5 Challenges Teachers Will Face This Fall—and How to Address Them

Covid Challenges

March 2020 changed everything. This past school year was one of the most challenging in many teachers’ careers. While many of us adapted to remote, blended, or in-person teaching models with health and safety guidelines in place, our teaching styles changed forever.

Plans for the 2021–2022 school year continue to be updated and revised; however, the new school year will continue to pose challenges for teachers, ranging from social and emotional learning to classroom setup, especially with COVID-19 cases once again on the rise.

Teacher Challenges Due to COVID

In the coming school year, states and school districts will determine how to best proceed based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As a New York City teacher grateful to be working in an environment that still follows strict safety guidelines, here are some of my best guesses about what challenges teachers will face—and how to address them.

1. Following COVID-19 Safety Protocols

According to the latest CDC guidance, desks should be at least three feet apart whenever possible, and all individuals should wear a mask. If students aren’t wearing masks—such as when they eat lunch—they should be six feet apart. Based on New York City Department of Education recommendations, last year students ate lunch as they continued their lessons in what’s often referred to as “instructional lunch.” I know many of my students are anxious to have an actual lunch period again in the cafeteria, but it’s unclear if that will be possible next year.

In the district I work in, desks will need to be three feet apart and in straight rows, and everyone will be required to wear a mask. Vaccinations—which are available at this time only to children ages 12 and up—are encouraged but not mandated. Currently, there’s a push for most students to return to school buildings nationwide, ideally with normal class sizes. If students sit in rows in their classrooms, this can affect the potential for group work. Ensuring there’s proper ventilation will also be crucial, and teachers will need to consider student safety in sharing materials or collaboration during small-group instruction.

In addition to policies regarding mask-wearing, some policies related to sanitizing surfaces, washing hands regularly, and social distancing will also likely continue, at least to some degree, this coming fall. While it’s left up to state and district leaders to decide how exactly to implement the CDC’s recommendations, it’s important to remember that a majority of children will most likely not be vaccinated when school starts.

The new school year will continue to pose challenges for teachers, ranging from social and emotional learning to classroom setup.

2. Maintaining Some Degree of Remote Learning

There are pros and cons to teaching and learning in the virtual format. But in the past school year, this became one of the most uniform practices in schools. Many students are now comfortable, for instance, using Google Classroom and attending Zoom sessions. In addition, my colleagues and I assume remote learning will still be available for weary families or students who are at risk.

As we noted in this Shaped article, a 2020 RAND study found that 20% of school districts have already created virtual academies as an alternative option or plan to do so post-pandemic. In addition, if unvaccinated students are exposed to COVID, they will most likely still need to quarantine. Last year, a student who tested positive for COVID had to quarantine (and thus learn remotely) for 10 days from their first symptoms. Perhaps this will look different next year, as classes—depending on grade level and other factors—could include a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

Teachers will need to be prepared for students to become remote learners at any time—another reason why tools like Google Classroom and HMH’s Ed platform have made the transition relatively seamless. Preparing for both virtual and in-person learning means developing multiple types of classrooms. My best advice would be to create a Google Classroom that any student can use, regardless of the format in which they learn. You could save all lesson plans and worksheets on Google Drive. You can also create printouts or have students complete the work virtually, catering to everyone’s needs.

3. Prioritizing Social and Emotional Learning

Because so much independent work was given last year, with students sitting far apart in classrooms or learning remotely, most students have lost a year of “normal” social interaction. So, in the coming school year, social and emotional learning is going to be more important than ever. Potential policies, such as keeping students in cohorts and even ensuring they wear masks, can pose challenges. For one thing, masks cover most of a person’s face and hide facial expressions. Younger students who are learning how to understand emotions and other people’s feelings may be set back socially. It's also difficult to hear someone speaking through a mask, which I noticed had caused many students to withdraw and become quieter than usual.

To address this issue, building community in the classroom will be key, as will prioritizing students’ emotional intelligence. This will help them not only understand their own feelings but also be sensitive to others’ needs. Teachers can introduce various first-day-of-school icebreakers and “getting to know you” types of games, as well as allow students to turn and talk to their partners and guide them with discussion sentence starters when necessary.

4. Re-establishing Classroom Routines

Classroom routines like conducting group work and even sharing materials were largely placed on hold last year. As we start the new school year, some restrictions may ease, yet most teachers will have to re-establish rules about working in groups and even perhaps model appropriate social interactions.

With rising COVID numbers leading to renewed calls for masks in schools, especially for unvaccinated students, along with at least three feet of social distancing between desks, teachers need to get creative to bring students together.

5. Addressing Interrupted Learning

Some students thrived with remote learning, while others struggled. Among in-person learners, some benefited from the smaller class sizes, while others were unable to attend class altogether. The learning gap may have widened during the pandemic, and some students may need help readjusting to regular classroom routines or tasks such as taking notes, raising their hand to answer questions, and so on.

Additionally, every student’s home life is different. Some students don’t live in English-speaking households or didn’t have access to reliable technology or Wi-Fi. Given the severity of the pandemic, students may have dealt with significant trauma in their families. Issues related to equity created unfair barriers for some students.

It's important to not only assess students’ performance levels in the next school year but also to review their learning habits, such as annotating to track their thinking while reading. Finally, referring students who have undergone significant challenges to counseling and support services can help them process their emotions, and as a result, focus better in class. Teachers need to be sensitive to the range of needs and levels of their students and ease them back into the classroom so they feel comfortable learning and taking intellectual risks.

The last school year alone threw teachers for a loop, so it’s important for us to prepare for next year and anticipate upcoming challenges. While we can expect that many COVID guidelines will remain in place, it’s important to consider how we can make our students feel comfortable and safe. Addressing social and emotional needs and learning gaps, helping students adapt to a variety of learning environments, and setting up a welcoming classroom are ways we can better prepare.

Although it may seem overwhelming, we can reflect on the successes and difficulties of this past year to help inform the next school year. It may not be easy but, we're up to the task. As my students say, “Teachers are the real superheroes.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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