Just over two years ago, before COVID-19 began killing 950,000 Americans and upending public education, Lauren DeNicola led her 9th grade biology students at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in suburban New Jersey through a new computer-based learning simulation.
The exercise was called ‘Waterville.’ It was designed to teach children about complex systems. Farmers in a virtual town wanted more land to cultivate. But local fisherman worried about disturbing a nearby pond that hosted an annual bass-fishing tournament. Your job, DeNicola told the teenagers as she slid around her windowless classroom, crowded with kidney-shaped lab desks bolted to the tile floor, is to model scenarios in search of a solution that works for the farmers but doesn’t disrupt the delicate balance of algae, minnows, and smallmouth bass in the pond.
“All of us are going to gather data on all three of these organisms over time,” said the thirty-something teacher, then in her 13th year in the classroom. We’ll be explorers together, she added.
For a moment, it seemed as though the school district’s own carefully calibrated ecosystem was stable and secure. The project was exactly the kind of lesson favored by Scotch Plains-Fanwood Superintendent Joan Mast, hired just that summer to boost the creativity and critical thinking skills of the towns’ 5,500 students. It also showed why local parents like Suresh Srinivasan and Rema Suresh remained so loyal to the district and its educators, who had already helped launch their older son Rohan on to college and were similarly invested in helping their then-12-year-old daughter Saanvi pursue her passions, which ranged from astronomy to engineering.
“She made her own name very quickly,” Rema Suresh said. “Now, Rohan is known as Saanvi’s brother.”
Over the next two weeks, however, the first 41 Americans died from COVID-19. Another 1,600 tested positive. On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. The magnitude of what was unfolding hit Mast when she was forced to cancel an exchange program involving several students from Italy whose plane tickets had already been purchased. That Friday, students swarmed principal David Heisey inside the high school’s noisy cafeteria, thrusting their phones forward so he could see the social media posts from surrounding districts ordering all their schools closed. At nearby Park Middle, Saanvi and her classmates cheered when Scotch Plains-Fanwood announced it would follow suit.
It felt like a little vacation. Maybe the disruption would last two weeks.
More than 24 months later, everyone is still scraping and clawing to get back to what was. Scotch Plains-Fanwood is just one of the country’s 13,000 school districts. It is relatively wealthy and has borne just a sliver of the damage COVID-19 has inflicted on schools. But even the journey of the more fortunate helps illuminate an extraordinary era of loss and grief, anger and outrage, everyday heroism and surprising innovations—especially when combined with an analysis of more than two dozen surveys of America’s educators administered by the EdWeek Research Center since the outset of the pandemic. One of the earliest, administered online in March of 2020, found a public education system that had been punched in the mouth. Nearly all of the nation’s school districts were shuttering their physical buildings. More than half weren’t yet running online classes for all students. Principals and superintendents were frantically trying to buy hand sanitizer and deliver meals to hungry children.
65% of survey respondents said schools should focus on slowing the spread of COVID-19, even if it meant staying closed.
In Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Mast called a day of emergency meetings.
“What I remember was the rallying, everyone coming together,” the superintendent said. “People were just like, ‘OK, we’re going to change how we do absolutely everything.’”
The pandemic disrupts the public education ecosystem
A picturesque Victorian train station built in the 1890s offers a direct line from Scotch Plains and Fanwood into New York City, just 25 miles to the east.
The towns have well-tended ranch and colonial homes surrounding wide tree-lined streets. The public schools are consistently ranked among the top 10 percent in the state. For decades, the middle-class families who live here have marked time and progress through a series of cherished rituals, from first days of kindergarten to Friday night football games to graduation ceremonies on the field outside the high school.
All over America, though, those moments began disappearing when the pandemic took hold. During the spring of 2020, 77 percent of district leaders surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center reported that they’d done away with all class trips. Seventy-one percent said athletic events were canceled. Forty-one percent wouldn’t hold a prom. Instead, thousands of teachers and administrators were getting trained on how to provide grief counseling over Zoom.
The sting hit Scotch Plains-Fanwood when the high school’s production of Chicago was shut down mid-run. Sports, extracurriculars, and state tests soon followed. People in the towns watched in stunned disbelief as neighboring counties set up field hospitals and mobile morgues. For weeks and then months, students like Saanvi Suresh were stuck in their bedrooms, working alone on assignments that had been posted in Google Classroom. The district tried to boost morale by hosting a virtual crazy sock day and reimagining graduation as a motorcade. It wasn’t the same.
“If you had a joke to share, it was hard to do it,” Saanvi said.
