March 12 started like any other normal day at school. But with global public health warnings growing louder in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, students across New Mexico went home that afternoon with orders from their principals to pack up their books and bring home their laptops, unsure of when they might return.
After two weeks of confusion and waiting, students were informed that the remainder of their school year would take place online to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. For some, the news was heartbreaking.
“When [my principal] ordered the school year to be canceled, at first I thought it would only be for two weeks and then everything would go back to normal,” said Alexa Griego, a senior at St. Michael’s High School. “Never did I think that the rest of my senior year would be canceled. I was extremely sad.”
Now, sports events, clubs, school dances, end-of-year exams and graduations have all been canceled or postponed, leaving students and teachers at home, where they must learn and teach through a computer. As students continue to adapt to the new method of video lectures and virtual homework, many say they struggle to stay motivated.
Crickett Tiger, a freshman dance student at New Mexico School for the Arts, said she misses face-to-face learning and that online school has made it hard to absorb new information and stay on task.
“The teachers just give you assignments and you have to learn the lessons on your own,” Tiger said. “I am left to do a lot by myself, and I continue to procrastinate and do other things. … I can’t really stay focused.”
Students also are having a difficult time emotionally, as they no longer have daily socialization with teachers or peers. Jayla Martinez, a junior at St. Michael’s, said she misses seeing her friends in the halls and “being able to ask [teachers] questions whenever I need, rather than waiting to finish everything I can and then sending an email.”
Griego agreed, noting that as a senior, the last few months of school were supposed to be an opportunity to spend time with teachers and classmates who have made an impact on her life throughout high school.
Still, she said, “no matter what, it’s still so important to keep my grades up so that I can maintain my scholarships.”
Mason Nichols, a sophomore at Santa Fe High School, wrote in an email that although online learning is a tricky adjustment, it’s better than not being in school at all.
“I’m still getting an education and while it may not be as good of an experience as normal school, it still works and that’s all that matters,” he wrote. “As [online school] has progressed it has become easier to navigate, and now I would say that it is at least well enough organized that I can find all my assignments easily.”
Students aren’t the only ones who have to adapt. Teachers say they face similar obstacles when it comes to continuing their work in a productive manner.
“I think most teachers would agree that online teaching has been a challenge,” said Gilbert Piñon, a history and social studies teacher at St. Michael’s High School. “Teachers by nature love being with kids and enjoy the give and take that comes with a classroom experience.
“Like all human beings, we are social creatures and enjoy being in the presence of our students and getting to know them, not just as students, but as people who have hobbies, interests, joys, problems, ambitions and dreams,” he said.
Jennifer Ferguson, a biology teacher at the Academy for Technology and the Classics, agreed, saying that without the ability to teach in a classroom, it’s much harder to help students grasp new concepts.
“Trying to gauge if my students are understanding things, or not [is stressful],” she wrote in an email. Even though she said she tries hard to stay organized, she worries students are overwhelmed by the new learning system and “are struggling and not reaching out to get help.”
Like Piñon, Ferguson said she also misses a personal connection with her students and simply wants to “make sure that my students are okay, are safe, are cared for and have what they need to learn. It is hard to know any of these things when we are not meeting in person.”
A lot of times, teachers say, they have to get creative to find ways to keep students engaged.
For example, Jenna Kuchar, a voice teacher at New Mexico School for the Arts, said she asks students to perform acting exercises while singing, practice body alignment work and do vocal improvisations — all via the videoconference platform Zoom — to keep the learning process engaging.
While she said this was difficult at first, “as time goes on, I have found that keeping playful curiosity in each and every voice lesson is key.”
“I feel it’s important for students to feel empowered to teach themselves and work on their own artistry on a day-to-day basis,” she added. “By giving students guidelines for deep self-exploration, each student has been empowered to challenge themselves out of the classroom during online learning.”
Piñon wants students to know they are not alone in their struggles and that teachers empathize with them during this weird time.
“I imagine that for many students, these are stressful times. Apart from the anxiety that comes with writing research papers, taking tests and all the other academic demands that they have to deal with on a daily basis, [students] also are dealing with the anxiety that comes with this pandemic and some uncertainty about the future,” he said.
For this reason, he encourages youth to prioritize their mental health: “Stay connected with others through FaceTime or some other social medium, get outdoors and enjoy the beauty of the natural world, exercise on a daily basis and, if you are a spiritual person, pray and meditate.”
Piñon and other teachers said that in the midst of all the uncertainty, there is a silver lining to the academic changes: Many teens are realizing education is a privilege, and in the future, perhaps they will not take it for granted.
“[I hope it adds to the] understanding that education isn’t simply a means to an end but a gift that enables us to become more well-rounded citizens,” Piñon said.
Teens share that sentiment.
“Although online schooling isn’t exactly how I imagined the last months of my senior year playing out, it really makes me appreciate my class and school even more,” said Griego, noting although she is upset to miss out on the typical end-of-year traditions. “I appreciate everything my school is doing to make sure we are recognized and honored.”
“This time as a senior makes me realize how special my class is because of how we have come together despite our uncanny circumstances,” she said.
Sofia Barker is a freshman at Academy for Technology and the Classics. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sofia Ortiz is a senior at St. Michael’s High School. Contact her at email@example.com.