By EVAN CHOE
Online learning has been a source of boredom and even frustration for every UHS student since it began in March of 2020. When IUSD announced that schools would resume hybrid learning after winter break, their post was met with an overwhelming 2,500 comments from students and parents voicing their concern, dismay, and even disappointment in the way the school district was handling the situation amid ballooning virus cases and incapacitated hospitals across Orange County. Returning to confined classrooms and crowded spaces following the busiest holiday break of the year was not an ideal option for many UHS students, who made clear their various worries. Some typed eloquent and concerned paragraphs while others simply jested “nah.” Either way, the thousands of troubling statements and protests made it clear that even hybrid learning has its issues. Therefore, UHS and IUSD schools in general should not continue in-person learning during the pandemic if the safety of students and staff comes first and foremost to the district. Once a return is made to a COVID-19 free, in-person UHS, some major lessons from online learning should be implemented to make sure that the mistakes made during this pandemic under online/hybrid learning may not repeat themselves again.
There are many potential answers to this question, and in many ways, the feedback of students and parents will most certainly shape how the school will look on its return. So it is important to understand what went well and what went poorly this past school year to form a successful game plan moving forwards.
Let’s start with the negatives. For one, online learning is widely seen as unsustainable for high school students. In Suddenly Online, a national survey of college undergraduates participating in online learning due to COVID-19, 42% of students said staying motivated online posed major problems. Additionally, 35% of undergraduates experience depressive disorders nationwide and anxiety disorder levels have increased by over 50% since spring of 2019 in a study conducted in August by UC Berkeley. In addition, McKinsey & Company quotes various disparities produced by online learning. For instance, students have lost over the equivalent of 12-16 months of mathematics learning. Black and Hispanic students have been hit especially hard, as they are two times as likely to have no live access to teachers. Therefore, it is clear that both losses in learning and negative psychological impacts have had a drastic effect on students’ knowledge and growth. Fresh air has suddenly become a rare commodity, and online learning has left many crammed in their rooms with no hopes of true educational and personal freedom until vaccines are distributed and the quarantine has been lifted.
Likewise, teachers and staff have been hit especially hard by the global pandemic and many of these individuals are unsung heroes. Without them, none of the progress that has been made this year would have been remotely possible and UHS staff and teachers have done an admirable job at adapting despite the circumstances. However, the College Board and IUSD have not made it any easier for teachers and staff, pushing many classes to maintain the same curriculum despite having a fraction of the time to do so. This is especially true for AP courses in which teachers are asked to do the near impossible: teaching the whole curriculum under a far tighter time frame while also maintaining the same quality lessons and not rushing through the material. Nearly every AP class at UHS is behind by one or several units and teachers find themselves having to either cut information out or rush through units. Neither is beneficial to teachers or students, and multiple AP classes have seen several weeks of their end-of-semester review time for the actual test relocated towards catching up. Additionally, other staff members have to work late into the night sanitizing the school on a daily basis in order to keep students and teachers safe. Everyone has been affected by the pandemic and hybrid/online learning in some way whether it be students, teachers, or staff.
However, not all is doom and gloom. For one, online learning may have been the test run for a far greater educational revolution. It has not been perfect, but it has brought an unprecedented change in learning, one which may open our eyes to possible reforms in education.
School has proven to be a system that teaches young children and teenagers to become better thinkers, problem solvers, and future adults. Similar to other systems, public education in the U.S also has its many pitfalls. School has historically been a limiting system. It restricts personal freedom, teaches passivity in one’s personal education, and limits the creative license of individuals. It is a process that prepares and gears students to become future employees and industrious workers. Students are taught to meet quotas and deadlines in order to be able to “survive in the real world.” In many ways, school has refused to reform, to change, to listen. This is reflected by IUSD’s lack of response to the thousands of disgruntled comments from students and parents. The way various public school districts have often failed to keep students in a productive learning situation, maintain a safe environment, and listen to those students is a testament to the immense rigidity and myopia that school administrations tend to follow. It has glaringly proved that schools are unprepared for change. Teachers are stretched thin, students are unmotivated, and despite schools’ best attempts to alleviate the situation, the result has been far from perfect. Even at the beginning of the school year in August, nearly 30% of teachers said the pandemic made them more likely to leave teaching, as cited by the National Education Association. If IUSD had kept up with the times and taught students and teachers how to work online and be more independent, they would have been better equipped to face a nationwide pandemic under online learning. Of course, this is not all the fault of schools alone. Some of the effects of the virus are unavoidable, and budgets are often out of IUSD schools’ hands.
