reimposed a mask mandate as Covid rates rose and fell.
Sharahn Santana, African American history and English teacher at Parkway Northwest High School
The students are adjusting. You can certainly see the growth that’s happening. … When we first came back, I was begging the students to say something, and now it feels more like a normal classroom again.
Next year, there are new variants, but I must say, I don’t think teachers, parents or stakeholders will address it the same way. It has kind of just become the new normal, living in the pandemic. We are trying to just get on with it.
The pandemic made me take myself and my students not as seriously. It made me really put things in their place and prioritize things. It’s really difficult to get me upset, whereas prior to the pandemic I was a bit more rigid and strict. Now I am much more trusting of my students.
I’ve had such wonderful relationships with my students that I’ve never experienced before, and I think it’s because of me seeing them so vulnerable, me being so vulnerable. I care about my students first as people.
William Hite, superintendent
We are seeing young people settle in and settle back into school. For many of our young people, particularly in the city of Philadelphia, they feel like schools for them are the safest place. It doesn’t mean fights don’t happen or students don’t misbehave. It just means they don’t feel like someone is going to open fire on them from a moving vehicle, and they do worry about things like that on their way to and from school.
That’s sad, that’s a sad state of what many cities are dealing with right now. We are going to have to continue to provide those social-emotional supports for young people and adults alike.
Anna Phelan, kindergarten teacher at Overbrook Educational Center
I am really hoping that next year is as normal as possible and as close to three years ago as possible. Realistically probably it won’t be, in the winter, but I’m hoping next year is as normal as possible.
The pandemic made me realize the importance of preschool, of early learning. I wish the country could do preschool and it could be free for everybody.
It was easier for teachers to recover from early learning academic losses, but social-emotional losses were a lot harder for us to recover from. The academics can be made up for, but the social-emotional is much more difficult. I will now spend a lot more time than I already did on social-emotional and making sure they know how to read and emotional skills and conflict resolution.
GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA
- 76,601 students
- 51 percent white, 23 percent Black, 17 percent Hispanic
With about 77,000 students, Greenville County Schools is the largest district in South Carolina. The district has been operating fully in person with masks optional since the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Of the $162.9 million the district received in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, Greenville is spending about 62 percent to combat “learning loss.” Its state-approved plan says the money will go to summer school, expanded content and credit recovery programs, and interventionists.
Betsy Bloodworth, parent of an eighth grade student and a college student
My general trust of people, I’m afraid, is lower. … Pandemic precautions and just general behaviors and attitudes — I think that it’s changed a lot of people. … The people who you thought were nice, normal people suddenly have all these nasty things to say.
My husband is an internist, and we were at a big internal medicine conference a couple of weeks ago in Chicago. The president of the internal medicine association said that the one greatest thing we have learned through the pandemic is that public health is no match for partisan politics, and I think that sums the whole thing up.
[Next year is] going to be another tough year for the schools. … The school has lost a bunch of teachers, but three of my son’s core subject teachers — English, social studies and science — have all left since Christmas. If every school has that much attrition of teachers, I don’t know how they’re going to have the staff to even staff the schools next year.
Anne Tromsness, drama teacher at the Fine Arts Center
I think the biggest change has been change, if that makes any sense at all. There’s just so much that’s been shaken up in our country, in our culture, in our education system. I think what’s changed about me is that I don’t want to go back without honoring what’s happened. I don’t want to return to normal … and now I don’t want to return without reflection.
- 37,000 students
- 64 percent Black, nearly 17 percent Hispanic, 15 percent white
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District serves a low-income population in one of the country’s poorest cities. Enrollment fell during remote learning, but the district was able to hold on to its students throughout this year, even if attendance was spotty, said CEO Eric Gordon. The district is investing in enrichment programs and summer learning in order to keep kids engaged. Roughly 3,000 students now come in early and stay late to participate in arts and physical education activities.
