Parents, teachers, and other adults are familiar with the phrase “School is hard!” But, what if this time it was actually true?
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, students have been able to opt into distance learning rather than in-person learning. Though the school is working hard to help distance learners adapt to learning from home, a recent poll conducted by The Rostrum found that many virtual students are struggling to stay organized and motivated. The results of our poll are even more relevant after the district said Monday that it would be switching to distance learning for two weeks amid a staffing shortage caused by Covid-19 quarantines.
Last month The Rostrum posted a survey in Google Classroom asking distance learners to describe their experiences learning virtually. Just over 100 of the approximately 650 distance learning students responded. The students were all different years and most of them (about 82%) have been distance learning since the district-wide shutdown in March.
Only 5% of those polled said they find distance learning fairly easy, while 19% found it extremely difficult. The rest of the respondents fell somewhere in between.
Some of the measures that the school has taken to try to ease the difficulty of not having face-to-face time between students and teachers include having six teachers focused only on giving distance learners extra help through Google Meet. The school also offers tutoring through Google Meet between the hours of 9:30 and 11:30 every school day, and teachers are available to respond to student emails. Some core subject teachers even hold their own Google Meets or Zoom calls.
Science Department Head Kevin Dickson said he spends almost every waking moment answering emails with questions and setting up Zoom meets with his students. He, along with the other teachers in his department, spent the summer looking through all their courses and adjusting them to fit the distance-learning format. The Science Department also found resources like EdPuzzle and Albert to post into Google. Teachers from all departments have helped each other with other programs to enhance and engage all students, Mr. Dickson said.
“We wanted to make sure we were ready for wherever this would take us,” he said.
Nevertheless, the distance learners polled by The Rostrum said they still find difficulties in getting the work in on time, doing what their teachers assign and reaching out to their teachers (since they’re usually teaching in-person learners and therefore typically unavailable). Students polled also complained about teachers posting assignments and projects around the same time as each other.
Not only that, but mental blocks are a problem for some of the students, too. Bella Randolph, a distance-learning freshman, said the hardest part for her was, “Getting the motivation to do it and getting work in on time.”
“It’s hard to get into a working mindset,” one anonymous distance learner explained, “because sometimes I’m not motivated to get my work done.”
Another anonymous student said there are other factors at play when it came to struggles in distance learning.
“Mental health is something that can really affect someone doing distance learning because sometimes you feel mentally drained from doing anything, like you have no sort of motivation to do work,” the anonymous student said.
Mr. Dickson even agreed and said “the students need to be supported and encouraged to want to do well with distance learning.” He said if a student was struggling and came to him for help, his first questions would be “What can I do to help?” and “What are your struggles?” He also advises students to start with small goals that aren’t super overwhelming.
“Accomplishing these goals will help to encourage students to take on bigger and bigger goals,” he said.
Another factor making distance learning difficult for some distance learners is their home environments. Many students responded that they think teachers tend not to take into account the diversity of their home situations, and this can also be a huge contributor to their motivational levels.
One anonymous student felt that some teachers are very “unaware of the fact that we have chores and things to do. We can’t sit all day doing things the way they want us to without doing the things we have to do around our houses.”
This student went on to explain their own home situation, “I have to babysit my cousin all day and I have to do her school work too and my teachers are unaware or just don’t care.”
Another anonymous student simply explained, “Doing my work in a loud household and getting a lot of assignments all at once, it can be very stressful.”
Mr. Dickson made the point that teachers don’t know everything about the students’ lives. He acknowledged that every household is different and he tried to give suggestions to help with some situations. These included wearing headphones to try to drown out the noise, trying to edit your schedule around certain events (helping siblings or doing chores are a few examples), but the biggest one was to just talk to your teacher.
“The biggest thing that needs to happen is communication between student and teacher,” he said.
In contrast, a few students polled said they were doing well with the school’s distance-learning system.
“Teachers are doing everything perfectly if you have a problem or need assistance with anything they respond ASAP,” said Charles Robinson, a senior who had just recently opted into distance learning.
An anonymous student said the teachers “give challenging work every other week, so it’s not like they bombard us with hard assignments, and they respond to questions regularly.”
About a quarter of our respondents saw an improvement in their grades since they started distance learning, while 36% saw a decline in their grades. The rest were either unsure or hadn’t noticed a change.
As for Mr. Dickson’s students, he actually sees improvement and said distance learning might have actually increased student interest in the concepts they were learning.
“I know every student at West Haven wants to succeed,” he said.
Mr. Dickson said teaching in distance learning is almost like teaching for his first year again, since learning how to work with online resources proved to be a task of its own.
“It definitely has made us a lot better on Google Classroom,” he said.
“We’re doing everything that we can,” he said, adding that no matter what decisions the teachers make, not everyone is going to be satisfied. It’s impossible to make everyone happy, so there’s always going to be a small group of people who are upset with the outcome.
“Nevertheless, this feedback can help teachers make goals of their own, as all that matters to the teachers of West Haven High School is that all students are being pushed to do well and are given the opportunities to do their best,” Mr. Dickson said.