The fallout soon exposed the underside of the public education system. Concerns about children “falling behind” spread nearly as fast as the virus, casting a harsh light on the deeply ingrained but often-unspoken American idea that schooling is a kind of race that some children will win and others will lose. In well-to-do enclaves like Scotch Plains and Fanwood, long home to the winners, a critical mass of families began to view the disruption of the established order as an existential threat.
“From March until June, there was a certain level of acceptance,” said Mast, the superintendent. “But when those losses started becoming felt, I think that’s when the emotion started coming out in the community.”
That summer of 2020, the district asked families what they wanted for the coming school year. Twenty-one percent hoped to keep their children at home. Thirty-six percent hoped for a return to in-person learning. Forty-three percent favored some kind of hybrid approach. The divide was mirrored in the EdWeek Research Center’s survey data, which showed that 52 percent of the nation’s educators wanted schools to physically re-open while 48 percent did not.
91% of survey respondents said teaching children to read remotely with digital materials was more challenging than in-person with print materials.
Absent clear guidance from federal, state, or county authorities, Mast and her team outlined a complicated plan to bring staggered cohorts of students back into Scotch Plains-Fanwood school buildings for a few days a week, four hours a day.
The first angry petition in support of full-time in-person learning appeared online three days later.
Tempers were still short a week later when the superintendent delivered more bad news.
Like other school systems around the country, Scotch Plains-Fanwood was clambering to implement a slew of new safety measures, from temperature checks to one-way hallways.
The district’s maintenance staff warned that the HVAC systems in the schools weren’t equipped to trap COVID-19 particles. Mast spent hours trying to decipher reports full of unfamiliar lingo about MERV-13 air filters and aerosol virus transmission. On August 13, Democratic New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy issued an executive order allowing schools to start all-remote if they couldn’t meet necessary safety requirements. The superintendent decided to err on the side of caution.
“I became fixated on how do I know that every room is a safe place to put students and teachers,” Mast said.
The resulting HVAC analysis and repairs ultimately cost the district more than $709,000. They also delayed the return to any in-person schooling by months. Furious parents escalated their protests from online petitions to an in-person rally outside the local middle school.
“Most of us chose hybrid. That choice was taken away from us,” one local mom told local news outlet TAPintoSPF.
Saanvi’s parents struggled to understand the anger.
“I can’t speak for other people,” Rema Suresh said. “But what I saw was teachers going above and beyond to keep students engaged.”
Still, by October 2020, the district had lost nearly 200 students. The district brought its youngest children back on a hybrid schedule, then quickly had to shut back down when 15 students and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 , causing 84 people to be placed into quarantine. Once again, the superintendent was scrambling, this time to cover teacher-less classrooms and coordinate the schedules of staff members who lived in neighboring communities dealing with shutdowns and quarantines of their own.
“The problem became more complex,” Mast said. “Not only was it more complexity in our system, but the interconnectivity with other local systems.”
By that point, however, some local residents were no longer willing to extend the district any grace. On December 23, 2020, parents filed a lawsuit seeking to force Scotch Plains-Fanwood schools to reopen for in-person learning.
“We have lost all trust in Dr. Mast and the Board of Education,” parent and plaintiff Danielle Wildstein told TAPintoSPF. “We want to preserve what’s left of the school year.”
A year of constant change, mounting exhaustion, and federal lifelines
Teacher Lauren DeNicola was one of thousands caught in the verbal and legal crossfire.
She lived in nearby Sayreville, N.J., just a mile from her childhood home, which her mom was terrified to leave because she suffered from an autoimmune condition. DeNicola also had a 3rd grader and preschooler of her own, both of whom demanded constant attention to make it through their own half-days of remote schooling.
“It was an emotional roller-coaster,” she said.
Still, DeNicola was a teacher at heart. After concluding that things weren’t going back to normal anytime soon, she spent the summer of 2020 taking an online course on remote teaching offered by an Australian university. She also spent hours in virtual professional-development sessions hosted by the Michigan Association of Biology Teachers and taking part in long discussions in a Facebook group for biology teachers.
“My personality is that I like to go into things very prepared,” she said.
She wasn’t alone. Teachers at Park Middle School arranged for remote students like Saanvi to do backyard photography shoots and virtual lab experiments on kinetic energy. They even created a new club called Enchanted Engineering. Saanvi sketched out designs for a flying hot-air umbrella, then used her new invention as a literary device to rewrite the ending of her favorite fairy tale.
“Cinderella longed to go back home, so she ran down the steps and reached for her umbrella,” she wrote. “The prince wondered who this maiden was and watched her walk—no…FLY off with her umbrella into the midnight sky.”
For all the bright spots, however, the burden of constant uncertainty kept growing heavier. The EdWeek Research Center found that thousands of districts were implementing a hodgepodge of remote and hybrid instructional models, many of which shifted from week to week throughout the 2020-21 school year.
