It feels as if schools have now entered a third phase of the pandemic filled with child vaccines, adult boosters, rolling quarantines and learning recovery efforts — and of course mounting questions about the infectious new Omicron variant. If the 2019 school year was defined by emergency measures and campus closures, and the 2020 school year was about triaging the best possible classroom plans for unvaccinated school populations, the 2021 school year has thus far been one steeped in hope and urgency: Hope that vaccines will bring an end to the global health emergency and allow classrooms to safely return to normal, and urgency surrounding the students who have been pushed off track over the past 20 months — from core skills to key milestones to college and career goals.

Our most widely circulated education coverage this year focused largely on how school is still looking a whole lot different today than it did two years ago, how educators and policymakers are both recognizing the need for urgent learning recovery efforts, and how emerging political fights over schools and curriculum are straining an already stretched system.

These were our 21 most shared and debated articles of 2021:

Exclusive Data: An Inside Look at the Spy Tech That Followed Kids Home for Remote Learning — and Now Won’t Leave

Investigation: When the pandemic forced Minneapolis students into remote learning, district officials partnered with Gaggle, a digital surveillance company that uses artificial intelligence and a team of content moderators to track the online behaviors of millions of kids across the U.S. every day. Now, public records obtained by The 74 offer an unprecedented look at how the Minneapolis school district deployed a controversial security tool that saw rapid national growth during the pandemic but carries significant civil rights and privacy concerns. The data highlight how Gaggle puts children under relentless digital surveillance long after classes end for the day. In Minneapolis, officials say the tool helps identify youth at risk of suicide. But some worry that rummaging through students’ personal files and conversations on their school-issued Google and Microsoft accounts could backfire. Read Mark Keierleber’s full report.

Read the full article about lessons in education at The 74.