"Like driving an airplane on the highway": How American Public School Teachers Adapted To New Learning Environments Brought On By The COVID-19 Pandemic

Danny Trigili
Publication Year:
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education


In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic that had effectively shut down the entire globe reached the United States in full force. On March 13th in Pennsylvania and in California, schools were ordered to close for ten business days which, unbeknownst to educators and government officials at the time, would eventually be extended to the rest of the school year., Teachers in grades kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) were forced to adapt to an entirely new teaching style that, to many, was completely unfamiliar: education from a distance.

As the 2019-2020 school year drew to a close, many educators grappled with the daunting possibility that distance learning may continue in the fall. While school districts are adapting to the fact that education may never be the same again, educators are struggling with how to take what they’ve learned from the spring of 2020 and apply it to an unclear future. In this essay, the experiences of three teachers will be examined in order to better understand how the transition from classroom teaching to online teaching occurred, and how the transition could be handled more seamlessly in the future. 

In the section “Research,” I will compile the stories and experiences gathered from the three educators, two from central Pennsylvania and one from southern California. By focusing research on K-12 classrooms in public school settings, this essay will seek to construct a focused and accurate depiction of the transition into online learning. In the following “Conclusion” section, the various concerns raised by educators will be  highlighted. Using  information provided by these educators and by conducting outside research, I will summarize the main concerns raised in my conversations and attempt to compile resources to help educators as they move forward into the fall of 2020.


The first educators I had the opportunity to speak with were high school English teachers from the same school in central Pennsylvania, who primarily taught grades 10 through 12. They expressed very similar concerns: though they felt comfortable with the transition to technology, they were unhappy with how the transition to online learning impacted their relationships with their students. One of the teachers I spoke with was part of a team of teachers from their school who came together to create a template of a ‘Google Site’ that could then be used by other teachers in adapting their courses for distance learning. They had already been using resources such as Google Classroom in their courses, and felt very comfortable using the technology once courses were moved online. 

These teachers also reported that the district did as much as it could in ensuring students had equal access to technology; though little could be done to ensure equitable internet connection, the district distributed over a thousand laptops to students so that they would be able to participate in the online coursework. 

 Additionally, this specific district in central Pennsylvania did not grade students for their 4th quarter work, and instead only permitted teachers to assign “enrichment activities” and to provide feedback based on “low, some, or high” participation. The educators generally felt that this created equal ground for all students in the district to be successful, even though they all came from various home situations. One teacher discussed having students who were working while trying to continue participating in school work, and expressed that removing grades entirely meant students who had other responsibilities were not penalized for not being able to fully engage in their work; at the same time, students who did not have other responsibilities and were “at home with nothing to do” (as one teacher phrased it) could do the work and be rewarded.

However, the teachers felt their classes suffered  with respect to the relationships they had with their students. Two teachers reported having students they did not hear from after the school’s initial shutdown on March 13th, though they were able to get in contact with families and ensure the students were safe and had access to the materials. Though the teachers had the option to provide synchronous Zoom meetings and office hours for students, they reported that a minority of students actually participated in these meetings. They expressed concerns that the lack of grading meant a lack of motivation; additionally, they expressed concerns that, if the fall semester were to be held online, they wouldn’t know how to keep up relationships with their students once grades were required again. One of the teachers described the experience with the following analogy:

“Let’s say you’re a pilot. You fly so many distances, you can easily get into a plane and control it in the air – there’s a lot to manage and there’s a lot of risk involved. What if someone said to you, ‘you can use your plane, but you need to get to those places on the road’. Even if it’s harder to fly in the air and you have to deal with the wind and the air pressure and all those different factors, you have to find a way to adapt a plane to a road.”

The third and final educator I had the opportunity to speak with was a teacher in the second largest school district in the United States, located in Los Angeles. She functioned as a ‘pool teacher’; instead of being given a class of her own to lead, she was responsible for helping other teachers with their classrooms. Despite the drastic differences in the teachers’ experiences, she echoed many of the concerns introduced by the teachers from the East Coast: universal access to the technology required for online schooling, and the difficulty teachers faced in communicating with their students. These concerns were exacerbated in Los Angeles simply due to the size and scale of the school district, and the much greater wealth disparity present.

One noticeable difference between the experiences of the teachers was their satisfaction with the grading policy. Though the two school districts on the opposite sides of the country ended up adopting very similar grading policies, the Los Angeles teacher was unhappy with how the policy did not incentivise students to keep up with their school work. There was no motivation for students to join scheduled meetings or complete assignments. There was no way for teachers to tell when students had other obigations or obstacles keeping them from engaging, or if the students were simply ‘ghosting’ their teachers. All three teachers expressed similar sentiments that it’s impossible to grade students equally when their access to the material is not equal.


Technology & Adapting a Course for Online Teaching

Teachers I spoke with reported feeling most supported in their transition to online teaching when they had encouragement and open communication with other teachers in the district. By being able to communicate with other teachers and share resources, they felt as though they had a solid support group and sufficient activities for students to engage with. Additionally, this open communication allowed for teachers with little technological experience to rely on teachers with more experience for assistance in transitioning to distance educating. The ability to talk with other teachers within their districts and across the nation seemed to be most important for the three teachers I spoke with. Each expressed gratitude at the way educators across the country came together to support one another, share ideas, and adapt their classrooms for online learning. 

All three teachers were grateful for the wealth of resources available to facilitate online teaching, including various programs and apps for mobile devices. The teacher from Los Angeles said at times she and other teachers also felt overwhelmed at the sheer number of options available, and the use of multiple programs could complicate learning for students. She hoped that, moving forward, her school district could narrow down the number of programs they use in the classroom so students would have one centralized hub for educational materials rather than needing to access various platforms.

Grading Policies

All three of the teachers I spoke with were in school districts which adopted “no-fail” policies stating that grades could not be lowered during the final quarter of the 2019-2020 school year. Though each of them understood the reasoning for this decision, their satisfaction with how it impacted students’ involvement in the classroom varied. All three of the teachers I spoke with felt as though it would have been unfair to students to enforce a grading policy during the confusion and uncertainty of online learning. They also had concerns that the lack of grades meant a lack of motivation, and expressed concerns that students are taught throughout their education that they do work to receive a grade as opposed to learning for the sake of learning. 

Combating this issue is a larger process than changes that can be made in a single classroom; many studies have been conducted in teaching without grades in all levels of schooling. Even if it isn’t possible to restructure how students are taught from kindergarten through high school graduation, it’s still possible for educators to adapt some of the goals and values of teaching without grades on a case-by-case basis. In the article “No, Students Don’t Need Grades” by Mark Barnes published by Education Week, he gives a general overview of how teachers can begin to adopt a gradeless classroom setting. Instead of supplying students with a grade based on the accuracy of their work, Barnes advocates for alternative feedback “based on observation, feedback, iteration, and student self-evaluation.” This structure may especially prove useful if classrooms are once again moved online and teachers find it difficult to ensure students are being fairly recognized for their work, while also providing space for students facing difficult circumstances. 


Suggested Articles

Adolescents+2 more topics
📣 Calling all #youth in the #AsiaPacific Region and beyond! Our friends at Youth Co:Lab are hosting the hybrid #YouthCoLab Summit 2022 this summer July 4-7, 2022 🤩 This year's Summit aims to highlight, encourage and celebrate the role of young people in the #DecadeofAction, while showcasing and...