The parking lot and exterior of Broughal Middle School. Elementary and middle school students on the South Side are getting left behind as the pandemic deprived them of months of critical academic and social-emotional learning. Now, teachers across the Bethlehem Area School District are grappling with what it means to teach in a post-pandemic world. (Frances Mack/B&W Staff)

Left behind, but forced to move on: Bethlehem schools reconcile pandemic learning losses


When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to amend their traditional teaching format, students lost the ability to consistently meet with peers and foster a sense of community. 

The aftermath of this transitional education period continues to impact students’ ability to learn.

Children, including those across the Bethlehem Area School District, not only missed out on crucial academic instruction, but also the opportunity to develop social-emotional skills, including self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.  

“A lot of students were left behind,” said Janysa Morales, an eighth grade English teacher at East Hills Middle School and Lehigh alumna. 

Erika Davis, a curriculum and instruction PhD student at the University of Florida and Lehigh alumna, said, in the last few years, there has been a movement in Pennsylvania to incorporate social-emotional learning practices at the elementary school level. 

She said this task became difficult given the limitations of Zoom teaching, burnout and lack of patience. 

Aja Olivares, a first-grade teacher at Donegan Elementary School, said she remembers struggling to teach her class how to read and write in an online setting.

“There are things you take for granted, like teaching a child how to hold a pencil,” Olivares said. 

Rebecca Keptner, an eighth-grade English teacher at Broughal Middle School, said she stayed connected with her students by engaging with them on topics outside of academics. This included talking about what television shows they were watching or the conspiracy articles they were reading. 

At the beginning of last academic year, Broughal returned to full-class capacity, with masks and social distancing policies in place.

 After nine years at the school, Keptner said the 2021 to 2022 school year was her second hardest year of teaching — the first being her first year in the profession.

She said the increase in job losses, domestic abuse, food shortages and home loss across the country caused by the pandemic exacerbated the social-emotional struggles felt by middle schoolers at Broughal. 

At Donegan Elementary, some students who came from districts without a hybrid learning plan lost years of valuable social-emotional skills. 

Olivares said she thinks it will take several years for students to catch up, and every grade is going to experience different academic and social challenges. 

“We had to spend a lot of time on social-emotional learning our first year back, but we were still met with academic pressure from day one,” Olivares said. 

She said students experienced heightened levels of anxiety across the South Side’s school district. 

Davis said putting pressure on students to catch up is also making the transition harder on everyone. 

She said she finds a lack of confidence in the classroom can negatively affect students’ attachment to school, causing them to fall further behind. 

“I have to hope that teachers will continue to teach social-emotional skills, regardless if it’s written in or codified in the curriculum,” Davis said.  

Keptner said Broughal Middle School’s Peace Room, a space where students can go to escape their stress and relax, served as a great resource the first year back. However, she said her colleague who manages the space, Maryann Turanchik, became overwhelmed while helping students cope with a variety of issues. 

The pressure to build a connection with students online while also meeting academic benchmarks took a toll on some teachers’ mental health. 

Olivares said the pandemic made her realize that she was often giving too much of her time outside of school hours. She said it is important for teachers to take a step back and recalibrate.

Morales said she recognizes the district’s effort to unify teachers and prevent more students from falling behind. She said increasing the emphasis on community building, collaborative work and sticking to a schedule are all ways to start students on the right path. 

Keptner said she is inspired by her students and their ability to face challenges head on. She is hopeful for the future because she has seen students with anxiety and other social-emotional struggles cope with their challenges when given the right support. 

“Is it more important to satisfy the curriculum,” Keptner said. “Or is it more important to develop them holistically and make sure that they can handle their own inner crises?” 

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