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What The 2020–21 School Year Taught Us About Science Teaching and Learning

The Science Teacher—May/June 2021 (Volume 88, Issue 5)

By Ann Haley MacKenzie

The school year is drawing to a close for many of us. Many schools are extending learning into the summer to address the gaps in learning experienced this year due to COVID. Some schools have been face-to-face since August. Others have been remote for the full year. Others are part hybrid, part face-to-face. Others follow yet additional models of instruction. For many of us, the year was definitely surreal and felt like our first year of teaching all over again.

What lessons did we learn this year? Those who were hybrid faced blackened screens instead of student faces. Students didn’t want to share the condition of their homes. Students didn’t want others to see their faces for fear of ridicule. Some students were just reticent to have their faces on the screens. The lack of equity quickly surfaced among schools. Some parents yelled in the background while others were supportive. Eighth graders babysat younger siblings while still trying to follow the class lesson. Babies in diapers walking behind the students were not an uncommon sight for many teachers; child care was front and center of some students’ lives, experiencing life way beyond their years. Just about every permutation of the lives of our students rose up for us throughout the school year.

Somehow we overcame these challenges and produced many success stories. In August, we tried to figure how to configure our classrooms for social distancing—a Herculean task when so many science classrooms are undersized. In one instance, a science teacher moved her desks around multiple times, unable to find the CDC’s suggested six-foot distance. An administrator visited her classroom and questioned why there wasn’t adequate distance between the students. She responded with “I’ve tried everything. If you can figure it out, please do.” The administrator turned on his heels and left shaking his head. She did the best she could given the task before her.

Another teacher, in an ancient school where the ventilation system is suspect and does not come near the requirements necessary for proper air flow, worried for the safety of herself and her students. And of course, masks. Would students wear their masks properly? Some did. Some didn’t. We had to negotiate all of these challenges (none of this is news to you).

Let’s talk about successes. We embraced technology like never before. We used everything from Jamboard, Edpuzzle, Nearpod, Flipgrid, Padlet, and all the other avenues for engagement. We saw our students embrace these changes in science delivery. They showed sides of their knowledge we do not always see during our teaching careers. We saw students’ creativity, problem-solving skills, and innovative thinking in our chats and in our classrooms. Deep discussions of content ensued no matter the delivery. It is a time of celebration of these instructional feats given the conditions we faced.

We took the science curriculum before us and made it more relevant than ever for our students. Simulations, virtual labs, data collection from online databases, analysis of media literacy, and homemade STEM challenges came alive in our classrooms and in our students’ homes. Teachers took advantage of the pandemic and created curricula focusing on COVID. Students saw the process of science unfold before their eyes, which hadn’t happened since the 1980s when AIDS/HIV ravaged the world leaving behind many of the same questions. What is this virus affecting so many? What are its origins? What is the best form of medicine to overcome this horrific disease? COVID is not exactly the same, but still brought the scientific enterprise front and center for our students. How does scientific knowledge change over time? How does scientific information get relayed accurately to the public? How do conspiracy theories surface and flourish? What role does social media play in spreading misinformation?

The COVID pandemic will impact Gen Z’s lives for years to come, much like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 impacted those generations. Research is being done on the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of our students. Anxiety and depression levels have skyrocketed, along with suicidal ideation throughout the pandemic. Feelings of isolation spread throughout this generation. Mental health professionals are wondering how long the impact of the pandemic will last and how it will affect our teaching. How will we need to adjust our teaching to help our students?

Standardized testing for the year is yet another issue facing us. Is it ethical? Is it warranted? Is it necessary? Is it equitable? Given low attendance rates in many classes during hybrid instruction, how will students master the content? Some teachers made huge strides given the situation by adjusting their hybrid lessons in a way so captivating that students attended as if there was no pandemic. Some teachers report turn-in rates of assignments to be only 30–40 percent, while others achieved an 80 percent return rate when teaching via hybrid methods.

What existed in these classrooms to account for these differences? Teachers used TikTok to engage their students. Teachers used humor to lift the spirits of their students. Teachers gave empathy and compassion to those students dealing with chronic trauma in their lives. Teaching is the most complex profession, and this year tested all of our acumen dealing with complexities never before seen in the history of science teaching.

We should be applauded and celebrated by school boards, administrators, and parents. We faced and overcame insurmountable challenges while keeping ourselves and our students safe throughout the year to the best of our abilities. We must also take time to mourn the teachers we lost to the pandemic. Their talents can never be replaced. Their dedication to the profession was priceless. We can never forget them. For students who lost loved ones, we addressed their loss with compassion and understanding.

With vaccines available now, some travel may rejuvenate us during the summer months. We must take time to address our own emotional needs. We must use the summer to revitalize, rest, and relax while waiting to hear what the next school year will bring. May the Rejuvenation poem lead you to nature, to exercise, to reading, to art, and other activities to rejuvenate your teaching spirit.


Sculpted by nature they tower over all,

Casting great shadows across valleys and emerald lakes,

Fresh air fills my lungs,

Chutes carved into stone walls,

Scars across evergreens,

White flowers scattered along the tree line,

Sun rays penetrate ***** clouds,

Tree covered train, trails along winding tracks,

touring through tremendous terrain,

traveling to the West,

Rock surfing down the face of Cascade

Bathed and drank from her *****

Rainbow bridges from mountain to mountain

Thunder booms in the distance

Heavenly clouds to my right, sun beaming on my cliff

Butterfly lake darkening its greens

Rocks slip, I’m done...



Balance restored I resume breathing

Violet mountain flowers lead me to safety


Nathan Vienneau, September, 2014


Ann Haley MacKenzie ( is Editor of The Science Teacher

Distance Learning Teacher Preparation High School

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