In contrast, online learning has offered an avenue for academic independence. Students are given more options to learn in a way that best fits them, and many students have far more time on their hands to self-study and catch up. For these individuals, technology is the mascot of freedom. It represents the highest order of modernization, adaptability, and self-sufficiency. It is a route for individually tailored self-learning. Students can pause videos online and gather their thoughts. They can make Google docs, slides, even mind maps. The avenues of active online learning are far more extensive than that of simply joining and leaving Zoom calls every day, as there are many online resources at our disposal. The only problem is, students are not taking advantage of such opportunities. Statistics show that student populations have reached record low rates of motivation and involvement. However, it may just be that students are failing in online learning because they have never been taught how to be independent. The rigidity of schooling has taught students to listen, to learn, to work under a teacher, a principal, a supervisor, but rarely are students entrusted to be independent and self-sufficient in their education. In many ways, online learning represents another approach, and there are lessons to be learned from its own faults and virtues. Not every student is thriving under online learning. In fact, a majority have probably suffered in many ways and others have had to put school on hold for sick family members or due to anxiety and stress under the new system. Regardless, school has to stop thinking in terms of a system of passivity; it rarely teaches individuals to be self-sufficient leaders and thinkers.
So, what is to be done? Moving forward, schools should keep the learning but lose the distance in distance learning. Once we return to in-person learning, every student should be asked to continue to bring a device or be offered a Chromebook as usual. UHS needs to give students more options for how they want to go about taking notes or writing essays. Many classes require students to handwrite essays or make bulleted notes on lined paper and for some students this works perfectly. For others though, it may be more productive and liberating to have the option to type essays or notes in a format that works for them. In math and science, where essays and paragraphs are not so common, teachers should start recording lessons or recording themselves teaching in-class so that students can go home and review videos as a supplement. This of course should happen after Covid-19 has passed due to current teacher stress, but once back, having that extra resource for every lesson would go a long way towards providing students with the tools they need to succeed.
That also transitions into the next step. All homework should be accessible online. That way, students will have dual access to the homework as well as the supplementary recordings and videos if they need. Too often (before the pandemic) teachers would do a lesson, hand out homework, and let students out of the classroom to do that work without a calendar of reference, resource videos to help, or a copy of the homework online.
Lastly, schools should continue policies of cleanliness and safety near the extent that it has been for the past year. Students should still be offered wipes and hand sanitizer at the start of every class to clean their desks or their hands if they want, even if there is not a lingering virus in the air. In fact, the CDC cites that increased safety measures taken against the global pandemic have led to a 98% decrease in flu positivity rates when recorded in March of 2020 in comparison to that of September, 2019. Once COVID-19 is no longer deemed a threat to American residents, it might be worth maintaining even a fraction of that cleanliness we hold ourselves to today in order to drive the previous headlining diseases such as the flu to extinction.
Perhaps one final change could be to keep Monday as an office hours day and stick to the same block schedule as hybrid learning, just simply all in-person. This also means continuing the eight-period schedule. Not only will students have more time on the weekend to prepare for the next schoolweek, but they will then have an opportunity to ask questions or get clarification on Mondays before getting into the bulk of the work ahead of them. For many classes at UHS during hybrid learning, teachers will give a full lesson in-person but will often only have students at home check in for a short interval. This effectively leaves teachers with only one day of actual class time, so by implementing an in-person block schedule post-pandemic, this would double class time comparative to hybrid learning. Additionally, students can only have a maximum of four tests a day under this schedule rather than the potential seven that could take place on Fridays in a pre-pandemic schedule. Ultimately, such changes would not make any radically drastic changes to learning, but they would simply implement some of what worked online to in-person learning. Promoting bringing personal laptops to school every day, recording lessons for students, and keeping Mondays as an office hours day would give more time and freedom for students to learn flexibly, happily, and engagingly at UHS.