By Sophia Kim
The 2020-2021 school year brought unending challenges and lessons. Teachers and students alike felt the pressure of constant adjustment and adaption to the ever-changing world of virtual learning. Now that school is fully in-person again, students are learning to transition back into “normal” classroom settings.
In order to gain insight into what students felt and learned after a year of hybrid learning, I talked to three North students and asked about their experiences. In addition, I interviewed Mrs. McDonald, Biology and Anatomy & Physiology teacher at North, to bring light to a teacher’s perspective.
I first asked the students if they believed virtual learning was effective for them; I wanted to know if students felt they could still learn in isolation. Current senior Caitlin Leach stated that she could still learn in her classes but felt a “disconnect” while learning from home. Leach completed virtual school for the entirety of last year. She explained that although there were difficulties in learning from home, she felt anxious to go to school in-person, especially before the COVID-19 vaccine became available to the public.
In contrast, senior DJ Lepore felt learning from home was ineffective for her; she explained that she is generally able to maintain deeper focus while learning in-person. Lepore participated in hybrid learning for parts of the school year and came to school full-time by the end of the year. Lepore observed that when she came to school, she was able to take a significantly more active role in class. However, she noticed that her teachers had to work hard to give attention to both students at home and those in school, going back and forth between the class in front of them and a computer monitor.
Kate Logan, a North senior, also addressed communication in the virtual year, saying that interaction between teachers and students became more difficult. Logan learned from home for a majority of the school year and attended school in-person for the final marking period. She noted that in a virtual setting, it had become difficult to ask teachers even simple questions after class. While conversing with teachers after class is easily done in an in-person setting, Logan stated that it was surprisingly challenging while learning online. This action, once taken for granted, then required emails and clinic time.
However, Logan believed virtual learning was still effective despite the challenge of communication. She noted that encouraging herself to turn on her Google Meet camera and to communicate with teachers as much as possible helped her to better endure the school year.
She also stated that she felt teachers were more understanding and sympathetic toward students during the virtual year, knowing many kids were struggling with mental health and therefore were not “their best selves” at that time. She found that during the virtual year, teachers were more willing to give students extensions on assignments when needed and often offered to meet with students if anybody wanted to talk. Overall Logan expressed that teachers “acknowledged that it was a rough year.”
When asked about the effects that the hybrid learning model had on their health and overall well-being, whether physical, mental, or emotional, the interviewees expressed mixed views. Leach stated that her mental health benefitted from the virtual setting because the circumstances enabled her to work ahead, permitting her more free time and flexibility. However, Leach stated that this free time began to feel excessive when school clubs and extracurricular activities were put on hiatus. She felt that the resulting lack of community, as well as the inability to talk directly to other students between or during classes, affected her emotional health.
Lepore similarly stated that the inability to see her friends at school affected her mentally. In addition, she found that virtual learning took a toll on her physical health because it caused at-home students to sit for most of the school day.
Like Leach and Lepore, Logan felt that the inability to connect with classmates resulted in the absence of the usual comradery felt between students during a “normal” year. However, Logan felt that her mental health benefitted in some ways because she felt less anxious or nervous at home. She liked the fact that she could control the environment in which she worked and was able to think less about how she physically presented herself while at home. Logan also mentioned that virtual learning benefitted her mental health because she was able to take breaks between classes by going outside or having a snack.
Both Leach and Logan noted realizations they had and valuable lessons they learned during the 2020-2021 school year. Leach learned the importance of taking a break from technology and allowing herself to step back from school work. Learning from home naturally allowed school to integrate into the home, and at times this made it difficult to fully separate the two.
Logan learned the significance of connection, and realized that it does not come naturally. Because of the isolation of virtual learning, Logan learned that it took effort to communicate with others and make connections, when in “normal” situations, these types of interactions come easily. Logan also realized that during the virtual year, every person became somewhat more independent; students began to live more as individual people rather than as a school community. It was a time of isolated growth, which proved to be both challenging and informative.
Finally, I asked which mode of learning the interviewees preferred: virtual (hybrid) or fully in-person. All three of the interviewees responded that in-person learning was preferable.
In order to gain a teacher’s perspective on the virtual year, I also asked Mrs. McDonald, Biology and Anatomy & Physiology teacher at North, about her experience during the virtual year.
I first asked Mrs. McDonald about the major changes she made to curriculum during the virtual year. She stated that she had to “scale the curriculum back considerably” because learning in the virtual setting naturally took more time than learning in a traditional classroom. The hybrid learning model also forced Mrs. McDonald to assign students virtual labs, which she felt were significantly less informative than hands-on labs.
Additionally, she stated that preparation for her classes was extremely tedious because the virtual learning model required her to create and post countless documents in Canvas. Mrs. McDonald explained that her reliance on technology during the virtual year caused her constant anxiety and stress: “Fear of the technology not working was so stressful.” She stated that virtual learning was extremely fragile; any glitch in the technology or loss of internet connection would directly affect a day’s lesson plans.
In addition, according to Mrs. McDonald, teachers did not receive any mandatory training on platforms such as Edpuzzle, Nearpod, Kami, and Canvas, and therefore had to quickly learn how to navigate these platforms and integrate them into their lessons. She asserted that while students were raised with electronics and could adapt to the use of different platforms without much difficulty, a majority of North teachers did not grow up surrounded by this technology and therefore learning to use these various platforms “was not intuitive.” However, Mrs. McDonald is happy to have learned so much about technology through the experience. She claims that she would not have done so if not forced by the “swim or drown” situation.
Because of these frustrations with technology, Mrs. McDonald expressed that she was especially grateful to students who would come into school physically because many of those at home chose not to turn on their cameras. She stated that teaching in-person is a far more rewarding experience than teaching online, and therefore she is ecstatic to have students physically back in class this year. She expressed her love for the “back and forth” conversation that she is able to have with students in class, saying that “kids are intrinsically funny.”
The virtual classroom was unfamiliar territory. Students endured the year without their usual interaction with classmates and friends while teachers utilized new platforms and constantly adapted curriculum to fit the unprecedented conditions. While the past school year forced growth in many ways, it seems that many are happy to be back in school after having learned the difficulties of virtual learning.