The Deterioration of Student-Teacher Relationships During COVID


“Don’t Forget to Turn In Your School Books” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Elisha V

COVID has completely upended the way school has traditionally been executed. Online school has essentially stripped back all the interpersonal and social aspects of a typical classroom, and what remains is exclusively the academics. Students no longer look forward to seeing their friends but view school as yet another reminder of how disconnected and separated the pandemic has forced us to be. When most online classes look like a mosaic of black squares compared to the chatty and dynamic classroom environment, getting to properly know peers and teachers can be next to impossible. Teachers used to request students quieten down; now, teachers struggle to get students to unmute for class discussions. Lesson plans include much less student participation and group work, and more self-guided study – much like in college.  

Learning and succeeding in school is closely linked to strong student-teacher relationships. A strong and trusting relationship allows a student to feel comfortable asking for help, a vital part of the learning process. A teacher’s knowledge of individual student strengths, weaknesses, and behaviour can aid teachers in providing extra support and crafting individualized learning for students. The widespread heightened feelings of stress, social isolation, and uncertainty during COVID makes student-teacher relationships seem even more vital now than ever – but forging these relationships seems increasingly difficult. 

Both new students and existing students who have never been taught by their teacher pre-pandemic, face the challenge of making a good first impression remotely. 

Hannah Gerson, a Junior who joined WESS in January 2021, has met all of her teachers and classmates via Zoom. Joining a new school typically comes with many challenges and anxieties, but the virtual world has diminished some of those while introducing new types of first-day jitters. 

“Instead of being nervous about raising your hand, it’s being nervous to turn on your camera, which is such a weird thing,” says Hannah. 


Hannah remarks that “knowing someone online is so different from knowing them in person,” which will likely mean that when we all do return in-person, she will go through a whole new phase of genuinely getting to know staff and peers. 


Teachers face the hurdle of trying to make new students feel welcomed and comfortable over Zoom. 


“I really miss those small interactions of students coming into class early, being able to chat … I think those moments really add up and build the trust between a teacher and a student,” says 10th Grade ELA teacher Sarah Kieval. 


Sarah has experienced the impact of remote school and the reduction of interaction on how she teaches.


“Not always knowing the personality of a student makes it harder to curate curriculum … not being able to see facial reactions [for what is and isn’t working], what group dynamics work.”


While many students have suffered from a decline in motivation and decreased their engagement in class, some have actually flourished in the remote world. With all the shortcomings of virtual communication, there are some unique features that suit particular types of students. Especially for those who don’t feel comfortable speaking aloud, either in the classroom or unmuting on Zoom, the Zoom chat offers a way to participate in class without standing in the spotlight. Teachers can answer many students’ questions quicker than if they were to go round the classroom attending to raised hands, efficiently saving time and catering to student needs. Technologies like Nearpod can mimic some of the in-person teaching and collaboration techniques, and Sarah thinks they will continue to be utilized when we do transition to a fully in-person classroom. 

“I think in some ways, there are some students who I’ve actually developed a closer relationship to online because they … come to office hours consistently, or are usually the first ones on Zoom,” says Sarah. “But I think that the relationship between student and teacher becomes a little more dependent on the student.. whether they remember to log in, or come to office hours, or seek out the teacher. It’s harder for the teacher to seek out the student.”

This reversed dynamic, where students are now tasked with recognizing if they need help and how to access it, is one example of how online school has in some ways made school feel more like college. 

In college, much of the work is done outside of the classroom or lecture hall, without a professor monitoring and constantly providing feedback like in K-12 schooling. College students spend a lot of their time in their dorm rooms – blurring the lines between a study space and a personal space – just like we have had to attend school from our bedrooms. 

In a typical K-12 environment, students have every second of their school day planned out for them. They are told where to be at what times, which tasks to do, and how to do them. Teachers closely monitor attendance, classwork completion, and day to day work ethic and behaviour as part of their teaching responsibilities. In college, professors are typically less invested in tracking these factors for every student and might not even learn names when some lecture classes boast hundreds of students. College students need to intrinsically source the motivation and commitment to show up to class and keep up with the work, much like how virtual K-12 students are now largely responsible for logging into Zoom. In college, the student is the one who has to take initiative in seeking out the professor during office hours, an often daunting task. WESS students have still had the majority of their days scheduled for them during COVID, but we do get a weekly taste for what it’s like to opt-in for office hours and structure days ourselves during Asynchronous Wednesdays. (Check out Bayla’s article!

Additionally, testing during remote school looks similar to how some college professors may assign “take-home” tests, or “open book” tests because teachers have no ability to proctor students and monitor whether they are using notes or google etc. (Check out Catherine’s article on this!). While the college-like aspects of remote school could be interesting and beneficial for students who plan on attending college, it does more harm than good for younger students who can’t self-motivate or focus independently. College and K-12 have different learning models because kids are developmentally different from young adults, and need personalized guidance and help from teachers in order to succeed. The social isolation of quarantines and lockdowns, coupled with the sheer difficulty of forging adequate student-teacher relationships via Zoom, makes for an unfavourable situation that likely exacerbates students’ isolation and COVID learning losses

Because schools can’t mandate students to turn their cameras on or vocally participate, students can essentially assume anonymity in the classroom. This may decrease stress for those with social anxieties, but in the long run, it may harm students’ social skills. Teachers scarcely see students’ faces, and only a snippet of their voice – if that – every once in a while. Students thus become more identifiable by the work they submit than their actual personalities and individuality. This also reflects what some college classes may be like, where you’re merely a grade in the eyes of the professor amidst hundreds of other students. Without knowing a student’s personality or context, a teacher may find it harder to understand their work habits and skills. For juniors, teachers may not be able to thoroughly speak about a student in college recommendation letters. 


Fortunately, these doom and glooms of remote learning are starting to end – NYC High school students can return to the blended learning model starting March 22. While the world slowly begins to return to normalcy thanks to the distribution of vaccines, students will hopefully resume or reform strong relationships with their teachers and fellow students.