August 6 — 10:20 am, 2020

Students want to have a say in decisions about virtual learning

Although they are grieving the loss of in-person school, they support online instruction to keep their classmates and staff members safe.

Lola Milder

For the students of the School District of Philadelphia and their families, the finish line keeps moving. 

In March, I remember being optimistic that we would return to school by May – which feels comical now. By May, that optimism had dwindled, and the reality of at-home instruction for the rest of the school year had solidified. I then hoped that the arrival of summer would restore my old routines. 

But summer in Philadelphia became disrupted by another rise in cases, stirring rumors and debate about whether students would be returning to schools as September edged inevitably closer. 

I thought that once the District presented its answer to those looming questions, the confusion would end. But it hasn’t been so clear-cut. 

Last week, the Board of Education approved the District’s latest reopening plan – keeping students out of classrooms and opting for full-time online instruction for all grades until at least Nov. 17. 

“I was kind of relieved at first,” admitted Nate Medina, a senior at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber. “I’m still a little scared to go to school.”

His concerns echo the voices of the many students, parents, and teachers who protested the District’s initial hybrid plan, under which most students would have been at school two days a week. They worried that the District wasn’t equipped to adequately protect teachers and students.

The willingness of the school board and the District to listen to community voices and reevaluate their plan was a reassuring reflection of the city’s approach to COVID-19.

“Philly seems to be ahead of other cities in taking necessary precautions,” said Kate Ratner, a senior at Central High School. “I wasn’t really surprised by the decision.” 

Though many middle and high school students understand and support the reasoning behind the board’s decision, they’re grieving. For many students, a lot was missing when schools went virtual in March. Now, they’re losing many of the same things – for an indefinite period of time. 

“I really don’t want to do school now,” confessed Kaitlyn Rodriguez. “And that’s saying something. I’m someone that really enjoys school. I love going to school and seeing my friends and doing the work.”

Kaitlyn, a sophomore visual arts major at Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA), is one of the many students struggling to see themselves represented in the virtual curriculum. 

“How am I going to get back to doing art?” she asks. “I’m concerned about how they’re going to put our major into the [online] curriculum.” 

Compared to classes like math and English, ceramics and painting are more challenging to teach using a virtual format – if they can be at all. In March, when schools closed for the first time, “we completely stopped doing art.” That burden was shared by Kaitlyn’s peers within CAPA, who study theater, dance, and other musical arts, and by the many other students that rely on the equipment and facilities within their schools for their career, technical, and arts courses. 

Studios, theaters, and science labs aren’t the only resources that students are losing access to.

“It’s going to be a challenge to go through the college application process virtually,” Nate Medina said. “We can’t just walk into our counselor’s office and talk.”

Counselors often write recommendations for seniors applying to college, in addition to guiding them throughout the process.

“Now, they can barely get to know you if you didn’t introduce yourself a lot during junior year,” said Kate, a fellow senior. The same difficulties lie in any students’ efforts to build relationships with teachers and other students. 

In spring, classes via Google Meet practically eliminated social interactions within school communities from one day to the next. Without common spaces like lunch, recess, or between-class hallway transitions, opportunities for students to engage with each other are limited to their classes. But, in virtual classes, social interactions are limited to briefly unmuting one’s microphone to answer a question or to add to a discussion. 

Most critically, the opportunities for students to interact with each other that are typically found in classrooms, such as partner or group discussions, were largely made impossible this spring. Google Meet, in contrast to other technologies like Zoom, lacks the tools to create “breakout rooms” for students to have smaller discussions without the teacher. Classes are limited to a teacher facing 30-some muted microphones. And that dynamic leaves some students feeling isolated. 

“I’m someone who’s very extroverted. I thrive off of being around people,” Kaitlyn says. “I can really open up in school rather than at home, and now it feels like that’s all been taken away.”

Interactions between family members are decidedly different from peer interactions. What’s more, for some home-bound students, family members such as siblings or older relatives pose new caregiving responsibilities.

In spring, Nate’s attention became divided between his own online work and helping his younger sister with hers. “They would send her work, but there’s nobody to sit next to her and help her. It was a challenge for me to teach it to her in a way she’d understand.”

When older siblings are present, these responsibilities are falling on students as parents continue to balance work and child care.

“Both my parents work full time,” Kate said. “Even when my mom works from home, she’s working all day and can’t constantly be checking up on [my sister and I] and managing our work.” 

When there aren’t older siblings or other relatives at home during the school day, the board’s decision has forced many working parents with young children to seek out child care five days a week. It holds the potential to be a significant financial imposition. Kaitlyn’s aunt, the mother of a 5th grader, is in that position.

“Me and my sister are older, we can stay home and my mom can leave the house for work or errands. But my aunt can’t do either of those things.” 

One thing became clear this spring: When students are learning from home, they balance different responsibilities and challenges. From caring for siblings and older relatives to navigating internet access, Philly’s students face myriad environmental obstacles that distract from their classes and assignments. 

When asked what he hoped District leaders would keep in mind this fall, Nate said: “I hope they become more lenient with attendance. It’s just not feasible for everyone to be in virtual classes for eight hours a day.”

Of course, when students attend a virtual class, it isn’t the same as being engaged with the presented material in person.

“In spring, some of my teachers would just lecture for an hour or an hour and a half. That doesn’t feel realistic for a few months of online learning,” Kate said. 

Some students call for the integration of technology like Kahoot, a game-based learning platform, to keep students engaged in online learning. In the spring, work and attendance were optional for most students, the District’s understandable response to the vast differences in resources across households and the quickly changing circumstances. Unsurprisingly, many students lacked motivation, and class attendance dwindled.

But what will classes look like for students this fall? That’s the thing 一 it’s not quite clear. 

Despite the length of the District’s proposal, many students are still unsure about the future of their extracurriculars and what their classes will look like.

“There’s so much information going around, I’m just confused,” said Kaitlyn. Something needs to change in the communication between schools and their students and faculty members, she said. “It’s important that we’re not just going into this blind and that we’re not receiving clarification the day before or the week before school starts.”

And time is running out. In a matter of weeks, students and teachers are expected to be learning and teaching online. Looking forward, I hope teachers are further involved in planning by District officials and within individual schools. After all, teachers are the experts of the curriculum they teach, and their students’ unique needs. Even more, I hope that the District, as well as principals, will continue to seek students’ feedback and engage them in the process of creating a successful online learning experience. It’s frustrating to have so little say in the decisions that claim to support you.

None of these situations is optimal. They haven’t been since March. But I’m proud that Philadelphia has prioritized the health and safety of our teachers, students, and community members, and I’m prepared, alongside so many of my peers, to sacrifice elements of our old routines and collaborate on creative solutions to achieve that. 

I think Kate expressed candidly what most of us are feeling: “It’s really overwhelming, but I think it’s going to be OK.” 

Lola Milder is a senior at J.R. Masterman High School in Philadelphia, where she reports for her school newspaper, Voices, and for The Bullhorn

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