COVID-19 pandemic brings uncertainty to teaching certification programs, future teachers

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Photo Credit: Rocky Higine | Daily Texan Staff

As the COVID-19 pandemic forces local school districts to restrict visitors and start the school year online, future teachers face uncertainty with their certifications, which require in-person observation and instruction. 

UT teaching certification programs span multiple semesters, according to the College of Education website. To achieve certification, students accumulate field-based experience hours observing and assisting teachers in local classrooms and spend their final semester student teaching for 70 days. However, many local school districts, including Austin ISD and Georgetown ISD, will start online in the fall.

Jill Marshall, UTeach-Natural Sciences co-director, said the program has decided to not send students into classrooms for observation and assistance this fall. With school districts limiting visitors in the classroom, she said the program can’t guarantee all their students will get their required hours.

“I’m not sure how (certain students) will get the rest of the hours, since they already missed some this semester before,” Marshall said.

When COVID-19 forced schools nationwide to close in March, Marshall said there was a huge turnaround for the UTeach-Natural Sciences program, which emphasizes in-person learning experience. Students had to suddenly teach online, which they weren’t trained for, she said.

Government officials have decided student teachers can teach online and stay on track for certification if their school is online, Marshall said, but many details of how certification programs should run during the pandemic are still unclear. For example, she said student teachers may be unable to complete 70 days in a classroom, since UT is closing before Thanksgiving.

“After the government declared the emergency (in the spring), (the state) reduced the number of required hours,” Marshall said. “They haven’t done that for fall, but I think in the end they’re going to have to give some latitude.”

Elise Lutz, a neuroscience graduate enrolled in the accelerated UTeach-Natural Sciences program, said it was heartbreaking to leave the classroom she helped out with last spring. She has a teaching internship at a local high school this fall, but is concerned online education will limit her impact as an educator.

“The reason I wanted to be a teacher was to give students a safe space,” Lutz said. “I wanted to be someone students could come to. I worry about social distancing taking a toll on my (relationships) with my students.”

79 students are set to start student teaching in the fall, said Sharon Evans, director of education services in the office of the dean in the College of Education, in an email. During the 2019-2020 school year, Evans said 457 students were registered for professional development sequences that require synchronous classroom hours, which includes programs like UTeach-Natural Sciences.

UTeach-Liberal Arts director Carlos Bowles said the program has been working to support their students during the pandemic. However, Bowles said creating plans has been difficult since they must adhere to constantly changing guidelines from local school districts, government agencies and UT.

Looking toward the fall, Bowles worries most about students in their student teaching semester, the last part of the program. He said he isn’t sure if students can teach virtually due to technological barriers or if they will even be allowed in classrooms.

Allyson Stephens, an English senior seeking her certification through UTeach-Liberal Arts, is going to start student teaching in the fall. Stephens said she missed about 25 hours of fieldwork in the spring, which makes her less confident in her teaching.

Stephens said that because many students did not receive regular instruction after schools went online in March, she worries about adequately preparing her future students for tests through online learning. After Gov. Greg Abbott canceled standardized tests last year in response to the pandemic, state officials decided July 1 to administer them this upcoming year.

“Expecting them to (take these standardized tests) is, in my opinion, a little bit far-reaching,” Stephens said. “I wish there was a magic solution that I could implement any number of lessons that … make up for these gaps in learning that these students are inevitably going to have, but there’s not.”