Teachers, kids share powerful quotes

From grade school to graduate school, developing young minds in close physical proximity halted abruptly in mid-March 2020.

What happened next to schools and families was devastating and electrifying, thought-provoking and quieting, unifying and isolating. Homes became entire worlds. Working parents juggled daytime teaching. College students studied from childhood bedrooms. Millions of kindergartners started school in a format previously unfathomable: Zoom.

Teachers shifted to nurturing and encouraging through screens – with little training. Many hunted down students in person to ensure they were safe, fed and outfitted with resources to learn.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a set of real-world lessons too close and too fresh to be captured by textbooks: How does one manage lives lost? Calculate the damage of lost income? Measure new levels of mental fatigue? We interviewed more than 30 students and educators, of all ages and experience, about how they grew and changed in 2020 – or just made it to the next day.

Over the course of an extraordinary year, here’s what they learned. 

What surprised you the most about virtual or hybrid learning?

Josh Montgomery, 43, an associate professor of computer science at Southern State Community College in Hillsboro, Ohio, says teaching through a mask was a challenge. “My dad jokes just didn’t land,” he says.
Southern State Community College

“The mask environment – having to teach through that, having to work with students through that and communicate through this barrier was a struggle. I couldn’t quite tell if they were getting it. My dad jokes just didn’t land.” – Josh Montgomery, 43, associate professor of computer science at Southern State Community College in Hillsboro, Ohio

When personal protective equipment was scarce at the beginning of the pandemic, Montgomery organized about 200 volunteers, most of them educators, to create and assemble face shields for first responders. With the help of 3D printers, the educators distributed more than 4,000 face masks to 51 medical organizations.

Cristina Alvizo, 17, Middle College High School, Santa Ana, California
Being at home and not in person made it more difficult to manage my school work and my personal life, which brought a lot of stress and anxiety. Having someone guide me is the way I learn best.

Alvizo attended school remotely all year from the three-bedroom, one bathroom home she shares with 10 family members. Her father and grandmother got very sick with COVID-19, but both recovered. Alvizo, the first in her family to attend college, participates in the Boys & Girls Clubs’ College Bound program. She’ll graduate high school with two associate degrees and plans to continue studying to be a physician’s assistant.

Denis Alvarez, 22, a senior at Arizona State University
The convenience of being able to wake up and log into class was one of the most surprising things about virtual learning. It allowed me to expand the number of activities I was involved in because it totally removes the travel time. I ended up picking up an extra job. But this also meant I would be online for 12 hours a day. That was really difficult for me.

Alvarez, a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that allows people brought into the USA illegally as children to stay in the country, said neither she nor her family received money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed last March. Undocumented communities were not eligible, but organizations at the university raised funds for them, Alvarez said.

Orion Smith, 41, computer science teacher, Arlington Heights High School, Fort Worth, Texas
Serving two student populations at the same time. I have people joining online and joining from the classroom. Learning to work with both groups simultaneously — that was pretty difficult.

Joellen Persad, a ninth grade physics teacher at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston, says virtual education is surprisingly exhausting.

Joellen Persad, a ninth grade physics teacher at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston, says virtual education is surprisingly exhausting.
Joellen Persad

“What surprised me most about virtual learning is probably how exhausting it is. And I don’t just mean exhausting in the physical sense or your eyestrain sense, which are all very real. I also mean exhausting in the sense that you are reimagining yourself every day, and you are sitting in this place trying to figure out how to really teach this material to students who sometimes don’t have their cameras on.” – Joellen Persad, 29, physics teacher, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, Boston.

Students and educators discuss what surprised them the most about virtual and hybrid learning.

Harrison Hill, USA TODAY

Temi Carda, 22, senior at Creighton University in Omaha
The uncertainty of everything. Would I have the opportunity to return to campus, or have a basketball season?

Carda and the Creighton Blue Jays were in the middle of the Big East conference tournament when COVID-19 shut down college sports. She flew home to Minnesota, where she stayed for six months. Carda played all season wearing a mask.

“I’m fueled by being around people, by touching them – like, I’m going to physically demonstrate my affection towards you. When I’m with my kids, I’m like, ‘let’s hug!’ ” I have seen some of my students who have come into the building, but I feel this pause, like, ‘Oh, I need to make sure I keep my space and stay over here.’ And that’s been really, really tough.” – Persad

Aaron Jemison, a custodian at Peterson Elementary School in Chicago, is back at work after recovering from COVID-19.

Aaron Jemison, a custodian at Peterson Elementary School in Chicago, is back at work after recovering from COVID-19.
Aaron Jemison

“When my wife got sick, that was very scary. I had four members of my family die from COVID.” – Aaron Jemison, 54, custodian, Peterson Elementary School, Chicago

Jemison contracted the virus and was hospitalized March 22 last year. He and his wife recovered, and Jemison is back at work. About 300 students at Peterson receive in-person instruction, he said.