The country also seemed to be splintering. Debates raged over whether to force teachers to work from their classrooms and students to turn on their laptop cameras and everyone to wear masks in school buildings.
All the while, instruction kept suffering. Eighty-six percent of educators told the EdWeek Research Center they were relying more heavily on software as a primary teaching tool. Eighty percent reported lower student engagement. Sixty-nine percent reported ongoing challenges with unreliable student Wi-Fi. Sixty percent said they were doing less small group and one-on-one teaching.
The problems didn’t stop when the calendar flipped to 2021. Scotch Plains-Fanwood finally brought middle and high school students back into school buildings on January 19. That same day, the district was hit with a cyberattack that shut down its computer network and caused schools to close for a day.
Amid the chaos, DeNicola prepared to teach the Waterville simulation for a second time. The logistical and technical challenges had multiplied by several orders of magnitude.
74% of survey respondents approved President Biden's call to get all schools back to full-time in-person learning within 100 days.
Some of her students were still learning entirely from home. DeNicola had to stand behind her desk for entire 77-minute periods to make sure they could see her on their computer screens. The kids in her classroom, meanwhile, sat surrounded by clear shields. They couldn’t share pencils or lab equipment, and they struggled to stay six feet apart because the lab tables were fixed in place. Even the 3,350 new iPads distributed by the district were a source of confusion. Many of DeNicola’s students were still using their personal laptops, creating a crazy technological stew for teachers to navigate.
When the lesson began, a significant chunk of the class was just silent black squares on DeNicola’s computer screen. The enthusiastic chatter from the year before was just a memory. Students clicked ‘run’ expecting to see an animation that showed the Waterville ecosystem evolving over time, allowing them to track changes in the number of algae, minnows, and smallmouth bass living in the pond as its oxygen levels fluctuated. Instead, a glitch caused an image of a giant blue fish to take over the screens of those using iPads.
“The whole idea of complex systems really hit me differently,” DeNicola said.
Mercifully, though, lifelines soon began to arrive. Congress allocated more than $190 billion to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, helping schools pay for tutors and cleaning supplies and millions of computing devices. The $1.8 million that came to Scotch Plains-Fanwood schools was quickly plowed into mental health supports, technology training, and a massive contact-tracing effort.
New vaccines also raised the nation’s spirits. By early April 2021, two-thirds of teachers and administrators told the EdWeek Research Center they’d been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. By the end of the month, that figure had shot up to 80 percent.
Still, life in America’s schools was hardly back to normal. Nationally, 92 percent of teachers said their job was more stressful than pre-pandemic. In New Jersey, 534 of the state’s 811 public school districts were still doing hybrid learning. At Scotch Plains-Fanwood High, Principal Heisey fought off despair as he watched masked teenagers march silently in single-file lines down the school’s one-way hallways, unsure how to connect with their friends in the somber new environment.
“We didn’t even serve lunch,” the principal said.
Saanvi Suresh was among those who elected to keep learning from home. From her bedroom, she helped convince the Scotch Plains-Fanwood STEAM Club to restart its Junior Solar Sprint program. She also used a Raspberry Pi microcontroller, an ultrasonic distance sensor, and computer code to create a musical instrument called a theremin, recording herself playing a haunting orchestra by waving her hands in front of the device.
“I realized how everything had to work together for the circuit to function seamlessly,” Saanvi wrote in a reflection essay for the project.
Finally, with 10 days left in 8th grade, she worked up the courage to step foot back inside Park Middle with her teachers. Saanvi said she’d never seen their legs before.
Just before the school year ended, NASA announced it would run a student competition called TechRise. Winners would get to design experiments to be tested on a rocket launched into suborbital spaceflight. After 14 months of exploring her own expansive internal world, Saanvi thought the idea of doing science in outer space made a strange kind of sense.
Applicants needed a sponsor from their school, but she wasn’t too worried. Even from afar, her teachers had never stopped investing in her.
“What made it amazing,” she said, “was that they were all so kind.”
Battered and bruised, schools struggle back to their feet
As the 2021-22 school year approached, the full scope of the academic damage caused by the pandemic started to become evident.
Research studies also showed math and reading scores had plummeted dramatically since the onset of the pandemic. The declines were largest in schools serving a high number of low-income students. Millions of children had been disconnected from school or suffered major disruptions as they learned to read or speak English or master their multiplication tables.
Scotch Plains and Fanwood, where fewer than 1 percent of families live below the poverty line and all of the school district’s employees survived the pandemic, absorbed the blows better than most. Overall, the district’s students continued to make progress and score above the national average on a widely used benchmark assessment called MAP Growth.
With two parents who kept their jobs and no one in her family lost to COVID-19, Saanvi Suresh was especially lucky.
