Teaching History During These COVID-19 Times

The title of this article should go without saying that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered human interaction. Social distancing, face masks, temperature checks, travel bans, and stay-at-home orders have filled the nightly news, airwaves, and social media feeds for months. Working remotely has become the standard for those who can perform their jobs from home (present company included). For those who are suffering a more stressful situation, they’re filing for unemployment or cutting costs to fit a budget that barely supports them. But this pandemic goes beyond economic loss: family members, friends, and loved ones that have succumbed to this disease are traumatized forever. It’s no doubt that 2020 will be left forever with the pandemic’s mark.

All levels of society made adjustments to their normal operations. They changed their hours, points of contact, limited capacity, strict physical distancing; anything to significantly reduce human contact. One sector that was stopped dead in its tracks was education. Schools at all levels gradually closed throughout the winter and by early spring, public schools and universities shut their doors. In the United States local options still kept some institutions open, but the majority of schools closed to keep the transmission of COVID-19 down in the student population. Other countries in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia implemented country wide closures until further notice. Only the government would grant approval for re-openings and only then under strict guidelines.

Cue the explosive rise of distance learning and Zoom classrooms! To be honest, I never even heard of Zoom prior to the pandemic. Distance learning isn’t exactly a novel concept though. People were taking correspondence courses since the mid-20th century and educational software has made it possible to obtain college degrees from schools hundreds of miles away. What’s different in 2020 though is that online classes in real-time are replicating the traditional classroom experience in an interactive, digital format. Simultaneously, learning institutions such as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the National Park Service (NPS), the Smithsonian, and hundreds of others have taken to social media, webinars, and virtual tours to promote their holdings and conduct classroom work. This provides a unique way to teach history to the general public. They bring the content to you via computer.

From a research and teaching perspective, history has always required primary documents to preserve the historical record for educational use. Traditionally, people needed to search extensive holdings online and then (if they weren’t digitized) they had to make arrangements to view the records in person at the holding location. Certain holdings weren’t available online at all so in-person research was the only option. Since the pandemic closed many of these institutions or limited them to completing emergency work (needing pertinent medical information as an example), they had to make access possible through the internet at an exponential rate. Educator resources also needed to be made available online and for history teachers, projects such as DocsTeach, History Hub, and a host of research websites have provided great historical content to engage students virtually. Distance learning is not without its flaws though. Internet accessibility and the required tools are not equal by any means. Without trying to explain the dense jungle of copyright infringement and exceptions, educators have worked tirelessly to bring as much content as possible to their lessons that do not break any copyright laws. Equal access to learning tools is another issue. Not every school can afford to purchase tablets for their students and not every home has internet access which makes distance learning challenging. These obstacles need to be worked out on the community and policy level to ensure that all students have equal opportunity to learn from the same resources.

Improvisation is the theme of COVID-19 pandemic. Surely you’ve seen the social media videos of people building impromptu roller coasters, beaches, snowy mountain slopes, and water parks in their backyard. People have come up with some ingenious ideas to replicate what COVID-19 has cancelled. There are plenty of ways to supplement learning too! You can share books with neighbors, take a virtual tour of a museum or park, make some historical arts and crafts, or perform a historical re-enactment! In grade school, we learned about the Lewis and Clark expedition through crafting and my teacher explained how they were used. This was a fantastic way to expand upon the history rather than only reading it in a textbook. I made a rabbit fur lined leather journal and wrote in some entries about the expedition, complete with sketches of animals Lewis and Clark saw on their journey (pronghorns, bison, elk, etc.) My teacher was so impressed that she put my journal on display in the school library (it fed my 12-year old ego so much it was almost dangerous). Immersive activities like these put the lesson in a new dynamic, making you think about the history in a novel way. Sometimes a tactile approach like this can be good depending on how you learn best.

Throughout it all, we shouldn’t forget about the socio-economic issues being highlighted throughout this pandemic. Communities see the reliance that families have on their school system when schools are replaced with distance learning. Students of families living at or below the poverty line aren’t receiving school meals or receiving special educational training to assist with learning disabilities. Additionally, working parents needed to make adjustments with their work schedules to accommodate their children at home if they can. While some families can have that option of homeschooling children and helping with distance learning, a large section of the population has struggled to keep both food on the table and children educated with the resources at hand. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic indeed stretches far beyond the medical data and the loss of life. It has lifted a window shade on what our society is like and what we can do to improve it for everyone.

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