In a time where COVID-19 is keeping students off campus, those affected by distance learning are realizing quickly some effects and shortcomings that come with going 100 percent online.
In the spring, when COVID first put everyone behind a screen, Granite Hills High School was learning on the fly. The Zoom meetings and Google Classrooms were new to staff and students, but teachers did their best to make it work for their students.
Fast-forward to this fall semester, when the Grizzlies believed they had more of a handle on distance learning. Teachers created detailed lesson plans, assignments and homework were adjusted for online submission, and office hours were made available to students who needed more help.
In an effort to see how students, parents, and staff were handling distance learning this time around, the Grizzlies created anonymous surveys to find some answers.
The student survey was split into four sections: attitude towards school, how's your time spent, your schoolwork, and your mental/emotional health. Around 61 percent percent of students — 772 to be exact — took the survey in early October, and the results were eye-opening.
“Ultimately, what the survey helped us bring out is that we had the best of intentions to do more than what we did last spring, this fall, but I honestly believe we swung too far,” GHHS principal Apolinar Marroquin said. “We swung too far on the side of, ‘OK, I’m going to build these lessons, and create these videos, and learn this platform, and give these kids assignments and projects.’ And that being said, I think we also lost sight of the fact that the stressors of COVID and the real-life situations that our kids are going through.”
In the student survey, 382 students said last year they had a positive attitude towards school before distance learning, but only 161 had a positive attitude towards school this year, and 404 had both a positive and negative attitude towards school now.
In response to being asked why their attitude towards school changed, one student’s response summed up much of what Marroquin and his staff were learning about distance learning at home for students.
“My attitude changed because school is harder online because not all of us have time to be on Zoom,” the student wrote. “For example, some of us have jobs because we need to help our parents because of this pandemic and (it’s) not easy because we have to work in order to have food and a house because this pandemic affected everyone. People earn less money, there (are) fewer jobs.
“I understand that we still have to go to school and (that’s) a good thing because we have to study (and) get good grades because later on in the future we will need to have some requirements to get a good stable job. But you need to understand this pandemic hit us and it's not easy because parents lose their jobs. Also, we need to understand and see the students are going through because some have family problems or something bad in their life is happening.”
In a check all that apply question about what they were doing during school hours, 82 percent of students said they were doing chores and 60 percent took care of younger siblings. A handful of students also said they were taking care of older relatives (56 students), working a part-time job (49), and doing other things (128). Only 61 students said they were doing none of the above.
CHANGES TO COME
On Twitter, in a screenshot of an email sent out to students, parents, and staff in late September, Marroquin shared the school’s decision to “make adjustments to student workloads, Zoom lessons, intervention time and offer tutoring, in an effort to better support your children during these difficult times.”
Marroquin added changes would come over the next few weeks and reducing the number of assignments given would be one of the immediate areas addressed.
In the survey, more than 70 percent of students said they received five to seven assignments a day. Assignments can be in-class work, homework, or projects. Seventy-three percent of students said they spent two to four hours a day on schoolwork outside of class, and several mentioned their assignments stressed them out or made them feel overwhelmed.
“Those have been some of our immediate fixes, is having the discussions and having each department look at what’s a proper number of assignments and what is a manageable number of assignments given our current situations,” Marroquin said.
However, not every class will see a reduction in assignments. “We have classes such as AP courses, dual concurrent college courses that probably won’t take the foot off the gas pedal because those meet different criteria. But overall, we’re going to scale back on assignments, scale back on homework,” Marroquin said.
Granite will also help students budget their time better and make sure students and teachers get the most out of their classes when they meet.
“If we are going to keep students in front of a monitor for 105 minutes, we will make sure that we become a one-stop-shop,” Marroquin said. “Where they are instructing, they’re providing help. They’re giving support for homework or the assignment. The teachers have built-in office hours to be available to the parents and the student. So that by the time the student checks off or signs off on the Zoom call, more is accomplished during that class period, so less has to be worried about after school.”
As students, teachers, and staff do their best to make distance learning work, there’s one area they all have little control over — in-person connections.
Before distance learning, teachers and staff could build relationships and connect better with students because they saw each other daily on campus. Students could pop into a classroom to see a teacher and get extra help, or drop by their counselor’s office whenever to get things off their chest. Not anymore.
“We used to take pride in the fact that because we have a little over 1,200 students, we took pride that we got to know our kids and their families,” Marroquin said. He added, “That was our strength, and to be honest, distance learning has equalized that strength. It’s made it more difficult to connect and to build relationships. That doesn’t mean that we’ve given up, and we’re not trying. It just means that right now, we’re laboring through and trying to figure out and find ways to do that virtually.”
In their survey, students were asked to check all that apply for the statement, “Since lockdown, ______ has really affected me.” They were given the options: not seeing friends, classmates, and teachers; staying indoors; switching to 100 percent online learning; other; and none of the above. Sixty-one percent of students checked not seeing friends, classmates, and teachers as at least one thing that affected them.
And it’s not just the students who are struggling with this contactless learning. Granite’s staff misses students immensely too.
“Our staff shared their frustrations with the model and their current frustrations with not being able to see students,” Marroquin said. “That’s been difficult for us to be on a campus that’s deserted and empty. And lifeless. We feed off the energy of our students. Our spirits are lifted by being around students. …. We can try to have dress-up days and try to do silly days on campus to lift morale and spirit, but what is lacking is the true lifter, our student body.”
One way Granite is working to strengthen relationships with students is by encouraging open discussions regularly and inquiring about how students are doing personally and with school.
“We can’t forget about the good old strategy of talking with our kids,” Marroquin said. “And asking our children, ‘How are you today? And how are things at home this week? How was your weekend?’ Because those are leading into discussions that are helping us make those adjustments to our lessons and our assignments.”
And for staff, the Grizzlies have End of Day Reflection Zoom meetings for wellness checks. Twenty to 30 staff members have participated in the sessions where they ask questions, share the good and bad of their days, their “aha” moments, what’s working and what’s not, and more.
NOT GIVING UP
With distance learning comes plenty of obstacles and plenty of positives, like a focused mindset to keep battling and get through these challenging times.
“I must be positive in order to (move) forward,” one student said in their survey. “Everyone said that junior year is the hardest. When you mix junior year with COVID-19, it’s even harder. ... I appreciate a lot the teachers who understand and calm us with their kind words. I appreciate the school too for staying strong and for keeping teaching us in these hard times.”
Marroquin also noted services available to students before are still available now. Counselors have office hours, breakfast and lunches are provided free for students, and cohorts of students who need extra help are being allowed on campus a couple of days a week to get that help.
Through distance learning, both students and staff learn when the Grizzlies say family, they mean it. They’re learning how to communicate, how to overcome, and most importantly, they’re learning about themselves and each other.
“It’s definitely pushing us out of our comfort zones to learn new ways, different ways,” Marroquin said. “To ask questions of those around us. I do think when the dust settles as well, I think that we are going to realize we’ve just added to our toolbox a ton of strategies, a ton of platforms, a ton of ways of being able to reach our students and the different needs, and learning needs, that they have.”