Op-Ed: The rise of the Zoombies: Lifeless, detached students have returned to my classroom

·4 min read
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA: A child walks the hallway while attending a LEARNs summer program at Washington Elementary School in Pasadena on Friday, July 9, 2021. In the wake of pandemic-related learning loss, districts across California had high hopes for Summer programs that might help catch kids up-and there's unprecedented state funding to do so. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
A child walks down a hallway during a summer program at Washington Elementary School in Pasadena. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Almost every teacher I know has noticed the same sinister reality this summer: Kids have come back to the classroom. But the classroom hasn’t come back to the kids.

Far from it.

More to the point, they are back, they are sitting at their desks, but in many ways they now embody the detached, lifeless malaise of a hipster zombie incapable of showing the slightest patina of zest or zeal. This isn’t their fault, mind you. They have spent the last year in a learning ecosystem that was decidedly not of their choosing — watching Zoom classes, learning through omnipresent pixilated screens that demanded little from them and, in too many instances, taught them even less.

And now?

Now, they are perpetually chilled out, difficult to intellectually prod or verbally poke. They resist verbal engagement with me — or with each other. At the end of the day, we usually have a few minutes to spare before the bell rings. But nowadays there’s little talking. No socializing. No teenage gossiping or flirting. Instead, they silently self-medicate on their devices. For decades the bell would ring and students would fly out of the classroom like it was on fire. Now, their departure is, at best, a leisurely gait.

So we meander forward during this summer school session, making our way through the world history curriculum. The students are oddly obedient. They never argue. Never talk over me. They do everything they are “supposed” to do. But they ask zero questions. They make zero connections. It’s hard to make them laugh, and I can’t tell if they are smiling behind their masks. I am skeptical that they are learning anything of substance despite my best efforts. Their eyes are distant. I can’t decide if they are confused, disoriented or bewildered by the COVID-caused whirlwind they have endured.

My class is almost entirely populated by students who haven’t learned traditionally in nearly a year and a half. And they don’t pull any punches about the difficult pedagogic terrain that lies ahead.

“Don’t expect things to be easy,” they warn in their understated way.

Their words should serve as a clarion warning to educators and parents in the months ahead.

They admit to watching Netflix during their virtual classes and to being perpetually distracted by endless TikTok videos. They confess to staying in bed all day on a school day and to cheating during exams. They reveal they’ve been spending almost 10 hours a day on their cellphones and say they took advantage of every opportunity to turn in their work ridiculously late.

Teaching kids with these habits is going to be — well, there really are no apt metaphors or appropriate educational parallels to the wall of difficulty facing educators this fall. Teacher morale was low before the pandemic began.

In truth, these problems only hint at more significant problems to come.

My worry is far graver than muted summer-school students or the prospect of a rough restart for most of our kids in the coming school year. My long-term concern is that the many months of distance protocols and Zoom classes that required endless teacher patience will fundamentally redefine what the process of education should look like for a generation of young people.

This redefinition would downplay what it means to acquire an education of genuine substance. If our new, emerging paradigm demands infinite teacher patience and excuses constant student distraction, if relaxed standards and anonymous screens go from being temporary quirks of pandemic life to a baseline of educational normalcy, then the consequences will echo for decades.

Our students can academically soar only if they have laid strong foundations. Yet, strong foundations are the consequence of the very behaviors that seem to be in short supply this summer: diligence, curiosity and, most elusive of all, sustained focus.

This fall it will likely become obvious that the calculus student who halfheartedly learned pre-calculus behind an anonymous screen for an entire year won’t be able to soar. Nor will the second-grader who’s asked to read passages when vowels weren’t mastered in first grade.

Take these examples and apply them to every subject of every student in every grade level, then extrapolate these deficiencies a few more years, and the titanic scope of students’ diminished possibilities becomes clear.

Indeed, for those of us who hold a more romantic view of education, who believe it can facilitate a meaningful life or help us face the difficulties of the human condition, the long-lasting effects of COVID-19 will be felt not only in our pocketbooks but in our souls.

At its finest, education is not remote but intensely personal. It should push us. Make us uncomfortable. Challenge our assumptions. Exalt in our possibilities. But none of this can happen when the spirit of the classroom is deadened and ill-defined. None of it can happen if we allow our young people to become permanent classroom Zoombies.

Jeremy S. Adams has taught high school and college civics in Bakersfield for more than 20 years. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.