Jessica Boiner, home-based child care provider and parent of a preschool-age girl and a second grade son
Next year, I think, for my daughter, it will be good. I’m going to keep her at her private school. It is absolutely a financial sacrifice for my family. But I think it’s worth it because she’s been so happy.
I’m a little nervous about my son. One of the teachers at his school passed away suddenly over winter break. She was young. That’s the class he would have been going to next year, and he really liked her. It was kind of heartbreaking for his class and the teachers. I’m looking to see if the other teacher in the class stays or leaves. It worries me because I don’t know who’s coming in next. It takes him a while to warm up. My son has autism, and it took him almost to the end of the year to say something when he was in kindergarten.
Eric Gordon, superintendent
I’ve been in Cleveland 15 years, and 11 of them as the superintendent. I’m proud of the work we’ve done, but I would characterize the work we did pre-pandemic as rapid, continuous improvement. The work we’re trying to do now is much more transformational. That really arose out of the pandemic.
Kids just expect a much more engaging experience, and I’m trying to lead from a lens of, We can deliver on that. We can do more complex tasks kids care about. … We can make a more fun environment for learning. And we can use those tools to get better gains for all kids. It’s an approach I’ve always believed in, but as I’ve looked back, I’ve stayed more in the confines of the seat-time, credit-accumulation system. I’m challenging us to challenge those rules more aggressively than I was doing pre-pandemic.
- 2,700 students
- 68 percent Hispanic, 22 percent white, 8 percent Native American
Taos Municipal Schools serves about 2,700 students in northern New Mexico. The majority of the district’s students (81 percent) qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The district is investing in social-emotional learning and teacher wellness.
Orion Salazar, graduating eighth grader, Taos Middle School
Last year I was not paying attention in school because I had my TV and phone and all that. This year, I didn’t have anything to distract me. It was pretty cool to learn.
It started off a little slow because of the pandemic, but my math teacher helped me a lot. … Kids just need someone to pay attention to them, to show them they are listening.
Mark Richert, social and emotional coordinator, Taos Municipal Schools
I heard from quite a few teachers around February or March that they noticed, as far as academics, that kids were not doing well and they didn’t care that they were not doing well. That’s something new and I heard that message quite a bit.
Traditionally, teachers are always trying to connect and find a way to recognize the value of materials, activities and learning. And it seemed like a lot of teachers ran into some roadblocks with that.
There’s the idea of normal and people are talking about the new normal. I would say, Let’s forget the idea of normal and just reinvent things. That’s my hope.
- 400 students
- 66 percent of students are white, 18 percent are Native American
Fremont County School District 6, in rural central Wyoming, is spending about a fifth of its federal pandemic relief dollars on efforts to help kids catch up academically through summer school and extended learning time. But Superintendent Troy Zickefoose described it as “a battle” when the school board recently voted to add eight days to next year’s academic calendar. Public discussion of the changes, Zickefoose said, did not include much talk about academics.
Troy Zickefoose, superintendent
We had a little bit of a blowout in our community about adding eight days to our calendar. You would have thought the world had come to an end. … Not once did anyone mention academics. It was all about parent convenience.
People want public schools to be community centers, and day care, and social welfare agencies and feed-my-kid centers. The whole concept of public education being a place to learn — I’m waiting for that to come back again.
[When it comes to next year, I feel] a lot of hope, actually. There is a piece with this [Covid relief] funding that we’ve been able to spend on some curricular things that we’ve wanted to do for some time. The Census drove our poverty rates through the roof here. Our Title I budget [to support low-income students] doubled. If we can find them, we can hire more Title I teachers and interventionists, but that’s still a struggle. With people moving and quitting and trying something different, there’s just nobody to hire.
- 10,400 students
- 66 percent of students are white, 12 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are Black
In northwest Arkansas, Fayetteville Public Schools families and staff enjoyed a glimpse of normalcy this spring. End-of-year activities returned to the district after two years of interruptions. Fourth graders got to have their traditional field day. Seniors got to graduate with their entire class, instead of with just one-third of their peers. Singers got to have their chorus concerts and young thespians got to return to the stage. After a difficult winter, the end-of-year festivities were a balm for the community, even though Covid threats still remain.
