Educators, Students Reflect on Lessons of Pandemic Year

Jane Chang teaches of Palm Crest Elementary School students in person after they returned to campus in March. Like other local educators, she provided only virtual instruction when the academic year began.

Last March, the world was upended by a pandemic that affected people in all walks of life, especially those in education. In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, students, teachers and administrators throughout California were forced to pivot to distance learning, a method of instruction that was not easy for learners.

“Personally, for me it was a pretty negative experience,” said Miye Sugino, a rising senior at La Cañada High School. “I don’t think it’s because of the way the school handled it. It was just not good for me to be at home all the time. I missed the ability to interact in real life.

“It was just a really difficult year in terms of general motivation and very limited screen team because the teacher’s presence isn’t the same, but that’s not their fault. It was the best they could do.”

In some ways, La Cañada Unified School District teachers did it better than others, and Sugino isn’t alone in appreciating their efforts. Despite the challenges that came with virtual learning, the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation received 147 recommendations — more than any previous year — for its Rose Harrington Educator of the Year Award.

The LCFEF received nominations and comments from parents and students from all district schools. One person wrote that a Paradise Canyon Elementary School teacher had “done an extraordinary job under hard circumstances. She is excellent at keeping the kids organized and making sure the parents are informed weekly. She has worked hard to build a classroom community and their engagement shows.”

An LCHS 7/8 student submitted a comment about one teacher who “helped me keep a positive mindset and I can always go to her for questions. She has impacted my life by simply being a marvelous and intuitive teacher and I thank her deeply. I always join the Zoom early just to chat with her.”

“That’s encouraging to hear,” Dan Yoder, a social science teacher at LCHS, said in response to the number of nominations for the Rose Harrington award. “It does surprise me a bit, but [distance learning] exposed a need for connections for students and teachers. This was going to make that connection with the teacher more impactful since everyone starved for it.”

Yoder, the most recent recipient of the teacher of the year honor from the La Cañada Teachers Association, added that the teachers he interacted with wanted to go back to the classroom as much as anyone, a comment that differs from other narratives reported throughout the state. Tumultuous discourses between districts, labor unions and parents about returning to in-person instruction led many to believe that teachers were hesitant to return to campuses because they simply did not want to work.

That wasn’t the case in the LCUSD. The district was one of the first to be granted a waiver by Los Angeles County to open for limited in-person instruction for its youngest learners and also quickly sought to bring back the remainder of its students when allowed. The LCTA came to the negotiation table wanting to return to campus.

“Our narrative here at LCUSD was not the typical narrative that you might have read in the papers,” said Superintendent Wendy Sinnette. “I don’t know the validity of that narrative. I can only speak for our experience, and our experience has been extremely positive.

“The teachers association has done its job. Its job is to meet the needs of learners and protect the interest of its members, and so our job obviously as a district is to ensure the best possible education for our students, even under the most difficult circumstances.”

It never was easy for LCUSD employees, who were offered professional development over the summer in anticipation that the 2020-21 academic year would start with virtual instruction. The fluidity of the pandemic caused so much uncertainty that teachers had to prepare for a method of instruction for which they weren’t trained.

“It felt a lot like your first year of teaching in a sense of you know you had to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” said Yoder, who had been integrating technology into his classroom for a few years prior to the pandemic. “When we shifted to online, you had to reinvent a lot of things.”

Cynthia Calm, an Advanced Placement math teacher at LCHS, certainly reinvented herself and said organization was key but also very difficult and taxing.

“It was a lot of work after hours and on weekends,” she said. “I had to force myself to be organized so kids knew up front what to expect. Planning was important because of the instructional minutes lost.”

The teachers weren’t the only ones burdened by difficulties that came with virtual interactions. Counselors too longed to connect with students, especially those who were struggling emotionally.

“It feels terrible to talk to group of kids when their screens are off and you’re talking to blank screens,” said Rachel Zooi, a counselor at LCHS. “I got a sense of what teachers felt, for sure. It was very hard for us.”

Morale was low early in the school year with teachers and counselors struggling to engage with students, but collaboration with colleagues and a few compliments from community members and students helped LCUSD employees power through the obstacles of remote learning.

“I think it was more of a roller coaster of a phenomenon with massive amounts of empathy and massive amounts of frustration,” said Yoder. “When looking at a screen of blank cameras, literally a wall of names, it’s really hard. Give me some sort of visual feedback that my mic is even on. I think that was when morale was lowest, when you didn’t get energy back from the kids.”

That energy and spark came to life when teachers were back in the classroom for limited in-person instruction this past March. LCHS reopened after the spring break, allowing its employees the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, which the teachers appreciated.

“I was of course a little scared but kind of relieved to be back in the classroom,” said Calm. “There were a lot of kids, a lot of chatter and we were so excited to be back and see each other. I remember telling them, ‘This is what I miss, you guys, hearing you guys talk.’ They were engaged with each other and laughing. That’s the part I missed and you can only hear that in person. You can feel the energy in the room.”

Parents and students throughout La Cañada Flintridge showed an appreciation for their teachers after a difficult year.

There is a silver lining to the distance learning experience for teachers, who added more tools to their collection through tech development. Calm said that she plans to continue using Google Classroom and that the virtual experience helped her see the benefits of allowing students have a discourse about math problems rather than just focusing on instructing.

Employees also reported seeing the benefits of having office hours this past year. From September through May, Calm said, she logged more than 600 virtual visits from students, and the district staff is looking into implementing some of these practices in the upcoming school year, which is expected to return to a normal, five-day-a-week bell schedule.

“It will give a greater opportunity to really look at things like independent study where a student may have to be away from the classroom for a while,” Sinnette said. “Can we deliver that instruction better? The kids really enjoyed the office hours too, and so we really have to be reflective on the year and ask ourselves, ‘What worked? What’s improved? What has been successful and how do we translate that going forward?’”

Counselors also benefited from virtual office hours with students. Initially, they would often send out emails and alerts to engage with students, a strategy that didn’t work well because of the fact that students were inundated with messages from their teachers. LCHS counselors got creative and connected with students in other ways.

“Students liked the private message function in Zoom,” Zooi said. “I set up a Google Voice account and was also able to connect with students using that. It can be intimidating to be on a screen face to face with teachers and counselors and keep them with their screens on.”

As a member of the peer support program at LCHS, Sugino also noticed that online learning encouraged some introverted students to reach out.

“There’s a lot of stigma about mental health, but when you have someone call from home in their private setting online, people are more comfortable because they’re not going to a physical place,” Sugino said. “I think it’d be good to learn what we can use in the future and hopefully create a better environment.”

For counselors and teachers, the clear takeaway from the turbulent year is the importance of connection, and they plan to continue finding ways to connect with students.

“For me, it’s certainly re-centered focus on how important connections are,” Yoder said. “I always knew it was important, but it is easy to drift toward curricular needs. Now, connection is front and center again, such an important part of the job is how you connect with people.”