Student sees online learning as safe but challenging situation
Back in March, many New Mexico residents didn't think the novel coronavirus would get much worse.
When it did, schools shifted to an online-learning model to help slow the spread. Students wrapped up the 2019-20 school year online, wrestling finicky Wi-Fi to complete web-only assignments and waving goodbye to friends via platforms like Zoom before summer break.
There have now been more than 25,600 cases of coronavirus statewide — over 6.1 million cases and 185,600 deaths across the U.S. It’s clear the pandemic is still nowhere near over — an easy truth for students to face after spending months hoping they’d return to in-person learning this fall.
Alas, the 2020-21 school year is off to a start just like the last school year ended: staring at a screen.
Stella Bordner, a junior at the MASTERS Program who started classes a little more than two weeks ago, said her daily schedule consists of two Zoom classes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Over the course of a week, she has courses in English, math, government, health, science and public speaking. Some classes don’t require meetings; instead, she is emailed assignments to complete by a set deadline.
“My online school schedule is less demanding,” Bordner wrote in an email. “Having these gaps in the middle of the day allows me to work, which I couldn’t do while going to school in person.”
But the model remains less than ideal, she said. For one, it’s harder to access assistance from teachers or peers when needed, she said — and not just academic help. Sometimes, she said, she simply misses being able to pull aside an emotionally available friend in the hallway, someone who could give advice or words of encouragement.
Bordner said she’s mostly worried she won’t learn as well with online school, especially as she prepares for big tests such as the SAT and ACT, and that her GPA could suffer right as she begins her college application process. Learning online simply makes school “very difficult to stay engaged and understand information effectively,” she said.
Bordner is one of thousands of teens in New Mexico who feel this way. Still, despite the frustrating aspects of virtual learning, many young students recognize it’s perhaps the best model for the community during the pandemic.
“I know for a lot of kids, myself included, online school is far from ideal, socially and academically. But in my mind there is no safe way to go back to school without a dramatic increase in [positive coronavirus] cases,” Bordner said. “So I think it is the smart decision to stay home for the time being.”
One silver lining of the pandemic, Bordner said, is that it has given her the chance to spend more time with family and loved ones.
“My brother was home from college longer, which was a blast,” Bordner wrote in an email. “I also got a dog in quarantine” — a poodle-terrier mix named Bernie Sanders.
Bordner said she’s grateful schools are following distance-learning guidelines because health is an obstacle she faces in her own daily life: Her immune system is compromised due to an autoimmune disease she’s had since she was 11, and the required medication also puts her at higher risk of contracting the virus.
Additionally, her household includes her 78-year-old grandparents and her stepfather, a cancer survivor who suffers from asthma.
“We don’t want to take any unnecessary risks of exposure, and online school gives me that safety,” Bordner said.
Bordner said she is continuing to live a happy and healthy life while being isolated. She still has the opportunity to see a small number of close friends and is blessed with two jobs as a lifeguard and a medical assistant.
Her work, family and now school have kept her occupied during the pandemic, also giving her a glimmer of hope for whatever lies ahead.
“My goal for this year is to stay positive, despite the unstable environment that we currently live in,” she said.
Teacher strives to keep students engaged, on track
Teaching has never been an easy profession, but now it’s arguably harder than ever.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, teachers have had to rely on online-only lesson plans and motivate students through a computer screen. Add troublesome Wi-Fi and hovering parents who are also working from home to the mix, and it’s sometimes a recipe for disaster.
“My best words of advice? Stay positive, test negative,” said Christopher Eadie, a psychology and geology teacher and head of the Advanced Placement program at Santa Fe High.
Eadie has been teaching high school or 25 years, but, like
many teachers, 2020 is the first time his classes have been taught solely online. Remote and distanced teaching, he admitted, is incredibly difficult, not just for students, but for teachers such as himself.
Eadie said that among the issues online school has, from faulty internet connections to elongated screen times, the most problematic is his inability to connect with his students in the same way he can in person.
“Building relationships are so important — for us and our students. It’s much more challenging to develop those relationships within this sometimes troublesome medium,” he wrote in an email.
In this school year, which started Aug. 20, Eadie worries that students won’t be able to learn as much with the many limitations of Zoom calls. There is significantly less instruction time and student participation, as well as minimized access to aid, he said.
“Some students — inattentive students or English language learners for example — may not find as much success and may check out quickly,” he said. “It may be particularly challenging for them to follow along with instructors and peers.”
Eadie said motivation will be a huge obstacle for students this year. The risk of feeling lazy and inattentive is much higher when your classroom is your bedroom, he said.
Because Eadie is an AP teacher, one of his bigger concerns revolves around trying to fit in all the curriculum that will be featured on AP exams in the spring.
“We have to teach so much content that we are worried we won’t be able to cover it all with less contact time. This means that students will need to read, review and digest a significant portion of the required content on their own,” he said.
“I’m feeling a bit uneasy giving this additional responsibility to the students with all they already have on their plates. Could lead to stress, late nights, and confusion,” he added.
Still, there are ways in which high schoolers can improve these subpar school conditions, many of which stem from being proactive. Eadie said students should try beefing up their organizational skills and holding themselves accountable to a strict schedule. He also recommended finding a friend to study with, whether in person or just over the phone.
The greatest goal kids can set for themselves, however, is to simply just try their best: “Effort is key,” he said.
For teachers, Eadie’s advice was to use humor and encourage frequent participation. In his classes, he uses informal, discussion-based lesson plans to keep students engaged and “more comfortable.”
Though most teachers agree virtual teaching is not ideal, they say their passion for the work is what will carry them through.
“It’s hard to pre-think everything, it’s hard not seeing kids’ faces and the classes are too short, but I’m adapting and enjoying my year so far,” said Santa Fe High AP English teacher Barbara Gerber.