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Pivoting to Respond to Challenging Times

HGSE faculty and students changed course mid-stream to tackle pandemic-related educational challenges, redirecting final projects to consider emerging needs and troubling inequities
MBE class in Zoom
Students in Ola Ozernov-Palchik's class, Mind, Brain, and Education: Research Methods and Critical Topics, present their final projects as part of a pitch competition over Zoom

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Harvard shifted to online learning, many HGSE courses were nearing the second half of the semester, with final projects already in motion. That didn’t stop HGSE faculty from pivoting to reorient their courses toward a response to the crisis. And students dove in to tackle educational challenges posed by the outbreak. 

In the wake of the pandemic, “we have inequality gaps on a much greater scale,” says Lecturer Ola Ozernov-Palchik, faculty director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program. “I’m acutely aware of how the pandemic affects children from an underprivileged background, so I wanted to bring my students into this because they are thinking about it daily. This was the perfect opportunity to figure out how to access this issue.”

Final projects were well underway in Ozernov-Palchik’s yearlong seminar, Mind, Brain, and Education: Research Methods and Critical Topics, when classes moved online. Still, when Ozernov-Palchik proposed altering the final, nearly all of the 24 students in the class opted to tweak their project or create a new project incorporating aspects of the crisis.

Felicia Soemarjono, a master’s candidate in Mind, Brain, and Education, was one of those students who, despite already having a final project in the works, didn’t want to miss out on a chance to do something to confront an emerging educational crisis. So, she took on not one but two final projects.

“When I got that e-mail from Ola providing an opportunity to switch final projects, I felt really overwhelmed and thought, ‘What is she thinking? I’m halfway done with my project and [she is] giving another option!’ But after a couple days, I thought this is a great opportunity for me to learn even more and gain insights from world leaders in education,” says Soemarjono,  a former preschool educator in Indonesia. Soemarjono focused her new work on literacy issues and ways young children access reading instruction through the pandemic.
She created an intervention app that encourages dialogic interactions between young children and parents by providing high-quality picture books. Ultimately, her app tied into a course taught by Associate Professor Felipe-Barrera Osorio, in which she also wrote an accompanying policy memo advocating for the app’s use.

“Not only did I work on the app, but also the feasibility of unrolling this in a developing country and creating buy-in,” she says. “In the end, I’m quite pleased at the project and my knowledge became a lot more well-rounded regarding this topic.”

The pandemic’s challenges also made their way into leadership courses, too, like Lecturer Irvin Scott’s new module, Faith, Education and Leadership. Although the class focuses on students’ understanding of their own and different faith experiences, and how that might overlap with students’ racial, cultural, and educational identities, it also tapped into how to leverage a faith and education partnership during pandemic. “There are three institutions that sit at the epicenter of these trying times – hospitals, schools, and faith institutions,” Scott says. “The latter two have closed and have had to redefine themselves in order to meet the needs of those who rely on them.”

From leadership to policy, Lecturer Laura Schifter used the pandemic as a way to give students the space to explore the emerging challenges and find solutions as part of the final weeks of her course, Federal Education Policy in Action.

“We talk in class about the policy process and how it starts with a problem rising to the level that enough people demand a policy solution. The health and economic consequences and school closures [of the pandemic] have pushed a host of problems to the forefront that three months ago may have gone unnoticed, yet now have catapulted to the top of the policy agenda,” Schifter says.

Students spent the remaining weeks of class conducting group research on policy challenges including food access for students, impact on school budgets, access to technology, student debt, and safety and support for childcare workers. As a group, students researched a selected issue, identified the problem, proposed potential policy solutions that should be considered as part of the stimulus effort by federal policy. Schifter also made it optional for students to share their proposed policy solution by writing a letter to a Congress member, writing an op-ed or commentary, or a more traditional policy memo, which nearly half the class chose to do.

Michelle Vaughn-Lopez, a master’s candidate in Education Policy and Management, took the opportunity to write a letter to Congress advocating for a greater stimulus package for school funding. “The impact of COVID-19 has further exposed just how much teachers, counselors, and school social workers really do for our students and what immense resources schools provide to families and their communities,” Vaughn-Lopez says. “Although the CARES ACT is a critical first step, it is not sufficient to properly equip our schools with the resources needed to continue to properly educate our students, whether in a school building or virtually. I fear that without this additional funding schools will have an even greater challenge mitigating the deficiencies that this pandemic will leave us with. Ultimately, I had to ensure I was doing what was in my power to do right now as a concerned constituent, graduate student, and educator.”

Schifter, Scott, and Ozernov-Palchik hope these shifts to their final coursework will add to their students’ evolving perspectives as educators and enhance their own sense of impact on young people as they continue their careers.

“There’s this translational value to what they’ve learned,” Ozernov-Palchik says. “Now, there is an opportunity to implement this knowledge and synthesize something for children who need that expertise right now — and it can translate into something that can improve education.”


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