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Editor’s Note: This Q&A is one of a series of articles
exploring the research that University of Delaware students have been
pursuing. Follow our “Frontiers of Discovery” series as UDaily
highlights some of these scholars.
Britney Vasquez is a senior Africana studies and sociology major from
Georgetown, Delaware. She is working to understand how Delaware
teachers at a Sussex County High School have adapted their teaching
during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Vasquez will continue this work
in the fall semester through a senior thesis.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped many things in our lives,
including how we educate students. A first-generation college student,
UD senior Britney Vasquez is exploring how K-12 educators and
administrators continue to evolve their teaching to meet student needs.
Q: What draws you to research? Have you done it before?
Vasquez: I was initially drawn to research because it was
something I had never done or thought myself capable of doing. As a
first-generation Latina, attending a four-year university is already a
feat, and opening myself up to new learning experiences is extremely
important to me.
Last year, I worked with the McNair Scholars Program and the Disaster
Research Center and learned about projects studying how various groups
of Delawareans were impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Inspired by
previous conversations with teachers, I worked with DRC Director Tricia
Wachtendorf to interview teachers from a public high school with a large
Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) population in Sussex County,
Delaware, where I grew up. I wanted to gain deeper insight into the
education system and the efforts both teachers and administrators took
to support students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many teachers stated
that retention rates, graduation rates, attendance and engagement from
students were prominent issues that arose from remote and hybrid
learning. Minority populations were hit particularly hard as language
barriers, technological access and socioeconomic issues were even more
exacerbated during the pandemic and the transition into the “new
normal.” The school supported students in multiple capacities, providing
free meals, partnering with internet networks to provide students with
routers and pushing forward conversations and check-ins regarding mental
Q: What were you studying this summer, where were you studying and who is your faculty mentor on this work?
Vasquez: This summer, I am expanded on my previous DRC work,
conducting new and follow-up interviews with teachers and administrators
to understand the pandemic’s lasting effects better. As graduation,
attendance, retention rates and language immersion were gravely affected
during remote and hybrid learning structures, this investigation is
looking into how different strategies and policies worked to combat
these issues within this high school. Now that fully in-person schooling
has returned, many of these challenges have been addressed and new
challenges may have arisen.
UD senior Britney Vasquez (left) works with her mentor, Tricia
Wachtendorf, director of the Disaster Research Center and professor of
Q: What motivated you to study this topic?
Vasquez: In early 2020, I spoke to former teachers and peers
who were still in the K-12 education system, and I became aware of
disparities and issues brought on by the pandemic. For example, many
children in my community have parents who did not fully understand
technology and turned to young adults such as myself to help translate
and navigate online schooling platforms. I am bilingual, fluent in both
Spanish and English, and at times I would go to others’ homes or
FaceTime with families to help explain what school announcements said or
to help young children with homework or navigating Zoom. This, in
addition to my own struggles as a college student, made me wonder how
students and teachers were being supported during these challenging
Q: What have you found most surprising about this work so far?
Vasquez: I was most surprised to learn how apprehensive
students were about being active in the classroom as they transitioned
back to fully in-person learning. Teachers mentioned that with remote
learning, black silent screens were often the norm in previously engaged
classrooms. Once students transitioned to in-person learning, silent
students with masks and cellphones became the norm. This speaks to how
dependent youth had become on using technology to feel connected and how
difficult it became to navigate socialization in person once the world
Q: What are the possible real-world applications for your study?
Vasquez: The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many things, from
the way society operates day-to-day, to how we work to the way we
educate students. While some of these effects are known, secondary and
tertiary effects of the pandemic are still rolling out. In schools,
teachers and administrators were forced to address mental health issues,
socioeconomic backgrounds, limited technological access, and to take on
holistic approaches to student expectations and attendance. Now in a
“new normal,” many teachers believe it is impossible to return to what
once was considered the norm. School districts and teachers will have to
reckon with this. My work provides qualitative data on how educators
adapted and improvised during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. Once
collected, coded and organized, the data can help reveal trends about
how things are improving — or not — as educators and others consider
what to do next. The data will be stored and used by UD’s Disaster
Research Center. Some of the interviews will become available to the
public as an oral history.
Q: How would you explain your work to a non-scientist or even a fifth grader?
Vasquez: In my study, I interviewed high school teachers and
administrators about how the COVID-19 pandemic affected them and what
they did to adapt and overcome different teaching challenges. For
example, one drama teacher went almost completely asynchronous with his
classes, did scene work with partners via ZOOM in breakout rooms, gave
students the option to record and submit projects instead of having to
present live, and even rewrote and performed a virtual play with
students. Teachers and administrators have faced burnout, exhaustion,
and stress, all while navigating the pandemic. Administration, the
school district and the state provided multiple supports and guidelines;
however, turnover and other lingering problems continue to challenge
schools as they return to in-person learning, making this an important
area to study.
Q: How does this experience align with your professional goals?
Vasquez: Conducting research and other extracurricular
activities have pushed me to get involved in community outreach. This
research helped me solidify that in my professional career I want to
help communities reveal and cope with issues of equity and inclusion.
Q: What do you enjoy when you are not doing research?
Vasquez: Honestly, I love working with HOLA, UD’s Latinx
resident student organization and programming board. Last year I served
as a general board member and as vice president, and this year I will
serve as HOLA president. This organization has become a huge part of my
life, and it means a lot to the Latinx population on campus because it
helps create a space for us in a place where we can, at times, feel out
Q: What advice would you give to your fellow students who may be considering or are planning to pursue undergraduate research?
Vasquez: If you are considering reaching out to a professor or
applying to a program, such as the McNair Scholars Program or Summer
Scholars, go for it. By taking that risk, you are opening yourself to
many different opportunities that can help propel you forward and home
in on your career path.
Article by Karen B. Roberts, photos by Kathy F. Atkinson, photo illustration by Jeffrey C. ChaseSeptember 14, 2022