Elisabeth Koch, 25, first-year student doctoral student in Egyptology and Iranian studies at University of California, Los Angeles
The reverted sleep schedule. I’m very much an early bird, and I can’t do this if my classes start at 6 p.m. (local time) and end at a quarter to 2 a.m.

Koch studies online from Frieda, Germany. Without access to university libraries for studying, Koch said she feels like she’s lost at least a year of her Ph.D. work. 

David Miyashiro, 49, Superintendent, Cajon Valley Union School District, California
Families want a pre-pandemic education, and not being able to give them exactly what they want has been really hard.

Evelyn Lund, 16, sophomore, Arlington Heights High School, Fort Worth, Texas
Doing the same repetitive tasks every day with little variation can be so boring.

Monica Fuglei, professor and English chair at Arapahoe Community College, says she thought teaching on 9/11 would the toughest.

Monica Fuglei, professor and English chair at Arapahoe Community College, says she thought teaching on 9/11 would the toughest.
Monica Fuglei

“In my first year of teaching, I taught a group of students on Sept. 11, and I thought for years and years that would be the hardest day. I’m in Littleton, Colorado, so we have experienced a couple of local school shootings since that, and I thought those would be the hardest days. Those days were very hard, but in some ways, they were contained. This has been 12 months of crisis.” – Monica Fuglei, 44, community college instructor and English Department chair, Arapahoe Community College, Littleton, Colorado 

Students and educators describe the most difficult part of the past school year

Harrison Hill, USA TODAY

Tariq Miles, 18, youth ambassador, Eight Million Stories, Houston, Texas
My friend dying. And me going to jail. And my friend getting life. It was challenging for me. They’re my friends. These dudes I kick it with every other day. Some of my friends who died really believed in me, they thought I could really be successful.

Miles was released from Texas Youth Commission, a juvenile correctional facility, at the end of March 2020. He served time for having drugs on a school campus. Eight Million Stories, a nonprofit group that helps disadvantaged youth, helped him finish his education. He plans to attend Alabama A&M University this fall.

JT Fillingim, 21, junior at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington
I found out I was going to be a dad. It just amplified any emotional struggles and battles I was already having. And certainly it doesn’t help the financial worries. It’s been hard for me to get through college already. I want to be able to provide for her, but I just don’t know if I’m ready.

Fillingin’s wife, also a student at Eastern Washington University, is due in July. They attend classes online from her family’s home in Tacoma, Washington. Their wedding last summer was reduced to five guests. Fillingin said he lost several thousand dollars in deposits.

“The most difficult part of my home or social life was having no privacy. Usually during the year, I could go out and find my own space. Being home all day with 10 other family members is stressful. There’s a lot of arguments. You’re together all the time and then you start to feel unappreciated, which is ironic.” – Alvizo

When Alvizo’s father came back from the hospital to recover from COVID-19, Alvizo, her mom and her sister had to sleep on the living room floor for several weeks. Alvizo continued to attend class from home and help her little sister attend kindergarten on Zoom.

Students and educators describe the most challenging part of their personal lives since the coronavirus pandemic shifted their lives

Harrison Hill, USA TODAY

Victoria Bradley, 17, senior, Arts Academy in the Woods, Fraser, Michigan
I got strong when I realized that homeschool is learning at your own pace. I think it was the end of the quarter when I got good grades for the entire quarter. I was like, ‘OK, I can do this’ because I was really afraid [that I was] going to have to repeat a grade.

Bradley chose to home-school this year, but she feared missing all the rituals that would make her feel like a senior. In the end, she said, it turned out to be a good decision.

Robert Gregory, 47, superintendent, Hillside Public Schools, Hillside, New Jersey
I prayed a lot. My salvation was when I started collaborating with other superintendents.

Gregory was on the 50th day of his new job leading Hillside when schools shut down. Initially, many students lacked internet and computers at home, but as those needs were addressed, and as COVID-19 transmission rates remained high, Gregory announced the district would operate online for the entire 2020-21 school year.

Students and educators discuss where they found strength this past year

Harrison Hill, USA TODAY

Gwynnie Poutasse, 11, sixth grade, Harvard Public Schools, Boston-area
By going on Zoom at my own time, playing Minecraft with my friends. And also by having discussions with my class, because they usually will put us in breakout rooms and we’ll be able to talk together — not just about the work but our personal lives as well.

Winnie Williams-Hall, 45, eighth-grade special education teacher, Nicholson STEM Academy, Chicago
Initially, it was difficult — I couldn’t find words for it, and I didn’t want to seem like I was complaining. I started seeing a counselor, someone that I could talk to myself, just to kind of release and unload my stress.

Williams-Hall’s son just went to college. She normally would have dealt with the loneliness and isolation by chatting with colleagues at school in the hallways or at lunchtime, she said.

