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Stay up to date with the latest news on the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. We'll post regular updates from NPR and regional news from the WRVO newsroom. You can also find updates on our live blog.

Looking back: How the pandemic may have changed education forever in central NY

Ellen Abbott
WRVO News (file photo)

This is one of a series of stories from WRVO on how the COVID-19 pandemic changed life in central and northern NY over the last year. Find all of the stories from our series here.

One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been how to educate children in a world where they can’t converge and collaborate in a classroom, or sit shoulder to shoulder at a lunch table. The pandemic forced schools to, depending on their circumstances, create different teaching models, ranging from all remote, to hybrid models, to all in-person learning with safety guidelines in place. 

But going forward, school leaders in central and northern New York expect the pandemic to change education forever.

Beck Stephens is a seventh-grade history teacher in the suburban Fayetteville-Manlius School District, which has adopted a hybrid teaching model. It’s been good for some students. Not so good for others.

“Your Type-A students that are highly organized have been very successful despite all of this,” said Stephens. “Any students who struggle, this is really, really hard. Really hard because it takes a lot more independent work ethic, it takes a lot more persistence and perseverance. So students who struggle in a regular year, are, in my experience, drowning."

This illustrates how learning remotely is a mixed bag. But the things that have been learned this year should not be discarded entirely when fall rolls around. Syracuse City School Superintendent Jaime Alicea leads an urban district, rife with poverty. But he said extra teacher training, plus a real push to get computers and internet into the hands of all children, has led to many student successes in his district this year.

“So I see in the future that we need to continue to provide in-person opportunities for the kids, but also provide remote learning opportunities for those students who have been able to blossom, doing remote work this year,” said Alicea.

Along with the successes, there have been struggles, especially on the mental health front for students tied to a screen instead of a classroom. Dozens of studies have shown that many children have experienced harm to their emotional or mental health issues because of the isolation and separation from friends and school staff members who can help navigate mental health issues.  

Syracuse City School Board member Dan Romeo hopes this downside creates a greater attempt to focus on the mental health needs, that haven’t been fully dealt with in the past.

“We’ve had pieces that try to address it. But having a collaborative effort to tackle it in an effective way now that need has been shined a light on it because of COVID,” said Romeo.

Thomas Colabufo is superintendent of the Central Square School District, a mostly rural district that is, geographically, the largest in central New York. That created challenges requiring most students to learn from home. Colabufo believes in-person learning is the best thing for children, but going forward, pandemic practices will leave a mark.

“The one thing is teachers have gotten a lot better with technology,” said Colabufo. “So when those students come back, teachers will utilize those instructional technology resources, because it was so much thrusted upon us. I think that will be a positive."

East Syracuse-Minoa Superintendent Donna DeSiato expects the mixed bag results in education during the pandemic will ultimately change the way kids are taught down the road.

“We came out of, for the most part, a one size fits all model, for many decades,” DeSiato said. “If there’s anything we should learn from this, and we should know this very truly, is that we can no longer perpetuate a one-size-fits-all model, nor should we perpetuate a one-size-fits-all model. In doing that, what will the models look like that are needed, so a greater number of learners can have a greater success."

One thing that is certain, all these students have lived through classes on Zoom, or in classrooms wearing masks six feet away from their nearest classmate, together.

And F-M history teacher Beck Stephens wants her students to know they will be the primary sources for historians in years to come. With that in mind, she had them write letters to themselves at the beginning of this year about being a kid during the pandemic.

Some of the letters were heartbreaking.

"Not being able to be with family members who then passed away,” Stephens said. “Not being able to have weddings in the family. Some of that stuff, that loss of not getting to play their sports.”

But some were heartwarming.

"Playing games with their family. Watching movies together with their family. And their older siblings not being at college, and how fun it was being with them,” she said. “I do think that families have benefited from that extra time together. That would not have happened without the pandemic."

And in six years, when we’ll know more about how the pandemic impacted education in this country, Stephens will send those letters back to the students, as they graduate high school.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.