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schools

How the Pandemic Changed In-Person Learning

By | NESCA Notes 2024

By: Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Among the parts of my job that I find most meaningful are the conversations I get to have with parents during intake and feedback sessions. During an intake, much of the emphasis is on history taking. Some of it isn’t very exciting; trust me, I get that it can be tedious to review information like how much your child weighed at birth, how many ear infections they had, and when they learned to walk. Yet so often the information parents are able to share about a child’s history is crucial. There’s a quote attributed to Michael Ventura that says, “Without context, a piece of information is just a dot. It floats in your brain with a lot of other dots and doesn’t mean a damn thing. Knowledge is information-in-context… connecting the dots.” The history parents share provides essential context that helps us piece together and make sense of the data we get from doing an assessment in the office.

In recent years, we’ve added questions about COVID-19 to help us understand how that experience has impacted the children and teens we work with. I regularly ask parents, “How old was your child when COVID-19 hit? What grade were they in and how long did remote learning go on? When did they return to in-person instruction?” During a recent intake with a parent, I got an answer I wasn’t expecting. A very thoughtful and perceptive mom gave me some dates and ages then paused for a moment and added, “But even though they’re back in school, I don’t think learning has ever been the same since COVID.” I asked her to tell me more, and we had a wonderfully thought-provoking conversation. As so often happens, I learned a great deal from a parent. Since that time, I’ve extended the discussion to include some of my very insightful colleagues, who have also shared their thoughts. The consensus is that “in-person learning” in 2024 doesn’t mean the same thing it did in 2019. So, what’s changed?

Yes, students are, for the most part, sitting at desks inside classrooms rather than connecting remotely from their desks (or kitchen tables or couches) at home, but what happens in the classroom and beyond is different in some important ways.

  • Technology: In speaking with parents and colleagues in different fields, I’ve repeatedly heard that pandemic-related school closures “accelerated the use of technology” and “online learning platforms” in education. There was certainly a need to use online learning platforms during the pandemic, and the extent to which schools incorporated technology speaks to ingenuity and flexibility in the face of an unexpected and incredibly challenging situation. Moreover, technology is a wonderful tool that can be used to enhance learning in many ways. That being said, many parents and colleagues have observed that schools never went back to “how information and tasks were managed pre-COVID.” That is, technology and online platforms have remained a part of the learning experience. The challenge for some students is that even within the same school system, there can be a great deal of variability between the specific platforms individual teachers use and how they make use of them. Especially for students who struggle with anxiety or executive functioning weaknesses, keeping track of and switching between different platforms and applications for different classes can be overwhelming.
  • Different Teaching Methods: One of the trends I’ve observed directly and have gotten feedback on from others has to do with how teachers provide instruction in the classroom. Compared to “the before times,” the post-pandemic years have seen a rise in independent learning, even within the context of the classroom. More often, teachers have students work independently, whether that means reading through Google slides at their desks or completing worksheets and tasks on their own. There seems to be less direct teacher-led instruction and an increased reliance on independent learning, which often incorporates use of technology, such as Chromebooks, in the classroom. While some students thrive when given the freedom and flexibility to learn on their own, many students learn best when provided with instruction using more direct, structured, and an interactive approach.
  • The Boundaries are Blurred: Working adults will relate to this phenomenon. Back before COVID-19, many of us had pretty clear boundaries separating our work lives from our personal lives. We commuted to an office or other workplace, worked for a set time period, then went home. That all changed when many non-essential employees pivoted to working from home at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown. Suddenly our kitchens or bedrooms were transformed from private living areas to undefined spaces that housed both our personal lives and our work lives. And our work and home lives bled into each other as we tried to fit in work when we could, especially if we were also home-schooling or caring for children all day. Though many employees are back to the office at least to some extent, the boundaries remain somewhat blurred. The same phenomenon has happened for students. There is a “24-7 connectedness” that technology enables, which has both pros and cons. Because a lot of schools still use online platforms for assigning, submitting, and grading homework, teachers can post assignments at any time. One parent described a sense of assignments popping up online “like Jenga blocks, one layered in after another.” Similarly, students can turn in assignments at any hour of the day or night. One of my colleagues has observed that this has negatively impacted sleep habits for some students. Another colleague astutely pointed out that, not only can this be overwhelming for students, but it may also be contributing to some of the burn-out many teachers are experiencing.

Education has been perhaps permanently altered by the pandemic, just as many of us have been. The changes that have occurred bring benefits and challenges that our students and teachers are still adjusting to. I don’t have answers or solutions, but I know that I’m going to be adding to the questions I ask parents about COVID-19, education, and the impact on their student. It’s still important for me to learn when a student resumed “in-person learning,” but I’m no longer going to assume that phrase means the same thing it’s always meant. Instead, I’ll be asking parents to tell me what in-person learning looks like now, because the reality is that none of us has gone back to life circa 2019. Just like all of us, our students are living in the “new normal,” and we need to understand it so that we can support them in benefiting from the opportunities it brings and in navigating the challenges it poses.

 

About the Author

Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D., provides comprehensive evaluation services for children, adolescents, and young adults with often complex presentations. She particularly enjoys working with individuals who have concerns about attention and executive functioning, language-based learning disorders, and those with overlapping cognitive and social/emotional difficulties.

Prior to joining NESCA, Dr. Rodriguez worked in private practice, where she completed assessments with high-functioning students presenting with complex cognitive profiles whose areas of weakness may have gone previously undiagnosed. Dr. Rodriguez’s experience also includes pre- and post-doctoral training in the Learning Disability Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Neurodevelopmental Center at MassGeneral for Children/North Shore Medical Center. Dr. Rodriguez has spent significant time working with students in academic settings, including k-12 public and charter school systems and private academic programs, such as the Threshold Program at Lesley University.

Dr. Rodriguez earned her Psy.D. from William James College in 2012, where her coursework and practicum training focused on clinical work with children and adolescents and on assessment. Her doctoral thesis centered on cultural issues related to evaluation.

Dr. Rodriguez lives north of Boston with her husband and three young children.  She enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and bike riding with her family, practicing yoga, and reading.

To book a consultation with Dr. Rodriguez or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Plainville, and Hingham, Massachusetts; Londonderry, New Hampshire; the greater Burlington, Vermont region; and Brooklyn, NY, serving clients from infancy through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.