Teachers, students, parents reflect on the year since COVID-19 closed suburban schools
There was cheering in some classrooms and hallways when the announcement went out a year ago that Illinois schools were closing amid the spiraling COVID-19 pandemic.
But for many parents it was a gut check, while teachers and administrators looked down the logistical and technological abyss posed by remote learning.
"I remember talking to our superintendent and saying, 'When we come back after spring break,'" recalled Lombard Elementary District 44 fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Gamboa. "He said, 'We're probably not coming back for the rest of the year' ... and I laughed."
On March 13, 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered Illinois schools to shut down in-person classes for two weeks to reduce the spread of the deadly virus. The temporary measure was extended with a statewide stay-at-home order enacted March 21.
Those first weeks were a "sprint," Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders said, "getting teachers and support staff access to the materials that had been left at school, getting more devices into the hands of kids ..., ensuring we could provide meals to families, ensuring low-income families had access to the internet, and preparing for remote learning for students."
Students and teachers didn't come back that semester, and some didn't return in the fall, either. One year later, many school districts are offering in-person instruction as well as remote learning.
Naperville North High School senior Tessa Devine couldn't wait to return to class in January but found "it was definitely very strange at first. It felt almost cold -- everyone had masks on, everyone was spread out.
"Now it's a lot more normal to me and I really enjoy seeing friends and interacting with teachers -- a huge part of school is the social aspect," said Devine, managing editor of the schools' North Star newspaper.
Euphoria, then reality
When school closure news broke, "everyone in the hallway was screaming and talking. It was a little bit chaotic, but it was honestly a bit joyful," Devine remembered.
"We had no idea what it was going to turn into. We were in the depths of the semester and everyone was exhausted, so a break seemed like the best thing that could happen. And, it was so weird to be living through something that felt so apocalyptic."
That euphoria faded as everything from field days to senior graduations evaporated, replaced by virtual events.
Just 10% of U.S. school districts were prepared in March 2020 to offer formal curriculum and instruction online, according to Advance Illinois, an educational advocacy and policy organization. The value of teachers was amplified for parents working from home and trying to remember what the lowest common multiple meant.
"I had to relearn long division," said Wildwood resident Candice Reimholz, who has a son in seventh grade and a daughter in fourth grade at Woodland Elementary School District 50 in northern Lake County.
But, "I feel grateful for the ages they are. If they were in kindergarten, it would have been a very different situation," she said.
"They miss their friends, but the kids have been thriving with e-learning" and plan to continue remotely until the new school year, Reimholz said.
Melissa Deegan of Naperville has two children in junior high and at high school who are attending hybrid programs in Naperville Unit District 203.
When lessons were remote, she bought new computer equipment, but "it made me realize that all the technology and materialistic things cannot replace the value of in-person learning," Deegan said.
With math, "it's very challenging to sit and watch a video and not have that engagement one-to-one with the teacher. Both of my kids missed the opportunity to work on math problems in class with peers, and that same issue transfers to science."
Teachers in their classrooms also felt the disconnect.
"As a teacher you want to do your best, and it's hard when it just isn't possible," said Gamboa, who took to wearing "crazy hats" and painting her face to keep her fifth-graders engaged.
Teaching math online was a particular concern, she said, because "you rely so much on being able to walk around and look at what they're doing," making observations like, "Oh, you forgot to subtract in this division problem."
But she's also "seen a maturity and empathy in students that I haven't seen before," Gamboa said. When her computer crashed, "I was so frustrated, but one of my students said, 'These things happen and we understand.'"
"Going remote sent shock waves across the entire state," said Jessica Ramos, director of community engagement for Advance Illinois.
"We have all experienced the pandemic, but the pandemic has not been felt equally. Students of color, students of low-income backgrounds carry a different weight."
Those findings resonate in Northwest Suburban High School District 214, said Superintendent David Schuler, who added that households with essential workers who couldn't work from home also suffered during the pandemic.
"We've all experienced levels of trauma to some degree, but (families) of first responders and those in poverty were disproportionately impacted," he said.
Another inequity was lack of internet access or inadequate technology facing some families.
Although school districts have made a herculean efforts to bridge those gaps since spring 2020, "Black and Hispanic households are still three to four percentage points less likely than white households to have reliable access to devices, and three to six percentage points less likely to have reliable access to the internet," a COVID-19 report on learning loss by consultants McKinsey & Company found.
'Getting right back up'
Sanders keeps a photo of his key administrators hunched around a table March 13, 2020, that's remarkable for two reasons.
One is the grim faces. The second is "we had no masks and no social distancing," Sanders recalled. "We really did not have enough knowledge at the time to know of the importance of those two mitigation strategies. That was the last time I have seen any of those team members in person without a mask."
A year later with vaccinations underway, Elmhurst Unit District 205 Superintendent Dave Moyer sees light ahead, but "people are exhausted," he said of his staff.
One concern is how the pandemic will affect academic performance, but many educators are withholding judgment given an absence of data. The research organization NWEA found in a study based on fall 2020 test scores that students in grades three through eight performed similarly in reading compared to 2019 but were 5 to 10 percentage points lower in math.
"It's been challenging for students and families and teachers, and there are a variety of areas where things are less than perfect. But for the most part, the majority of kids are learning and progressing," Moyer said.
"One thing we're going to find with this generation of students is that they are probably going to be the most resilient generation of students our country's ever seen," Schuler said. "They keep getting right back up, and that's going to serve them incredibly well as they get older."
Devine said she finds that "even the bad things taught me good things ... taught me how to be patient, how to be flexible, how to communicate." Amid a pandemic, "I was forced to deal with things and roll with the punches, and I think that's made me a better person overall."