BALTIMORE -- Students had just divided into small groups in Jaylin Ramsey’s fourth grade classroom, giving a boy the opportunity to tell her why his mind wasn’t on reading. His mother had COVID, which frightened him because another family member died of the virus. He blamed himself, thinking maybe he had given it to his mom.
“I am sorry you have to experience that at your young age,” Ramsey said. “That is not your fault.”
She pointed to her mask: “We didn’t ask for this.”
While one child pours out his feelings, another boy’s thoughts are locked up. He shuts down suddenly and gives Ramsey only a signal. He puts up one finger if he needs a drink of water and two fingers if he wants to talk. “I want him to share, but he doesn’t know how to. He will look at me wide-eyed or with a slight head nod, like he wants to share. But nothing is coming out,” she said.
Ramsey’s job as a fourth grade teacher at Glenmount Elementary/Middle School this fall has often involved unraveling the emotional mysteries from a pandemic that kept children apart and ravaged families with illness and hardship.
Eight weeks into the school year in Northeast Baltimore’s Glenham-Belhar neighborhood, the school’s teachers are relieved to be back. But they must do far more than fix the academic gaps that have increased during the pandemic and will hold their students back. Like teachers across the state and nation, they are dealing with the remnants of an unprecedented disruption in education that left students with behaviors that teachers and administrators are still struggling to help students through.
Glenmount is one of the city’s top-performing elementary schools. Its principal, Benjamin Mosley, now in his eighth year, operates what he describes as a well-oiled machine. At the quintessential 19th-century stone schoolhouse with a white wooden cupola, Black and brown children scream joyfully as they race around an enormous field and swarm a colorful playground.
The halls are orderly, students generally well behaved, and classrooms can be quiet or have a buzz of activity. But some students are showing signs of the stress of transitioning from being at home to spending the day in a classroom of 25 peers. Some of their students, teachers say, have trouble with routines, appear socially immature, and are somewhat awkward with one another as they try to relearn the skills they left behind two years ago.
Used to getting up and walking away from their computer screens at home, they still think they can just walk out of the classroom or wander around when they want to. And a few parents had DoorDash and Uber Eats, popular delivery services that gained new users during the pandemic, drop off lunch for their children. Mosley put a stop to that, realizing that one child eating a McDonald’s burger and fries at the table with those having a school lunch wasn’t going to work.
Mosley said the vast majority of students are back to learning as they did two years ago, even if they are still trying to catch up academically. However, a small percentage are struggling in a way they would not have before the pandemic. While that may be only two or three students in each classroom, he said, if you multiply that by the school’s 40 classrooms, the numbers are significant.
Keyana Gardner’s warm, fast-paced teaching style keeps nearly all her first grade students focused and engaged, but a few aren’t able to stay with her.
Gardner holds a lively back and forth with her students. She says three words, and the class has to respond with the two rhyming words. “Pop, hip, hop,” she said. “Pop, hop!” the class shouts back.
A slight girl in a pink dress wanders around the classroom. She gets a tissue and continues to survey the colorful displays on the walls, seemingly disconnected from learning, until she rejoins the class.
A boy in front of the classroom is irrepressible. He stands next to Gardner and spouts out the answers to every question she is writing on the whiteboard in front of the class. He was only 4 years old when the pandemic hit. At the beginning of the year, he and others had to be taught to stand in line, to follow classroom rules, to write with a pencil — skills that should have been ingrained by first grade.
Mosley can see the gaps in these academic and emotional skills in his youngest students. Diagnostic tests in math show that his middle school students miraculously didn’t lose that much ground.
In some cases, students seem to have made more progress with online learning.
“My little ones are still struggling to get reacclimated, more so than my middle ones. The students who have been with us for some time have gotten accustomed to the classroom quickly,” he said.
Seventh grader Jayla Boulware liked learning at home.
“I loved virtual learning. It helped me focus more,” the 12-year-old said.
Her social interactions diminished. Although she played with friends at a nearby park when schools were shut down, she said that gradually she lost contact with some of them. She and most of her friends didn’t have phones.
“I feel COVID has really changed people,” Jayla said, describing them as more confident, bold and more outgoing.
She remains a top student, she said, and is looking forward to attending a high school with entrance requirements.
Marquice Wills, 13, transferred to Glenmount this year and is glad to be back in school and meeting new people.
“You don’t want to always be alone, because then you will be miserable,” he said. But he, too, said students have been changed by the pandemic. They are more independent, and need their friends less, he said.
Seventh grade math teacher Beatryce Johnson is trying to help students return to the business of school.
“They had so much freedom and know we are putting them into a structured environment,” she said. “It is back to business.”
Johnson said she can see her students grow frustrated more quickly than they did two years ago when they met an obstacle in learning.
“Right now, I am teaching seventh grade skills to students who haven’t fully mastered fifth grade skills,” she said.
Beyond academic lags, she believes the lack of socialization has affected their maturity. They are less patient with one another and more likely to take offense. One of her students began poking another student he didn’t know. Within seconds, they were aggressive and shouting at each other, she said. “They haven’t been around people outside of their home for so long,” she said.
Mosley said he expected to see students with more emotional issues after the pandemic.
“What I did not forecast was the aggression,” he said. “We are still getting to the depth of our students. We are racing against time.”
Students are dealing with many issues they have not had to deal with before. Larger numbers of Glenmount children have lost a parent, become homeless or are now in foster care.
Glenmount’s teachers and administrators say they have reacted by giving students more grace, more patience and more empathy. They have instituted a greater use of restorative practices, a daily check-in that allows students to express their emotions. Mosley will let a homeless student who lives in a shelter wander a hall for 10 minutes with his hoodie up, knowing that may be the only 10 minutes of peace he will have that day.
Gardner lets her first grader roam the classroom, if needed. She is not distracting others. When a boy bursts into tears, he can sit in the beanbag chair for a few minutes to calm down. Ramsey and a social worker will talk to the boy struggling with family illness, as well as others who have issues. Ramsey has faith that over time, she will be able to give the boy who seems to shut down a safe enough space to let go of his hidden sorrows.
“We are a work in progress,” said the school’s social worker, Kimberly Ford. “It is going to take a little longer.”