Alumni in Action: Educators discuss the many ways the pandemic has impacted their field

Tracey Helton Lewis '93 P'10, Drew Houlihan '01, and Associate Professor of Education Scott Morrison spoke with President Connie Ledoux Book as part of a video series highlighting alumni working on the front lines of the pandemic.

President Connie Ledoux Book continued her conversation series on Friday, May 8, speaking with Tracey Helton Lewis ’93 P’10, director of communications, teacher recruitment and retention for Surry County Schools in North Carolina; Drew Houlihan ’01, superintendent for the Union County Public Schools in North Carolina; and special guest Scott Morrison, associate professor of education at Elon, about the impact of COVID-19 on education. They discussed the many ways this pandemic has taken a toll not only on students, but also on families and educators alike.

The pandemic has turned the education system, like other industries, upside down. Many school systems had to scramble to put together a virtual learning program, families had to adapt to adding the role of teacher to their already demanding role of caretaker, and educators had to adjust to getting through to their students by any means necessary when there are great disparities of equity and access to virtual learning.

President Book asked about the long-term consequences and challenges that might have a lasting impact due to this seismic shift in education. Despite every best effort made in trying to provide for and support students virtually, providing both tangible and virtual resources, there is inevitably going to be a disruption in learning. “We are preparing for the gaps that we are going to be facing across the board. I think as a whole, nationally, we are going to see gaps in learning from every student,” Lewis said.

Although there will certainly be challenges when students return to the classroom, there are many ideas of how they could begin to fill those gaps. Houlihan discussed various options that are under consideration including potentially moving to a trimester calendar or looping – a practice where the same teacher remains with the same students for the following year to help mitigate the social and emotional concerns.

With a traditional educational system built on face-to-face teaching, it may be time to rethink what we have known and been accustomed to in education. “I really think we’ve got to come to the reality to say this is the time now to really start thinking differently about how we might transform our educational system because of the uncertainty and the unknown,” Houlihan said.

In addition to the actual structural changes that may happen within the classroom, the panel discussed larger societal changes as well. Schools provide many things beyond an education, and this pandemic has brought to light the additional gaps students may face when they are not able to go to school.

President Book explained that in a crisis, the essential tasks and responsibilities rise to the top, and in this case, education was one of those areas deemed essential. The important work that teachers perform has not been on center stage for several years,  she noted. “One of the takeaways I had is the essentialness of education,” she said. “I was hearing so much positive [news] about our teachers, and the important work they’re doing and the critical work they’re doing for the first time in a long time. It gave me hope that we would see a renewal of teaching, and an interest and respect for the work of our teachers.”

This conversation is part of a limited video series highlighting alumni who are working on the front lines of the pandemic. Previous conversations have featured topics including health care and news reporting. Stay tuned for upcoming conversations and stories about Elon Alumni in Action.