Steven Weber, associate superintendent for teaching and learning at Fayetteville Public Schools
I definitely think we’ve learned to be more adaptable. We’ve learned more scenario planning and not just to plan for one or two outcomes. We’ve learned communication and how to communicate through multiple channels. We’ve learned, from an instructional standpoint, that we can use devices. But when we came back we were using the devices too much, so we’ve had to find a balance.
I believe some students got into some bad habits during the Covid pandemic related to attendance, and so we need to work with students and families to increase school attendance and make sure they’re on campus and they show up on time.
I certainly think focus groups help. A counselor can have a focus group, work through and talk to them. Quite often kids or parents will talk to you and say, This is what’s making me late. And then we can help them with transportation or whatever it is.
Maranda Seawood, student support specialist at Washington Elementary School
I’ve seen more trauma in the littles than I’ve seen in a long time. … Even now, with our pre-planning [for next year], I know the first few weeks of school, even though they want us to jump into curriculum like they did this year, we’ve got to really build relationships.
We’re prepared to make sure we love on them, first of all, when they get here. And then we’ll have a full week of routine procedures and building relationships. We’ve got to get back to that. I know what the administration wants, but we as teachers know what kids need, because we’re the ones in the building with them.
Evan Garner, father of four and rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
In our parish, we’ve had several members of our church who are not going back to in-person schooling because their children have flourished with virtual schooling. And they discovered that, and have maintained it. Not the majority, a handful. But in some ways it’s helped us either reaffirm what we know to be true about our children or maybe discover things that we didn’t know about how they can best learn.
I predict that [next year] our school system will have almost zero change, interruption, policies that anticipate or respond to local outbreaks, other than to ask people to stay at home when they test positive, and perhaps to have hand sanitizer. But it is almost impossible for me to imagine our local school system saying “we’re going virtual” or “virtual is a likely option.” … It feels like that ship has sailed.
PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, MARYLAND
- 128,777 students
- 55 percent Black, 36 percent Hispanic, 4 percent white, 3 percent Asian
Prince George’s County schools had an unusual school year compared with others in the Washington metropolitan area: It started the 2021-2022 school year with thousands of elementary students in remote learning, an option for parents that ended in January 2022. The district also extended remote learning for all students over the winter break, as omicron cases surged in the area. But as winter ended and the end of the school year approached, the district lifted some of its coronavirus restrictions, allowing prom and indoor graduation ceremonies to resume. However, the district maintained a mask mandate for students and staff through the entire school year; Chief Executive Officer Monica Goldson said the mandate would remain in place until the county vaccination rate reached 80 percent.
Alvaro Ceron-Ruiz, 16, junior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and student member of the Prince George’s County Board of Education. He was recently elected to a second term as student member, which he will serve during his upcoming senior year.
It took a bit for all of us to get back into the flow of things, but we are back to how things were before. It definitely feels more normal. Obviously the pandemic is not over, but it isn’t playing as active a role in our conversations as a school board. I’m glad we’re able to get some normalcy back.
I chose to run for student school board member again because of the passion I was able to develop over this year, and the awareness that one year really isn’t enough. A lot of your time in your first year is spent learning the procedures, practices and responsibilities of a board member. In the second year, you get a lot of time to do the governing.
The first thing I want to look into is our food — that’s something that students always want to see changed, but we never really see action. With the second term, I actually want to get on it. We’d bring in our food and nutrition department, different professions, individuals from the private sector who may be willing to offer better food. A lot of what our students were eating every day was pizza and french fries.
With Covid fading away, I feel more hopeful and more optimistic on what you can do in the school system. A lot of the limitations that you have are lifted, in a way.
This story about the end of the year was produced byThe Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.