by Kyleen Gray
I have heard many people speak of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic. I understand that humans have a wonderful tendency to try to see the good in terrible experiences, but in reflecting on the pandemic I just can’t seem to find much good to mull over. What does come to mind are the cracks in our educational systems that the pandemic uncovered, revealing how fragile our carefully constructed systems really are. We must identify these cracks, acknowledge that they could reopen, and attempt to patch them before another crisis occurs.
Crack #1: Inequity
Inequity was the foremost “crack” that the pandemic revealed in nearly every aspect of society. In education, this presented itself as a lack of resources for low-income families, including: students’ access to technology, a safe place to learn, support at home for learning, and supplies and services provided by schools (food, medicine, counseling).
The reality is that students from low-income families did not have the same opportunities as their peers for continued learning throughout the pandemic. They faced a variety of barriers to education that for the most part could not be overcome. Many of them simply “signed off” for two years, creating massive learning gaps.
Considering what we now know, boards of education need to create emergency plans for how to deal with similar situations in the future. How will we deal with the realities of income inequity the next time students can’t be in our school buildings? How do we more effectively extend the support schools offer beyond our physical walls?
Crack #2: Safety
Throughout the pandemic, “safety” was the subject of nearly every meeting or email from educational administrators. When you read the words “It is with safety in mind that…”, you knew some new protocol was on its way.
Despite the best efforts of schools working with health officials, nearly every school in North America was shut down at some point due to a COVID outbreak. We masked, hand sanitized, distanced; we did it all, but our efforts couldn’t match the speed with which the virus could infect an entire school population.
The realization that schools are essentially petri dishes wasn’t a new one, but I don’t think anyone realized just how unsafe they were when faced with a highly infectious disease. COVID-19 won’t be the only infectious disease that spreads in schools. We need to come up with a better health infrastructure that will prevent viruses from spreading so quickly if schools are infected, thus allowing schools to stay open for longer in the event of an outbreak.
Crack #3: Academic Honesty
I’ll be honest: I’ve always been incredibly wary of the academic honesty of online learning. The fact that there is not really any way of watching students complete work authentically has really bothered me, and as a teacher of online summer school the number of plagiarism cases I encountered was regularly four to five times the number I would encounter in a physical classroom.
With the advent of school-wide online learning, academic dishonesty became a pandemic of its own. My cousin, a first-year university student, recently shared with me at a family dinner that nearly half of the first-year students in her program had either been expelled for academic dishonesty or cheated so much throughout the last year that they completely bombed the exams that were proctored at the end of term; most of them dropped out. Similarly, at our staff meetings while teaching online, the topic of “authenticity” of student work came up constantly, with teachers reporting everything from students using Facetime to complete tests “together” to family members completing assessments for students—and, of course, the old trick of simply copying and pasting from the internet.
The past two years of online learning should be a major wake-up call to all educational institutions. For online education to be academically honest, new systems need to be implemented—whether that be technological watch dogs of some kind or proctored assessments with full cameras. Despite the end of the pandemic, online education is not going away. This leaves us with the question: how can we make online assessment reliable and honest?
With the COVID-19 pandemic behind us (hopefully for good), we need to address the flaws in our educational systems that turned into major issues during the pandemic. How can we seal these cracks so that the next time our world faces a crisis, our systems of education can weather the storm?
Kyleen Gray is a teacher and literacy program leader at a small, rural school in Ontario, Canada, with over 15 years of teaching experience both in the classroom and on e-learning platforms. Her teaching style focuses on using 21st-century teaching methods, literacy development, and cross-curricular learning.