One Year Later: From Shutdown Stress to Academic Success, Teachers and Students Navigated ‘Whirlwind’ Year Together

As Stephanie Knox followed the news early last spring, she sensed that COVID-19 would probably force schools to close their doors for a long period of time. 

“Two weeks,” said Knox, the principal at Prairie Heights Middle School in Evans, Colo. “I remember thinking that was a long time back then.” 

This was March 2020, when the unpredictable nature of the virus forced abrupt shutdowns of sporting events, restaurants, and all types of common gatherings few could ever imagine living without. In education, it meant schools nationwide were suddenly faced with the unprecedented challenge of replacing in-person classrooms with remote class Zooms. 

“We all did not know how long this was going to last,” Knox said. “We had no time to really think and prep and say, ‘OK, let’s really think through this plan of how we’re going to instruct students in this virtual world.’ But everybody came together and they did it. It was incredible to see.”

Even now, as more Summit Learning partner schools reopen their physical buildings to teachers and students, it’s hard for many to truly reflect on the past 12 months. It can feel difficult at times to gauge how much they’ve accomplished as educators when most remain focused on simply getting through the next day, week, and month. 

“It’s been a whirlwind of a year,” said Jason Garcia, who teaches seventh-grade science at Prairie Heights Middle School. “A year ago, I remember thinking that was the longest March ever. And now here we are in the spring again.” 

‘Everything We Needed Was Right There’

But even in those early days of stress and confusion, educators were given a daily dose of inspiration from familiar faces: their students. As drastic as it felt to no longer be in the same building, the learning continued for students who were familiar with navigating the Summit Learning platform and progressing on their schoolwork.

“Nothing really changed for most of us,” said Timia Smith, an eighth-grade student at Bailey Bridge Middle School in Midlothian, Va. “A lot of us were able to just continue where we last left off. Everything we needed was right there. Our resources never changed. Our access to teachers definitely never changed.”

At first, the accessibility of teachers was more practical. Smith remembers having a difficult time on a math assignment and being able to hop on a one-on-one video chat with her teacher to guide her through a problem. 

“He was more than willing to help me out,” Smith said. “After school closed, I think we were all struggling a little bit, but we were still able to be there for each other, even though we weren’t face-to-face.”

‘Mentoring Helped Us Understand Each Other’

As the spring progressed, connections between teachers and students took a noticeable shift from practical to personal. Educators credited Summit Learning’s self-directed learning behaviors and Habits of Success with enabling their students to stay on top of academic priorities. But it quickly became apparent that the mentoring component of the program would be the key to surviving and thriving in this new remote learning environment.

“Academics are important, but I wanted them to know that I care about who you are as a human being,” said Lauren Partma, a history teacher at McKinley School of the Arts in Pasadena, Calif. “In my mind, I went into that time saying, ‘Okay, they’re not going to remember dynastic China 20 years from now. But they are going to remember how I made them feel during this year. They’ll remember, ‘How did my teacher react to all of this?’

“That’s why I did my best to remain really calm and really positive to put the message out there that it’s going to be okay and we’re going to get through this. I’m your teacher, but I’m also your ally. I’m here for you.”

The social-emotional support went both ways, especially as the harsh realities of the world continued to make headlines throughout the year. Whether it was nationwide calls for anti-racism or the continued surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths, students and teachers relied on each other to work through their feelings.

“We get scared together, we get nervous together,” said Anita Hart-McNair, a teacher at Capital City Lighthouse Charter School in North Little Rock, Ark. “This year mentoring has helped us understand each other. They are my mentors, too, whether they realize it or not. It goes back and forth and being vulnerable allows them to see that I’m just like them and we’re going through the exact same thing.”

Hart-McNair said her biggest challenge this school year has been teaching in-person and remote students concurrently with several video cameras strategically positioned throughout her classroom. At times, it can be overwhelming and she often wonders if she is effectively connecting with each student. 

That’s why she plans on keeping personal relationships as a top priority going forward, even when the school days return to a more consistent routine.

“They need me, and I need them,” Hart-McNair said. “I don’t ever want to allow myself to be removed from the feeling that we have had this year of how attached we are to each other.”

‘A Full, Well-Rounded Education’

Nicki Chase, mother of high school senior Kenna Chase, would obviously have preferred her daughter to have a more “normal” final year at Classical Academy High School in Escondido, Calif., before heading off to college. But she selfishly admits that it’s been a blessing in disguise to have a daily in-home view of Kenna thriving.

“I’m not heartbroken that she’s here and coming to me to tell me she passed her content assessment, and she shared it with me because we’re all here in the same space,” Nicki Chase said. “I like knowing what’s going on in her life. I wish that she could have had more traditional senior year memories, but I’m just thankful that I get to have more moments with her.”

There is plenty of hard work ahead, but the one-year mark of the COVID-19 shutdown has served as a powerful reminder that it’s been a collective effort from school leaders, teachers, students, and parents to make the 2020-21 school year as engaging as possible.

Kelsey Tackett, who teaches science at South Floyd Elementary School in Hi Hat, Ky., recently received some positive affirmation in an unexpected setting outside of school hours.

“A parent stopped me at the grocery store and said, ‘I don’t feel like my eighth-grade student has had any less of an education than he would have if he were in-person,’” Tackett said. “That was one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever heard. 

“That feels really good that we’re pushing ourselves to step up and make sure that our students are having a full, well-rounded education.”

About the author

Summit Learning
Summit Learning is a research–based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Created by teachers with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn. With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. Summit Learning is independently led and operated by the nonprofit, Gradient Learning.