Teaching in the Time of COVID-19

Supermajority Education Fund

May 20, 2020

Sari Beth Rosenberg was supposed to start student-teaching at LaGuardia High School in New York City on September 11, 2001. School was canceled that day, but when Rosenberg did start teaching, she was educating high school students who had been greatly affected by the devastation of the terrorist attack. Now, nearly 19 years later, she’s teaching juniors at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan, in the middle of a global pandemic, and in a city and state that have had the highest number of total cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. 

Rosenberg, who was awarded the 2019 Paul Gagnon Prize by the National Council for History Education and writes the “Teaching in the Age of Coronavirus” series for PBS, said she never imagined she’d be teaching in the middle of a pandemic. She first got the idea for the series when she realized this quarantine thing was going to last much longer than a few weeks and that teachers and students would be greatly impacted. She sent a tweet to PBS, and her PBS Newshour Extra column, where she advocates for the needs of teachers based on her own online teaching experience, was born. 

Rosenberg has needed an outlet to talk about all of this change. This time of year, before the AP US History test, is usually her favorite. After her students prepare for then take the test, post-test celebrations usually go something like this Seinfeld GIF. But this year, her students had to take their test from home, and any celebrations will be virtual.

But Rosenberg has long welcomed the use of technology in the classroom, and she’s been able to adapt to the unconventional “new normal” of remote teaching. Before the pandemic, Rosenberg uploaded quizzes and fun, interactive games for her students on Instagram; she tried to bring the tech they were using in their everyday lives into their learning process. 

“I do feel somewhat vindicated because more teachers are getting Instagram, and more people are using Google Classroom,” she said. “All of my students were uploading their homework there, I was making announcements there, and I was communicating with them virtually a lot anyway. At the beginning of the year, I started doing more videos for them. I feel like part of me is like, ‘Oh, I was prepared without being prepared.’”

Rosenberg has always strived to make her classroom less like a classroom and more like a community. She remembers how her own AP US History teacher organized the classroom like a “U” and sat at the front, while the students sat in accordance to how they fell politically; she, for example, sat at the center of the “U.” She also seats her packed classroom in a shape that encourages discussion and makes her space feel like a lot more than a test-taking zone. 

These days, her students aren’t able to play in-person, interactive games to learn about the New Deal or scoot their desks close together as they discuss the news. Learning is remote, so they all show up to class in individual boxes on an online teaching platform. Rosenberg also makes a point to teach live over video every day to create community and some sense of normalcy, although she does record these lessons for students who can’t tune in live. Above all, though, she prioritizes her hard-working students’ mental health, which has meant encountering some learning curves. 

“When I first tried to convert to online learning—a lot of us were doing this—we were still kind of following the same model as if we were teaching at school,” she said. “I would assign them classwork and homework. I teach some really good kids. They know how hard I’m working, but eventually, they were like ‘Miss, you’re giving us too much work.’”

Rosenberg said she had the students watch review videos and do practice essays before the test, but she tries not to overload them right now. She added that while her students’ first response is often to apologize for not turning in an assignment, she tries to remind them that they need to take care of themselves right now if they’re having an off day. 

“The human brain is adapting to this, where you’re trying to keep things as normal as possible, so these kids are going through hell, but their default is to be like, ‘Sorry I didn’t do the work!’ I’m like that’s the least important thing right now. It’s almost good that they’re focused like that because it keeps them going.”

Rosenberg looks out for her students in the classroom, but she also works with a group of students in a feminist club, “the Feminist Eagles,” which she co-founded in 2015. She said she’s trying to keep the club going, amid the cancellation of prom and all the usual rituals that come with spring. The club, Rosenberg said, gives the students a place where they can talk about the issues they deal with outside the classroom. 

“Kids definitely share very personal issues, concerns, catcalling,” she said, adding that she always follows up these intense sessions by offering students the option of talking to the school social worker.” So I think being in a group where you can say, ‘I got on the subway; sure I was looking cute, but this guy followed me home.’ And having everyone be like, ‘Oh my God that happened to me, and it’s not your fault, and this is how I handled it, and you didn’t do anything wrong.’”

Meanwhile, she’s been keeping up her own activism through her writing, and said she is using her platform to highlight teachers who have “quickly converted their classroom curriculum to online learning.”

She also frequently uses Twitter to share her thoughts on the Department of Education and Betsy DeVos’s ongoing efforts to fund her “School Choice” plan with federal money. She’s also already thinking about how school funding cuts will affect schools as they reopen after COVID-19. 

“I’m concerned, and I think rightfully so,” she said. “When we do open schools, we’re [going to] have to do social distancing. My school is already overcrowded. It’s a great school, but it’s overcrowded, like many city schools that haven’t been broken up. Thirty-four kids in a classroom is not social distancing. The hallway’s like getting on the New York City subway, so I don’t know. I don’t know how you’re [going to] cut funds and make up for the gaps.”

With her students’ hardships in mind, Rosenberg hopes that educators and curriculum developers will learn from this pandemic and adapt to the needs of their students.

“Learning’s going to change,” she said. “We need to start really thinking about the kids as people and not as numbers…Hopefully, teachers who are going through this are realizing how much paying attention to the social-emotional health of the kid is integral to teaching them. I think it’s forcing me to think about my kids individually more because I’m away from them. Because I can’t see them, I need to think of them even more so as human beings.”