By Sarah Swenson, assistant news editor
Students at the high school have found it harder to learn this year, largely due to stress and less interaction, challenges that also worry teachers. The pandemic has forced the school to take measures to decrease the chance of infection or spread, and while they are necessary, they have taken an emotional toll. Students feel that remote learning has made difficult concepts even harder to grasp, and miss the environment of in-person learning.
Learning remotely presents many challenges. The adjusted schedule means classes only meet twice a week, which students and teachers agree makes learning the same amount of material harder. Many materials are simply more challenging to access online, and while pre-pandemic, most classes had digital aspects, the transition to fully remote learning has meant that everything, or nearly everything, has to be done on a computer. That means math problems—and the work that goes with them—tests, readings, worksheets, and most everything else. Biology teacher Heather MacDonald pointed out that virtual work has logistical difficulties too, saying that in nearly every class, some of her students are having problems with their technology.
Students agree that concepts are harder to grasp virtually because explanations through a video are harder to follow. Amanda Mack, a senior, said that while teachers were doing a great job given the situation, challenging classes definitely require more effort than usual: “AP Calculus [is my hardest class this year]… because it’s a lot of really hard stuff that you need to see the teacher doing to understand, and you have to interact and ask questions.” The interaction that teachers usually rely on to convey lessons is harder to achieve when half the class is on a screen.
Ellie Kinsella, a sophomore in cohort D, the fully remote group of students, agreed with Mack that teachers have a tough job this year, but she wishes students at home could be more involved. She explained that “There’s always so much conversation going on in the classroom, which I feel [virtual students] get a bit left out of.” Teachers try to include virtual students, but it’s “not the same as being actually part of the conversation.”
Anna Popnikolova, also in cohort D, agreed that teachers don’t interact as much with online students. “It makes sense,” she clarified, echoing Kinsella’s admission that as much as teachers might want to talk to online students, a lot of the time they just don’t get responses, “but it kind of feels like [virtual students] are in a webinar, just watching.”
Another challenge of virtual learning is trying to focus on school while at home. Students mentioned cell phones and pets as common distractions, as well as other people in the house. Many parents are currently working from home, and students with siblings have to work around their class set-ups as well.
It’s also hard to learn in the same place you relax. Many students are learning from unusual places, from bedrooms, to kitchens, to the back room at their work. It can be difficult to remember which ‘mode’ you are supposed to be in: work, relaxation, or school. Students note that while working from the bedroom can be relaxing, it makes it easier to drift off or fall asleep in classes. Kinsella laughed: “This isn’t a learning environment; this is my bedroom.”
But more than just struggling to learn, students miss the environment of in-person learning. They miss the shared energy and seeing their friends. Teachers miss being able to interact with their students as well. Anne Phaneuf, a teacher in the English department, pointed to the lack of interaction between students and their teachers as the biggest cause of student difficulties with learning this year. She explained that with half the class online, and the other half wearing masks, it’s a lot harder for teachers to read cues from students’ body language. A student’s icon reveals nothing about their level of understanding.
Teachers are finding it difficult to connect with students this year. According to Phaneuf, “There’s a tremendous amount of power to the student-teacher relationship. It’s a very powerful connection in that I learn from them and they learn from me.” Without it, students may find it harder to understand the material and make the progress they usually could, especially in a dialogue-based class like English.
MacDonald agreed: “I think it’s hard, for freshmen especially, to develop relationships with their teachers… when you’re seeing them online or with their masks, you really don’t know who students are. You’re missing those really important relationships you would have with students.” She feels that a connection with a teacher makes learning easier for students.
She continued that the relationships between students also make learning easier. Comradery forms in a classroom, she said, and it helps difficult classes and concepts seem more manageable. Students this year are struggling without this interaction.
Being unable to collaborate as well has also led to the cutting of some activities in school. In English class, teachers have been unable to do as much discussion-based work as they usually can. Back and forths between students about written work have also been diminished. In Biology class, MacDonald said she has had to cut back on the number of labs, as many labs cannot be performed remotely. However, video demonstrations and application worksheets have taken their place, because students still have to learn the same amount of material.
Without these communication-based lessons, teachers are worried about end-of-year tests like MCAS and the AP exams. It isn’t just the material mentioned above that has been limited; students agree that they are farthest behind curriculum-wise in their science or math classes, but all subjects are working at a different pace than a normal year.
MacDonald explained that the AP tests have not cut any material from the test this year, nor has MCAS, so even with less time and a more difficult learning situation, students have to learn the same amount. She wants “MCAS to come out and say either it wasn’t required, or that they would cut out a certain unit, so we wouldn’t have to be stressed trying to cover everything,” but as of yet, all end of year tests are scheduled to proceed as normal.
For some teachers, stress about end-of-year tests is more about how students will handle them emotionally than how they will score. “I’m not worried about how kids perform, I’m worried that they’re worried about it,” explained Phaneuf. “Kids want to please, they want to perform well… and I worry about the stress.” Students agree that though this year has been stressful, teachers have been making this tough situation easier however they can, offering extra help, opportunities for feedback, and being generally accommodating to their pupils’ needs.
Still, kids at the high school are feeling the mounting tension as the tests grow nearer. Some AP classes have already taken mock exams. Students worry that they are not well prepared this year, and one of the reasons is that standard tests, after chapters, or units, have been given to students virtually, or as open-note tests, and not as much preparation is needed.
Sophomore Natalie Mack explained that “all of the tests that I’ve taken this year, for all the classes, we can use our notes.” She understands teachers giving open-note tests because it’s difficult to ensure virtual students are not cheating, but she said that she, “wasn’t as stressed out about knowing how to do every single little thing,” which means she wasn’t as prepared for tests as she would be most years. For students in similar situations, the idea of closed-notes tests at the end of the year is frightening.
In general, students have found it difficult to learn this year, needing to put more effort in to learn the same amount of material, and the stress of a pandemic and isolation from their friends has made it harder. They are worried about the amount of progress they are making, and where they will be next year after a year of virtual learning.
“This year, you really get out what you put in.” Natalie Mack said. “You can make it through and barely understand what the teachers are saying at all… but the teachers are teaching and doing their best… so it is just what you make of it”
Teachers are trying their best to support students’ learning. It has been difficult with all the changes and uncertainty, but they agree that it is important for students to be able to learn and feel supported. “I just hope that people know we’ll regain our ground,” Phaneuf commented, on student progress. “As long as kids know they’re cared for and they’re respected, and there’s something to hope for, we’ll be fine.”