The good fortune continued when she received her 9th grade class schedule. Just like her older brother, Saanvi got DeNicola for biology. Her mother was thrilled.
“Just don’t ask her on the first day and scare her,” Rema Suresh advised when her daughter asked if the teacher might be a good sponsor for her NASA project.
Mindful of the advice, Saanvi waited until day three. She was still learning her way around the high school. But after a single hour watching DeNicola interact with in-person students, she was confident she would say yes.
“Even through her mask, I could see she was smiling,” the now-14-year-old said.
She and the friends she’d recruited to the project dubbed themselves the Space Gals. Then they set to work figuring out what astronauts need to grow plants in zero gravity. Less than a week before the November 3 application deadline, they had a breakthrough on how to prototype a new system that might someday support commercial farming on Mars.
“NASA is already trying to figure out how to use hydroponics,” their final proposal read. “Our plan is different. We have designed an irrigation system for outer space.”
DeNicola was blown away.
By that point, it seemed like Scotch Plains-Fanwood schools were returning to some semblance of normalcy. The number of positive COVID-19 cases in the district dwindled to nine, then seven. Even after the highly contagious omicron variant began sweeping the nation, the district was able to avoid another shutdown. With nearly all Scotch Plains-Fanwood students back to full-time in-person learning, the lawsuit filed a year earlier was dismissed just before Christmas.
“Everyone in the district wanted the same things those parents wanted,” said Mast. “If you sue for the sun to rise, eventually you will prevail.”
All over the country, public schools seemed to be slowly climbing back to their feet, even though the virus was still adapting and infecting hundreds of thousands of people per day.
Ongoing surveys administered by the EdWeek Research Center showed they still faced huge challenges. More then 40 percent of administrators said that principals or the superintendent in their district had been physically or verbally threatened over their COVID-19 responses. Finding substitute teachers, bus drivers, and paraprofessionals was often impossible. Two-thirds of respondents said student misbehavior was worse than it had been pre-pandemic. Student absentee rates remained high.
But educators also saw signs of healing in the little things.
“When you see the kids smelling the French fries, it’s just pure joy,” Mast said when hot lunch lines returned to the local middle school.
14% of survey respondents said their district had limited or shut down in-person instruction during the 2021-22 school year.
By that point, it was 2022. NASA was preparing to announce the winners of its TechRise challenge. DeNicola invited the Space Gals to watch the livestream with her third-period AP Biology students. When the words “Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School” appeared on the screen, everyone jumped from their seats and cheered wildly for Saanvi and her teammates.
Then, in mid-February, it was time for DeNicola to run the Waterville simulation for a third time.
The trauma of the past two years was still fresh. Every time the teacher’s phone buzzed, she felt a flash of panic that her kids’ school was announcing another shutdown or quarantine.
But DeNicola had also found a few silver linings. Along with the simulation’s designers, she’d tweaked the exercise to have students focus more on considering the competing perspectives of the different stakeholders in the fictional town. She also wanted to emphasize a set of broad scientific practices—how to develop theories, how to gather data, how to decide what’s true—that seemed more important than ever. And DeNicola especially wanted her classes to grapple with the reality that many real-world dilemmas don’t have a single “right” answer.
“It’s not about playing school,” she said. “It’s about how we can solve problems and make the best decisions possible with the information we have.”
On a chilly Wednesday afternoon, DeNicola’s freshmen sauntered past the new Medify Airx 2500 air purifier at the front of her room and found their seats. No one was in quarantine. Saanvi tugged at the sleeves of her grey NASA hoodie and pulled out her laptop.
As the class got to work, the lessons of the past two years appeared in small moments. Now at ease with a raft of new online tools, DeNicola showed the students how to pool their data and analyze it collaboratively in a shared Google Sheet. Then she offered the class a hard-earned new perspective.
“If one component changes, that can have an impact across the rest of the system,” she said. “But sometimes, even when there’s a change to an individual, that doesn’t mean the whole system is going to fail.”
Saanvi was part of the group tasked with modeling what would happen if Waterville allowed its farmers to cultivate all the land they wanted for themselves. When she hit ‘run’ to start the simulation, no giant blue fish took over her iPad. But as the virtual days in Waterville’s digital ecosystem flashed by, algae slowly began to overrun the pond, causing the minnow population to dwindle from more than 100 down to two, then one, then die out entirely.
When it was time for the students to make sense of what they’d observed, DeNicola was ready.
“What can we learn from this?” the teacher asked.
“It was really helpful in learning how to make a decision for a community,” Saanvi said later, referring to both the lesson and the incredible disruptions that forced the country and its public schools to rethink their priorities over the past two years. “Sometimes, you have to be more creative in the way you do things.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as How Schools Survived Two Years of COVID-19