As the school bells replace the dings of back-to-back Zoom class, masked faces trickle into classrooms across America. After more than a year of online classes, students, teachers, and parents brace themselves for the aftershocks of the pandemic’s effect on education. Unquestionably, the isolation from shutdowns, watered-down virtual remote learning, and countless other adjustments of the multi-headed COVID dragon has affected the mental health stability of families and educators.
But buried deep in the layers of crisis lay slivers of light, the pressure of immediate adjustment births jewels of opportunity and innovation for educators and families. For students with disabilities and pre-existing social disorders, remote learning freed them from their perceived terrors of a classroom cage. Evident in sudden spikes of self-confidence and academic performance, the enforcement of online learning brought upon a safe space that instilled peak levels of self-acceptance among this particular group.
Searching for the Bright Side During the COVID Crisis
In search of the bright side, NonGirly spoke with Lauren Katzman, Executive Director of Urban Collaborative. Katzman has one mission: to provide effective, equitable, and inclusive educational practices for students with disabilities. Katzman engages with over 100 school districts across the nation to improve students’ educational outcomes and life opportunities. During the early stages of COVID, she paid close attention to the crisis response among educators and families of various communities. By doing so, she was able to witness new habits and innovative practices she believes are worth keeping.
“The pandemic has been horrific, there’s no question about that,” Katzman said. “But in every crisis, there’s got to be opportunity. Therefore, I think there are a lot of lessons about how students learned, how schools functioned and how we connected schools and families.”
How a Crisis Pushed Us to Be Better
For starters, communities concurrently came together in record time for the mammoth task of providing digital access to education inside millions of households.
“School systems across the country have been trying for the longest time to get one-to-one technology for students,” Katzman said. “And within weeks, maybe a month, everybody now has one-to-one technology. There’s no way we could have planned to do it that fast, and BOOM, we just did it.”
Breaking out of the rigid bell schedule and in-person curriculums allowed for flexibility and a self-paced approach in absorbing material. This gave students a new sense of empowerment and decreased levels of pressure and anxiety. It also allowed educators and parents to adapt to students’ learning styles from home. Constant communication and other benefits of online platforms made tailored teaching and remote learning possible. For parents, hoping their children to excel during in-person learning can be as simple as maintaining open communication with teachers about the dynamics of the classes.
Challenging Old Ways to Open New Doors
Beyond bringing the flexible classroom home, remote learning provided access to specialized virtual services for kids with disabilities. It’s these types of developments that Katzman advocates for the permanent implementation of technology at a hybrid level. She recounts a story of a girl with a phobia of attending school. Her grades suffered, she dealt with constant suspensions, and overall had a terrible middle school experience. But, during COVID, when she got into online classes for her first year of high school, she flourished! In fact, she even sustained Honor Roll throughout the year. As schools open back up, unfortunately, the girl is again terrified to walk through the hallways. By all means, her progress is at risk upon returning to the in-person classroom.
“We do want to make sure she’s not school-phobic and work on that, but why can’t we take some of what worked, and maybe we do a hybrid model,” Katzman said. “We have options on helping them work on the school phobia, while still getting them to be academically stronger.”
A Fresh Look on Teamwork
The benefits of remote education were good not only for students but also for their families. For example, many families were able to spend more quality time together and reinforce bonds. Kids and parents also had to work together in building new routines around remote life. This led families into instilling soft skills in organizational and time management. Families that choose to maintain these new habits could lead students to better performance in school. Plus, this can help students establish an early foundation for preparation into higher education and the workforce.
Silver linings were also indisputable on a national communication level within the Urban Collaborative. Where shutdowns removed in-person interactions and engagement, the instant virtual access to their national network allowed for collaborative problem-solving at the drop of a Zoom link. New cross-country connections established a diverse way of communication and solutions that can still be beneficial in a post-pandemic future.
High Hopes for a Post-Pandemic Future
“There are pros of the pandemic that we can take out of it. So, it would be very sad if we couldn’t do that,” she said. “I implore my special education colleagues, because a lot of the innovation in education starts in special education. And to be bold, and just speak about what’s worked.”
Katzman’s hopes for a future where we can build on lessons beyond the recent pandemic past, one that will benefit both students with and without disabilities. For her, accepting and overcoming some of the barriers brought on by her own disability with Attention Hyperactive Disability Disorder introduced a career pathway that serves hundreds of thousands of children and young adults. Her mission is to implement the educational benefits from the pandemic as a starting point for teens across the country to begin a path of self-love and acceptance within a safe space. This is a space for personal and educational development that Nongirly will not ignore.