Korea Mi Amour Rankin, 16, junior, Cabrillo High School, Long Beach, California
I didn’t really maintain the same relationships, I built new ones. Seeing how everyone responded to the pandemic made me pay attention to who I call my friends.

“My friends at the Teachers College and I would hold Zoom calls where we would work on our assignments together. This became more frequent during the finals and all of our projects due. It was the moral support that we felt from having another person’s presence, even though it was virtual. I remember staying up till 3 a.m. working on a final project with one of my other friends.” – Alvarez

Students and educators from schools across the nation discuss how they have maintained relationships this past year amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Harrison Hill, USA TODAY

Patrick Green, 14, eighth grade, University Prep Science & Math, Detroit
I learned more about American history. These are some of the best times I’ve had, being with my family, learning about myself.

Green learned a difficult truth this year: His great-great-grandfather was a slave. Still, he appreciated the time at home to discuss his family’s history with loved ones, he said. 

Matt Miller, superintendent and CEO at Lakota Local Schools in Ohio, says pandemic pressures made his educational network stronger.

Matt Miller, superintendent and CEO at Lakota Local Schools in Ohio, says pandemic pressures made his educational network stronger.

“(The pandemic) made that superintendent/ed-leader network stronger, because we didn’t have mandates and guidance. I have colleagues that are superintendents out in Washington state, who were a few weeks ahead of me when we were talking about shutting down here in Ohio. I said, ‘What am I not thinking of?’ ‘What don’t I know?’ ‘What do you wish you would have known when you started down this path a couple of weeks ago?’ ” – Matt Miller, 49, superintendent and CEO, Lakota Local Schools, Ohio

Evelyn Lund, 16, sophomore, Arlington Heights High School, Fort Worth, Texas
I learned the skill of time management. It’s so tempting to be on your phone during class time when you’re at home. But it ultimately kicks you in the butt.

Janet Huger-Johnson, 54, principal, East New York Elementary School of Excellence, Brooklyn, New York
It’s not that parents don’t want to be involved — it’s that parents are not being educated about education … and don’t know how to be involved.

“I never realized how big of a disparity the digital divide is in certain communities. Things we take for granted, like access to the internet isn’t there for everyone. Or if there’s an older sibling in the home, they have to watch a younger sibling and at times have to share a device. It was that digital divide that I was not anticipating. It destroyed us last spring.” – Robert Gregory, 47, Hillside Public Schools, Hillside, New Jersey

Students and educators describe what they have learned this year that they wouldn’t have learned without the pandemic

Harrison Hill, USA TODAY

“Everything is not pencil, paper, rote memorization and writing on the dry-erase board. Also, sadly for the kiddos, it will take away snow days.” – Williams-Hall

Orion Smith, 41, computer science teacher, Arlington Heights High School, Fort Worth, Texas
We’ve learned the power of digital tools is only as good as the buy-in teachers and students develop to include them. With hard-to-reach students, we’ve been gobsmacked with how true that is.

“We’re already talking about ensuring that virtual classes continue to be an option for our students because we might have students who are single parents who can’t come to a night class physically but might be able to attend a night class virtually.” – Fuglei

Shana Stoddard, 37, chemistry professor, Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee
We did this research project that got published and those compounds are now being synthesized by our collaborator to be tested against coronavirus. All of that is just chemistry in real form. It’s like, ‘What I am supposed to do with all this stuff in these books? Well, you should save lives.’

Russell Poutasse, 13, eighth grade, Harvard Public Schools, Massachusetts
I’m going to describe (the pandemic) as kind of a challenging time. But it’s time that we got through and we got through it together. And I think that it’s brought out really good things in a lot of people — like support and friendliness.

Emma Burkhalter, 21, senior at Vaughn Occupational High School in Chicago
I’m going to tell them how you do virtual stuff and how you do Zoom and how you do Special Olympics with your kids (virtually).

Vaughn, a school for students with special needs, was the first Chicago school to shut down last March after a classroom assistant had one of the earliest known cases of the virus in the state. Burkhalter and many of her peers are back to attending school in person. 

Michael Sorrell, 54, president of Paul Quinn College, Dallas, Texas
We will look back at this and recognize it for what it is: a period where we made the best use of an unsettling time. It was a time that my daughter, who is 6, and I were able to bond in a way I hope lasts a lifetime. With my son (10), it continues to give us a chance to create this special man camp relationship we have. And it gives me a chance every day to slow down and smile at my wife even more.

Alanis Broussard, 18, freshman at Boston University from Atlanta
Even though the world is at a standstill, I got to keep on moving and progressing and evolving as a human being. Twenty years from now, I hope to tell my children that there can be good things that can come out of times of darkness.

Broussard lived on campus and attended a mix of in-person and virtual classes this year. She’s double-majoring in journalism and public relations. 

Students and educators reflect on what stories they’ll tell 10-20 years from now about teaching and learning during COVID-19

Harrison Hill, USA TODAY