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As Massachusetts High Schoolers Return to In-Person Instruction, HGSE Experts See Challenges Ahead

Harvard Graduate School of Education professors said high schools should prioritize students' mental health as they return to in-person learning after a disruptive year combating the coronavirus pandemic.
Harvard Graduate School of Education professors said high schools should prioritize students' mental health as they return to in-person learning after a disruptive year combating the coronavirus pandemic. By Soumyaa Mazumder
By Omar Abdel Haq, Crimson Staff Writer

Education experts at the Harvard Graduate School of Education raised concerns about the academic and emotional well-being of students as Massachusetts high school students returned to in-person learning last week.

Massachusetts students in lower grades returned to school buildings in early April, and middle school students followed suit a few weeks later. With the return of high school students on May 17, The Crimson interviewed multiple HGSE professors to understand the difficulties posed by the transition.

Susan M. Johnson, a professor of education at HGSE, said one of the biggest challenges schools face are space and scheduling concerns. Massachusetts’s decision to enforce the 3-feet distancing rule advised by the World Health Organization, instead of the previous 6-feet requirement, helped ease the difficulty, she added.

“Many places don’t have enough space to even accommodate 3 feet, let alone 6 feet,” she said.

Johnson noted that the high school transition could be most difficult in terms of scheduling due to greater student movement around buildings compared to other grade groups.

“If a school has an elementary school program where the students have maybe one or two teachers — or even three teachers — they can keep the cohort of students in one room, and have the teacher either be there all the time with that cohort or move around,” Johnson said.

On the other hand, high school students tend to move from classroom to classroom throughout the school day.

Paul Reville, a professor of the practice of educational policy and administration at HGSE, said schools will face challenges to accommodate students who choose to continue to learn virtually.

“You have now a new balance to strike between in person and online, and enabling teachers to be able to do both simultaneously is a very strenuous piece of work,” he said. “A lot of the districts haven’t had the time to build their capacity to do effective distance learning, let alone to do distance learning simultaneously with doing in-person learning."

The difficulty of a dual instruction approach is exacerbated by teacher shortages and potential quarantine requirements, according to Johnson. As students move through “different groups, different subjects, [and] different places,” contact tracing could keep an increased amount of teachers away from classrooms.

Reville said he hopes that additional government funding for schools and the opportunity to pursue summer school will help reduce the impacts of learning loss.

Johnson said a strength of current planning efforts is their focus on both the academic and psychological well-being of students.

“[Schools are] very explicitly gearing that toward not just instruction, but social learning and recreation. So there are a lot of places that are trying to pay attention to the whole child,” she said.

“We have no way of knowing right now what the setbacks, genuine setbacks, are for kids,” Johnson added.

Deborah M. Jewell-Sherman, a professor of practice in educational leadership, said she believes schools should focus on more than students' academic experiences as they reopen to students.

“This has been a completely disruptive year, and if it were to just start off focusing on academics, I don’t think that [schools will] reach students where they are,” she said.

She noted that students lost a child abuse detection system this year when learning moved online, and that the onus will increasingly be placed on schools to reclaim that role.

“Numbers of child abuse reportings, and other kinds of accidents, has gone down tremendously during Covid — often, school is the place where things are identified,” Jewell-Sherman said. “I envision that with all of the joy of returning, there are going to be students that come back that are going to need our special care and attention.”

To holistically support students, Reville said schools should provide individualized care to students.

“We have to get to more of a case management model in education, where we’re meeting students where they are as individuals and giving them what they need in order to be successful inside and outside of schools, which, incidentally, is what privileged families do for their children,” Reville explained.

Reville said he believes the coronavirus pandemic can offer an inflection point in education and spark long-term reform.

“Our field is a field that’s pretty conservative in terms of changing— there’s a lot of inertia locking the legacy status quo system in place,” Reville said. “We now have an opportunity in the midst of this crisis to make some transformative changes.”

—Staff writer Omar Abdel Haq can be reached at

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