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South Valley Riverton Journal

How the pandemic changed education

Mar 01, 2024 01:57PM ● By Jet Burnham

The switch to virtual learning that was forced upon students and teachers in 2020 accelerated innovations in digital education tools and personalized learning opportunities. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

It has been four years this month since Jordan District schools announced they would temporarily shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the years that followed, the pandemic significantly impacted students’ academics, their habits, and how, where and when they attended classes.

Four years later, the majority of students are back to attending in-person classes and extracurricular activities without limits or requirements for social distancing, masking or quarantines. On the surface, schools look much like they did pre-COVID. However, there are some impacts of the pandemic that are still lingering, and some that have changed education permanently.

“The pandemic exaggerated the good and the bad,” Jordan Board of Education Member Darrell Robinson said. “It made the bad really bad, and made the good really good, but there’s never been a better time to be in public education. There’s fantastic things that came out of that horrible experience.”

Increased Innovation

Robinson, who had pushed for virtual learning options for years, saw them get approved when the pandemic made it necessary. Suddenly, every teacher was learning to use virtual platforms and experimenting with digital tools to enhance their lessons.

Carolyn Gough, who was the principal of Riverton High School in 2020, said the pandemic accelerated the adoption of online learning tools.

 “We were already moving in a good direction toward 1:1 with computers, but the pandemic expedited our progress,” she said. “Since then, digital teaching and learning has taken off and we are offering more and more to teachers in terms of programs, software and strategies they can use to assist students with technology.”After every student experienced online learning during 2020, some realized it was a better fit for them. To meet the demand for online options, Jordan District provided a virtual option for students for the 2020-21 school year and the following year opened the Jordan Virtual Learning Academy, with a fully developed virtual elementary, middle and high school.

“We had taught virtual classes for years,” Jordan District Superintendent Dr. Anthony Godfrey said. “But the difference is that we were able to accelerate that effort in ways that would not have been possible without the pandemic, so that we now have options in every grade, at every grade level.”

In addition to providing personalized learning for students, virtual curriculum created an unexpectedly reasonable solution to sick days and snow days.

The wide-spread availability of virtual platforms such as Zoom also changed how parents participated in school meetings. Five years ago, virtual meetings were not an option, but now schools offer virtual parent teacher conference appointments, virtual career and college preparation meetings and even virtual kindergarten orientation.

Stacee Worthen, a secondary counselor consultant for Jordan District, said providing the option for virtual PCCRs increased parent participation.

“It’s just allowed us some ways to think outside the box and say, ‘We’ve always done this, but we don’t always have to do it this way,’” she said. “COVID has given us the opportunity to say, ‘Maybe there’s a different way to do this and that different way is just as good, if not better.’”

District Counseling Specialist Hillary Emmer said this year most parents are opting for in-person meetings.

“Most of the time if people can connect in real life, they’re choosing that, but it still is a nice option for those that can’t come or if it is just more convenient,” she said.

The push for live-streamed board of education meetings never got momentum until during the pandemic when community participation increased and social distancing limited in-person attendance. Meetings continue to be live-streamed and accessible on YouTube.

Robinson is optimistic that advances in innovation will continue to improve education.

“I think what you’re starting to see with our district, now that COVID’s gone away and we’re moving back to being proactive again, you’re going to see some cool things again,” Robinson said. “We’re not done.”

Mental Health

A major impact the pandemic had on education was that it brought mental health to the forefront.

Jordan District Health and Wellness Program Administrator Dr. McKinley Withers said the pandemic didn’t necessarily cause new mental health issues, but it forced people to confront the problems they had been ignoring.

“I think the pandemic just really brought to the surface a lot of the underlying issues in our culture and amplified some of that isolation and loneliness,” he said.

Withers said the pandemic had a positive effect by normalizing discussions about mental health and reducing the stigma of asking for help, which has helped people who are struggling get the resources they need.

In 2018, Withers was the only district employee responsible for addressing the health and wellness of students and employees. Now, in 2024, he works with a team of six full-time district employees and 24 school-based support personnel who promote wellness and provide mental health resources to teachers, students and families.

“Before the pandemic, our work was in getting buy-in for mental health,” Withers said. “Post-pandemic, people are bought in. So, it’s just a matter of getting the right kinds of resources matched to the support that students and staff need.”

Since 2020, JSD has prioritized mental health support. Now every school has full-time assistant principals, full-time counselors and more campus monitors. Many schools also have a Wellness Room as a resource for both students and staff members.

Emmer said because everyone experienced the pandemic differently, the effects on different people and groups varied in length and severity.

“Some kids are really having a hard time, and some are just thriving and resilient and as successful as ever,” she said.

Middle school counselor Alyson Law said among her students, the mental and social effects from the isolation during the pandemic are ongoing.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve seen, especially in the mental health side, is the loneliness that kids are feeling, the separation and the loneliness,” she said. “We didn’t have a good way to deal with that, and we were all in this trauma response—parents included. There was this fear of survival for quite a while. And so the loneliness was very hard, especially for kids who were so used to social situations, to be so separated from one another.”

At Fort Herriman Middle, where Law works, the school year’s theme “You Belong” was chosen to address those lingering effects.

Many schools have addressed mental and social interruptions to their students with themes and activities to encourage students to resume making social connections and to access tools for dealing with the side effects of the pandemic.

Beginning in February 2021, Jordan District has set aside an annual Health and Wellness Day to encourage employees and students to prioritize their mental and physical wellness.
Academic Impact

Mental health can have a direct correlation to academic performance, however academic gaps are another major effect of the pandemic and the COVID-related disruptions to educational instruction.

When instructional hours were interrupted during the last few months of the 2019-20 school year with a sudden closure of schools, and then by frequent quarantine requirements during the 2020-21 school year, it caused gaps in the academic, social and behavioral development of children that continue to impact students’ academic performance.

