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Five Illinois educators on a year of disrupted learning — and what students need now

Ashley McCall teaches her students remotely.

Chicago teacher Ashley McCall, pictured here teaching remotely, said the pandemic should drive more conversation about how to rethink traditional schooling moving forward.

Courtesy of Ashley McCall

It was a year that no one was prepared for and few saw coming: Wednesday marks 365 days since the coronavirus pandemic forced Illinois to close school buildings across its 852 districts. 

And while the vast majority of Illinois districts have since reopened some classrooms, only 1 in 5 Illinois students had the option for full-time, in-person learning as of March 15, according to a state dashboard. 

It’s too early to assess the long-term impact of the disruption. Depending on whom you ask, there’s a different take on how much learning has been lost and what should be done about it. 

With more Illinois districts reopening, and billions more federal aid on the way, Chalkbeat Chicago asked outstanding educators in Illinois to reflect on the past year, what they’d argue their students need now, and what lessons they hope to carry forward. All five educators featured below are finalists for the 2021 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. Their answers have been lightly edited and condensed for publication. 

Shamika Keepers teaches her students remotely.

Chicago kindergarten teacher Shamika Keepers

Courtesy of Shamika Keepers

Shamika Keepers, kindergarten teacher

Bronzeville Classical School, Chicago

Her classroom a year later: Currently, my school uses our asynchronous time to address learning gaps identified via ongoing assessments. We divide the students into small differentiated groups and provide a weekly schedule for students and families. Families do their best to ensure students are logged on during their scheduled time and we provide interventions and enrichment. 

What students need now: I am not concerned with my students’ academic achievement. My concern is their social emotional well-being. Schools should implement a revised schedule with a dedicated daily social emotional block. Instead of only emphasizing this push to make sure students are caught up academically, we should also be allowed to develop our learners in other areas. It’s imperative that students and teachers have the time to build relationships, foster student voices and create a positive classroom community of thinkers and learners without the pressures of strict adherence to standards-based pacing.

One pandemic lesson she’ll carry forward: To integrate more social emotional lessons throughout my instructional day. Remote learning has allowed the autonomy to focus more on SEL, and I want to continue that. 

Anh Pham, special education teacher

Joseph Academy, Melrose Park

A portrait of Anh Kim Pham.

Special education teacher Anh Kim Pham

Courtesy of Anh Pham

Her classroom a year later: I work at a therapeutic day school, which services students with severe learning, emotional, and behavioral disabilities. For most of my students, I feel the pandemic has negatively impacted their academic achievement. Especially for students with special needs, the consistency and support that school provides is essential. The time away from school has widened the gap for them and hurt their social emotional well-being. 

What students need now: Summer school is written into all of our students’ educational plans and will be used as part of the learning recovery process. In addition to that extra support, my students just need a consistent routine. Summer school will provide them an opportunity to get back into the groove of school and hopefully get back on track.

One pandemic lesson she’ll carry forward: Throughout the pandemic, my families and students welcomed me into their homes through remote learning. This gave me a first hand look into the family dynamics and home situations of my students. 

Ashley McCall, third grade bilingual English/Language Arts teacher

Chavez Multicultural Academy, Chicago

Her classroom a year later: I am teaching similar content. I have made instructional adjustments to ensure depth over breadth. The direct instructional minutes are fewer than they would be in person, but students are still learning and growing. This time last year students were each reading self-selected biographies and putting together biography presentations. Right now, students are reading appropriately leveled, digital biographies. 

What students need now: The pandemic has revealed longstanding fractures in our social systems and these failures have impacted the experience of students in the last year as much as the dynamics of remote and hybrid learning. When students do return to the classroom full time, we’ll also need to invest in adequate social emotional supports. Resocialization is going to be a challenge that will be just as important as the assessment of content gaps.

One pandemic lesson she’ll carry forward: Traditional schooling was not working for many students. Remote learning has worked for some. How are we evaluating what is working for students at specific schools and within districts? How are we planning to integrate new learnings, upgrade students’ technology use in the classroom, and more creatively differentiate for learning styles? We need to talk about all of these things.

Janine Rodrigues, second grade teacher

Scammon Elementary School, Chicago

A portrait of Janine Rodrigues.

Chicago second grade teacher Janine Rodrigues

Courtesy of Janine Rodrigues

Her classroom a year later: I have not changed one thing about the content that I am teaching. If anything, I have expanded on my yearly units and gone even more in depth to ensure understanding and enhance classroom discourse, knowing that students don’t have me there in person. I’ve chosen rich mentor texts to guide reading lessons, virtual field trips to enhance social studies, conducted science experiments in my kitchen, kept our same math routine with a mix of daily review on multiple concepts and real life world problems. 

What students need now:  At the moment, (my school) is in the process of planning after school learning and summer learning. Whether or not this will be virtual or very small class sizes in school is yet to be determined, but we are trying to devise a plan. Many of us are already tutoring after school hours, on our lunch breaks, or during async work to meet the needs of any students who are struggling or need extra attention. Reading is always at the forefront of my mind. It has been hard to teach reading through the screen: Reading is a complex process requiring both decoding strategies and comprehension strategies used simultaneously. Reading is also quite social — and social is something we do not have the luxury of at the moment. 

A pandemic lesson she’ll take forward: I have had to find better ways to evaluate students, because pen and paper or formal testing in the middle of a pandemic isn’t fair. I started taking observational notes. For example, I use an observational checklist for classroom discussion that allows me to tally every time a child shares out in class, and I also have a check-off for whether or not their comment was meaningful and relevant to the lesson. Another tool I use daily is a reflection notebook where I write down new information I learn or see daily on each child. This is probably the best piece of evaluation because it’s open ended so I can write as much as need be or even question what is working and what isn’t.

Sara Magnafichi, first grade teacher

Admiral Byrd School / Community Consolidated School District 59

A portrait of Sara Magnafichi.

First grade teacher Sara Magnafichi

Courtesy of Sara Magnafichi

Her classroom a year later: COVID-19 has impacted everyone. In some ways, I definitely feel that it has impacted student achievement, while in others I feel that it has brought out the best in many. As a class, we were able to explore learning targets at a deeper level, in ways we might not have prior to the pandemic. Students who were often quiet and shy in a classroom setting felt much more comfortable using their voice in a Zoom session. They quickly became leaders within the class, participating on a regular basis. 

A pandemic lesson she’ll take forward: Many parents have been more involved than ever because they are able to join a Zoom call with a teacher from any location, whether it be from home or on a work break. This is such a great opportunity to reach out to our parents and have conversations about what worked and what didn’t. We should also have similar conversations with our students. 

What students need now: Students still need help with reliable Wi-Fi. We were all remote for the first half of the year — and some of our students continue to work remotely. My district provided hot spots for families in need of Wi-Fi; however, we ran into new issues.  Many of our students live in a very tightly populated area. With so many hot spots pinging off the same cellular towers, the tower could not support the infrastructure. As a class, we had to quickly learn how to use various sign language signals to communicate, all while students struggled with echoing, lagging sound issues, and freezing, which made communication almost impossible at times.  


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