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Post-COVID classrooms

Three schools illustrate ways the pandemic altered educational practices—perhaps for the long term

Lead learning guide Tammy Slank works with fifth and sixth graders at the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy in North Las Vegas. Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Genesis

Post-COVID classrooms

On a May morning at a community center in North Las Vegas, elementary-­school students laughed and chattered through cloth masks as they wandered from the gym to class. Students worked independently through lessons on their computers, occasionally summoning a teacher for help: “How do you spell ‘fastest’?” In the hall, an instructional aide leaned over math problems with a student while soft pop music played from ceiling speakers.

More than a year ago, this school meeting in a community center didn’t exist. The Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy (SNUMA) popped up as a partnership between the city and an education nonprofit to help kids floundering during remote classes. Now it has become so popular that it will outlast the pandemic.

COVID-19 has prompted a myriad of changes in schools, whether startups or multigenerational institutions. For a new girls’ charter school in Nevada, the pandemic complicated its inaugural year, while it drove a decades-old Christian school in Missouri to try new methods. These three schools offer a sampling of the ways educational institutions look different after a year of pandemic learning.

Plexiglass shields protect kindergartners at Central Christian School, providing workspace for two students at tables rather than the typical number of four.

Plexiglass shields protect kindergartners at Central Christian School, providing workspace for two students at tables rather than the typical number of four. Central Christian School

North Las Vegas teamed up with education nonprofit Nevada Action for School Options to create SNUMA as a solution to a common problem caused by school shutdowns. As Las Vegas schools began the 2020-21 school year online, students who struggled with remote learning needed an alternative. Some also needed help to catch up from lost learning. So the city provided funds and facilities, while Nevada Action provided the nonprofit expertise and administrators. (The students technically are homeschoolers: To enroll, they withdraw from the public school district.)

SNUMA hired classroom teachers and aides, but assigned most of the teaching to computer learning programs that provide each student work based on assessments. Each Monday after a temperature check at the door, teachers helped students pick goals for how many levels to complete that week to win a Friday prize, such as a pizza party.

The school has experienced hiccups. A malfunctioning thermometer read high temperatures for a few people, forcing them to skip the school day. COVID-19 exposure sent an entire class home for two weeks. And kids reacted differently to returning to classrooms full of peers: One drew on his desk and played with classmates’ keyboards, while others were late or absent. The school relied on frequent communication with parents to keep kids motivated to set academic goals and to manage social dynamics.

By the end of the year, SNUMA had achieved its goal of helping students catch up: Every student entered the year behind in math, according to Nevada Action President Don Soifer, but assessments show 87 percent finished at or above grade level. Nevada Action is stepping back, but the city will keep SNUMA running this fall.

Just south in Las Vegas, the Girls Athletic Leadership School (GALS) ran its inaugural year at a Boys & Girls Club building made extra cramped by social distancing requirements. At a schoolwide assembly, a few dozen middle-­school students sat 6 feet apart on bright dots on the atrium carpet and took turns congratulating each other for achievements: speaking up, making friends, acing a test. Some wore miniature bottles of hand sanitizer on their ID lanyards. Online students tuned in through Zoom, unmuting themselves to give shout-outs or complain they couldn’t hear.

COVID-19 has prompted a myriad of changes in schools.

The all-girls charter public school focuses on confidence, STEM, and exercise. COVID-19 forced the school to keep exercise mild while students wore masks, though they still went on walks and learned dances to help them remember math concepts. And hands-on projects continued: Students toured a construction site wearing pink hard hats and built model huts they stress-tested by spraying water and blowing fans. By May, school founder Jennifer McCloskey was exhausted but pleased with the school’s first year. She looks forward to spreading out next year in GALS’ planned new building.

While GALS built new routines, in St. Louis, 62-year-old Central Christian School had to rework its traditions. To prevent COVID-19 spread during passing period, administrators and teachers delivered library books, instruments, and plastic tubs of sandwiches to classrooms. Classmates read to each other through plexiglass shields. Student headshots hung on classroom doors to show unmasked faces. Head of school Christan Perona estimated Central spent $20,000 to adapt the school to COVID-19, buying portable sinks for hand-washing and first-aid kits on rolling carts, as well as hiring extra substitute teachers to accommodate quarantines.

But some adaptations strengthened the school, Perona said. A school counselor led online workshops to help parents walk their children through stress and loneliness. Streaming chapel online allowed out-of-town grandparents to tune in, so Central plans to continue streaming. Parents’ disagreements about COVID-19 were among the school’s biggest challenges. So Perona led regular Zoom meetings to discuss COVID-19 while focusing on common ground: following Christ and loving the school. She said it sharpened the school’s ability to navigate differences, a strength that will outlast the pandemic.

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.



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