Godfrey said there were expected academic gaps during the pandemic because teachers had to focus on the essentials. He remains optimistic that students are progressing and closing those gaps.

“We have to be thoughtful about making sure that we don’t fall into a deficit mentality and focus on the negatives,” Godfrey said. “We really do need to focus on being able to move forward. At the same time, we have to be realistic about the lasting impact of the pandemic. And what happened is we lost academic time, and we lost time for students to make social

Catherine Crosby, a middle school reading teacher, sees evidence of the interruption at particular developmental stages which affects students’ learning, even four years later.

“This year, I’m seeing kids that really struggle with making connections [in reading],” she said. “The kids I have now would have been in fifth grade when the pandemic started. What were they learning in fifth grade that they missed? Because this is where their struggle is this year and I’ve not ever seen that—usually that’s one of the easier strategies for students but that’s been really hard for these kids this year.”

Literacy specialist Tara Pearce was not surprised when there was a big dip in elementary students’ reading scores because of so many interruptions to their learning. The deficits have resulted in more students arriving in middle school lacking foundational reading skills.

Pearce said this year’s seventh graders were in fourth grade in March 2020, which is the year that reading skills transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.’

“If they struggled with any of those fundamentals before COVID, it’s really hard to get caught up unless they’re getting really explicit instruction,” Pearce said. “After COVID, we had a lot more students coming to us that had a hard time decoding or reading the words, so we realized we needed to step up what we’re doing here. We didn’t have any specific reading teachers in seventh grade before, but now every seventh grader right now has a reading class based on their reading level.”

Pearce said the biggest difference between pre-COVID and post-COVID was among the low-performing

“The numbers aren’t necessarily different, but how low they are is,” Pearce said. “So, we’ve had to adapt and learn to teach those lower level skills.”

Ben Jameson, director of JSD’s Evaluation, Research and Accountability Department, said the pandemic emphasized the inequity among certain groups of students.

“We noticed right off the bat that there were certain demographic groups that were more impacted in a negative way from the switch to online learning—demographics like students with disabilities and students that are learning English as a second language,” Jameson said. “So I think one of the positive outcomes is, we were paying attention to those student groups before, but we’re certainly paying lots more attention to them now to make sure that we’re closing those gaps in the moment that they need it and getting them back on track.” 

Jameson said the constraints on in-person interactions during 2020-21 impacted students’ ability to learn using the normal techniques, such as teachers modeling how to move their mouth to make specific letter sounds.

“In 2021, kindergarten and first grade students are learning those early sounds—how to make them, what letters make what sounds, diagraphs, blends and all of that stuff—it was modeled through a mask because everybody had to wear a mask at the time,” he said. “So that’s an example of how they would have been impacted. We actually saw in our early literacy assessment data that the kindergarteners especially lag behind in some of those early skills.”

The good news is that K-3 reading proficiency test scores are showing that students are bouncing back from the deficits. In 2018-19, 69.1% of K-3 students were at or above benchmark for early reading skills. That dropped to 63.1% in 2021, but was up to 70% in 2023.

“That’s an assessment where there’s an example that things have largely recovered back to pre-pandemic levels, and even starting to show an increase,” Jameson said. “In fact, that 70% in the spring of 2023 is the highest percentage of students at or above benchmark that we’ve had in the history of this assessment.” 


To reclaim academic gains, teachers and administrators are stressing to students and parents the importance of regular school attendance. However, the current and troubling attitudes toward attendance are another result of the pandemic, Godfrey said. 

“For all of us, I think, during and after the pandemic, we started to evaluate whether we were going to show up in person for something, even though our whole lives we had assumed we had to,” Godfrey said. “School suddenly became a question. Are we going to be virtual today? Are we not virtual today? Church, for many people, went virtual. Family gatherings—there were virtual conversations with family. So, I think we got used to not always showing up, and it’s taken some time to rebuild that.”

In December, Godfrey reported to the board of education that the number of students who are considered chronically absent, with 18 or more days of missed classes in one school year, has increased.

Crosby said she has students in her class that have no consistent academic records because of chronic absenteeism over the past few years. They continue to miss class for weeks at a time.

“We still are seeing things I think that are a result of COVID, just habits, and kids that we’ve just never gotten back,” Crosby said.

The average attendance rate for JSD students has decreased. In 2018, the average attendance rate was 90.9%. In 2020, when three months of the year were virtual, the rate was 93%. That fell to 91.7% in 2021, 88.9% in 2022 and 87.6% in 2023.

Jameson said the low attendance rates could be impacted by other variables, such as the availability of being able to complete classwork virtually.

“I think in people’s minds, it’s easier for them to make up assignments because it’s right there on Canvas, and so it’s actually a little bit easier to be absent,” he said. “But they sometimes don’t take into account the fact that it doesn’t compensate for the kind of instruction that they would receive in person in the classroom.”

Robinson suggests that the increase in absences could be a reflection of more students staying home when they are sick, which has become a more acceptable norm in the wake of the pandemic.

While attendance has not yet recovered from pandemic thinking, Godfrey remains optimistic.

“Our focus is on moving forward, helping students be at their best, and having a wide range of meaningful educational opportunities every day they come to school,” Godfrey said.

Innovation, mental health, academics and attendance are the main areas the pandemic has impacted education, but Emmer believes there could still be unknown repercussions.

“There probably are still impacts that we just don’t even know and won’t really know for quite a while, and what we’re figuring out is that we won’t really know until we’re there,” she said. “I think it’s just hard to say, ‘This is exactly because of COVID or this isn’t because of COVID’ because I just think, in general, education isn’t what it was before COVID. But it is more like it was.” λ