A Virtual School with Real Problems

January 22, 2021

As online learning continues through the new year, we look back on trends inside the Zoom classroom and see just how similar student and teacher lives have become. 

It’s the same battle everyday: wake up, open your computer, get on Zoom, and quietly watch as the hours pass. The monotony of what we once considered school pales in comparison to the experience of Zoom learning. Conversation has dwindled to a scattered “yes” and “I’m here” and one by one, rows of blank gray rectangles build the wall of social disconnect in Zoom classrooms. Where there was once chatting in the halls, there are now faceless breakout groups.  Screen-filled hours blur together, filling eyes with harsh blue light and ears with droning lectures and when the day is up, there is little cause for celebration. 

 “Teachers have reported a huge shift…much less engagement than they’d like to see,” says SRHS counselor Alison Zampino. 

 Though students may turn in passable work, their motivation to participate in class is lacking. Why participate when it is so much easier to shut off the camera, sit back, and work on something else? 

“It has been hard to try and stay interested in the class when learning remotely,” says sophomore Jeremi Nuer. 

Distractions produced by daily, at home life provide enough distraction, but paired with the ennui of classes and it becomes nearly impossible to be a consistently participative student. The more students remove themselves from class mentally, the easier it becomes for others to follow suit. This domino effect has rippled through SRHS, specifically in the form of camera activity. 

Similar to in person behavior, students on Zoom follow trends. If only a few student’s cameras are off, it is less likely for the rest to want to also turn their’s off. On the flip side, having less cameras on encourages participative students to flip their cameras off. Many students and teachers have noticed this camera status quo as well.

“Once you have half your class turning their cameras off it’s sorta like its own little virus,” says PE and health teacher Catherine Healy. 

Nuer always keeps his camera on but has noted, “I sometimes feel like the odd one out when it feels like only a couple of us are actually in the class.”

The lack of camera accountability in students as well as lack of participation in general provides major issues for teachers.

“It’s really hard to feel like you’re a teacher with live humans when… everyone’s turning off their cameras,” says Healy. “It’s really hard to connect that way.”

Another teacher wrote anonymously: “The students who refuse to engage… bring me down because there is very little I can do to influence their behavior.” 

Teachers who rely on their ability to connect with students face to face to gauge interest and focus have lost an integral part of their training which allows them to pinpoint a struggling student or a tough subject. They have had to rework their curriculum, teaching style, and presentation of material to cater to students, all while managing their own lives. Google Slides, Desmos, and Flipgrid are all tools teachers have utilized to amplify the effectiveness of their lessons, however weeding out useful apps versus those that bore a class have been a process in itself.   

“You might practice something and find a tool that you like, like Jamboard or whatever. You think it sounds great and you plan this wonderful lesson and you go in and it bombs,” Zampino laughs. “Your class is like, yeah no we don’t like this at all.”

And in addition to enduring their students’ angst, teachers must also contend with their personal lives and responsibilities. 

In a survey sent to all SRHS teachers, fourteen of the seventeen responses reported having family responsibilities. Nine of the fourteen stated they had young children who needed their attention while others took care of elderly friends and family. 

With a daughter of her own, Zampino, must now divide her attention and time between her job and her child’s own online school. 

“Everyday is this really tricky balance of you know helping my daughter with school and trying to do my job,” Zampino says, “normally I’d leave the house, I’d go to work…I’d leave and I’d come home.”

The blur of the formerly explicit line between school and work adds to the already distraction filled environment of home, causing both family and work time mix. With that routine now gone, Zampino and teachers alike have needed to discover new ways of balancing work that was once separated by work hours and a commute. 

Setting up boundaries of when their children can enter their work space and dedicating specific amounts of time to helping them with their own schoolwork have been a vital part of new, at home routines. It is routine that makes up the building blocks of progress and it is progress that students and teachers need to persevere the semester. 

As teachers and counselors grappled to find their routines, students have spent the past semester navigating the foreign ways of Zoom learning. 

A lot of students struggle because they don’t have any sort of social interaction but that is kinda ideal for me because being blind and running into people during this disease would suck and I’ve really been enjoying doing [school] online,” says senior Milo Manetta. As a partially blind student, Manetta has his own system of learning at home. With a heavy utilization of computers, cameras, and a braille to text machine, Milo routinely works with teachers to modify his classes so that he can fully participate. 

In my English class at first I was struggling just to write an essay,” Manetta admitted, “but now I’m writing a page speech and really enjoying writing it.”

Manetta also noted that the idea of having to make his learning system portable enough to navigate the halls of schools was a bit of a daunting task. Having his “station” at home is a far more streamlined and practical solution for his learning circumstances.

Just as Manetta feels that he is “less comfortable being close and interacting with people,” many students also enjoy the silver linings of online learning. 

Being at home, for example, where there are many comforts within arms reach is a huge appeal to many. Another benefit to online learning is the ability to personalize one’s learning environment. It is not uncommon for students to sit in a park or outside while attending their classes. However, some students choose to abuse this by running errands or hanging out with friends while in class. Remote learning relies on students having the will to remain focused and participate. Something that many said was their main struggle. But just as there are unmotivated students, there are also those who wish to excel, and those who do not have the means to do so. 

Every public school carries pride in being able to offer a good education to whomever wishes to take advantage of it. The world of virtual education has greatly inhibited this ability in that some don’t have all of these supplies readily available. Basic things such as stable internet connection and lunches, which were once enjoyed easily on campus, must now be spread among hundreds of houses. This new challenge has been both immense and challenging for those affected or involved in the SR community. 

In the initial months of the pandemic, many students struggled to get access to Chromebooks and stable internet. Still, technical issues such as slow internet and broken cameras hinder everyday learning. 

“There are some days when my internet is just not great,” says freshman Angela Sambrano, “but the teachers I have have made it pretty easy to reach out and say like, ‘hey, things are not going well today’.”

And because these issues are experienced by both students and teachers, there is a mutual understanding and acceptance of this reality. 

Math and yearbook teacher Juan Pommier acknowledged, “If you don’t have a parent to help with technical skills it’s difficult…It has magnified the achievement gap.”

Many students have also started to develop a growing uncertainty about what their plan is for after high school as well. Whether to go straight into college, take a gap year, or go to community college for two years is up in the air for many. 

“[There are] so many people are [differing or taking a gap year] that it is going to cause an overflow in admissions in the following years,” says Nuer.

Nearly every senior has used college as a motivator for maintaining good grades this semester but the idea of college in a COVID-19 filled future is full of worry. Even before the pandemic, there were so many unknown factors. Now with unique circumstances and ever rising standards from admissions offices, seniors must contend with another unknown factor in their lives. 

The battle for motivation and success is a strenuous test of adaptability and assiduousness for both teachers and students alike. Though this form of education started in March, neither party has truly mastered it. The same issues: family responsibilities, technical problems, stress, and work overload have only grown since last spring, and finding a proficient method of online school, like anything, takes time. Through trial and error, experimentation, and assessment of failure, a system which promotes all students and instructors will be produced for the distanced reality of today. 




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