Returning to Mostly Normal: Conard's Journey Through Online and In-Person School

By: Samantha Bernstein-Naples

On Wednesday, March 17th, after just over a year of remote and hybrid learning, Conard High School made the transition to full-in person school. While certain provisions remain in place, including masks, block scheduling, and the virtual learning option, overall, a new kind of normal has been achieved. The numerous transitions that students and faculty have experienced over the last year have undoubtedly taken their toll on members of the Conard community. To explore what is hopefully the final stage of the transition process, I sat down with English Teacher Rory Bryan, Science Teacher Mariah Cruz, Sophomore Gabriella Nobou, Junior Akshat Juneja, and Senior Arianna Fandozzi, to gain their perspectives on hybrid learning and the shift to full in-person school. Let’s dive in!

 

For students, hybrid learning presented its own unique set of benefits and challenges. From Freshmen to Seniors, the increased sleep that remote weeks provided was a point of common enjoyment. For many, these weeks functioned as somewhat of a break from the rigorous nature of the test-centered in-person weeks of school. The shift from eight periods to four periods a day with block scheduling meant less homework had to be completed each night and exams were more spaced out.  The longer class periods, as highlighted by Arianna, allowed students to really just “sit down and learn the material,” with the short class length of the eight-period schedule no longer being a factor. More class time meant that lessons and practice would not have to be broken up and more could be accomplished within a single period. Smaller class sizes also allowed for more individual attention from teachers. As Arianna emphasized, “teachers were able to focus on your needs.” Gabriella furthered this sentiment, underscoring how afternoon sessions provided an opportunity for students to ask specific questions and gain clarification on confusing concepts. 

 

While hybrid learning offered certain benefits, it also presented a whole host of new challenges. Weeks of remote learning hindered students’ ability to fully engage in class. Lying in bed or sprawling out on the couch while attempting to learn Calculus certainly does not have the same effect as sitting at a desk and being face to face with one’s teacher. Akshat, Gabriella, and Arianna all cited the difficulty they experienced paying attention while learning remotely and their increased sensitivity to becoming distracted. Arianna recalled having to remind herself, “wait this is real school I actually have to be paying attention.” The screen acted as a barrier between the in-person and at-home learning groups, and deeply hindered students’ ability to participate and ask questions. Arianna verifies how challenging it was to learn an entire unit of material during an online week and to really grasp the difficult concepts being taught over the screen. Students feeling as if they had to “teach themselves” some of the material became a common theme. Furthermore, many students felt that their relationships with teachers were weakened due to the remote aspect of hybrid learning. Akshat admitted he felt he wasn’t able to form as strong of relationships with teachers, due to having more limited opportunities for direct interaction. The increased screen time that came along with remote learning, was a difficulty in itself. Arianna recalls how she “would just be sitting there staring at a screen for hours'' making it painfully easy to “get disengaged.” Finally, as anyone with siblings can attest, learning from home meant competing for the rooms with the best wifi and having to track down the quietest spot in the house. School, a time siblings often look to as an opportunity for space from one another, became an additional point of irritation for many families during remote weeks. Hybrid learning undoubtedly offered a whole new layer of difficulty to students’ learning experience.

 

While students were experiencing the frustration that came with hybrid-learning, the teachers and faculty of Conard were as well. Serious difficulties arose when it came to attempting to coordinate between the online and in-person groups. Perhaps the most prominent challenge presented was the toll this model of teaching took on class discussions. Smaller classes often meant that fewer students were willing to voice their opinions. Ms. Cruz verified that overall it was “very challenging to get an open discussion going with the smaller class sizes.” In a smaller class, a wrong answer or a controversial opinion may seem like a bigger deal than in a room overflowing with students. Mrs. Bryan reasoned that smaller class sizes put more pressure on students and thrust them into the spotlight. For discussion-based courses or teachers that enjoy lively debate, this was especially problematic and disturbing to the flow of the class. Mrs. Bryan confirmed that she “would take a loud, rambunctious class any day” as such an environment allows students to find their voices and enhances communication. Furthermore, as many students felt the impact of learning material online, teachers experienced the consequences of having to teach material virtually, as students would oftentimes return to school and need a complete refresher on the learning covered the previous week. This tremendously slowed down the process of teaching new material and posed a unique challenge in AP classes where it is pertinent that information is covered in an efficient manner so that students are adequately prepared for the AP exam. Mrs. Bryan confirmed experiencing often defeating feelings of frustration and distress, expressing that “it felt like the online cohort wasn’t actually in school...when they came back, it was as if we never had met.” The additional annoyance of having to reteach material was only heightened by the weakening effect that the virtual learning component had on the relationships between teachers and their students. From not getting to see one another on a daily basis, to only getting to interact in-person bi-weekly, it stands to reason that connections suffered as a result. Mrs. Bryan reflected, “I normally pride myself on having strong relationships with students, and I don’t feel that I have that this year.” From what is lost in translation through the masks, to the opportunities that are missed for joking around and really connecting over important or fascinating subject matter, a component of teaching that many educators really cherish, lacked significantly this year. To Mrs. Bryan, it feels as if an “aspect of humanity...has been taken out of the situation” making interactions “almost robotic...or superficial.” The natural ease of communicating through facial expressions and everyday conversations, when removed from the equation, creates a more automatic, colorless school experience for both students and teachers. Mrs. Bryan summed it up perfectly: to say hybrid learning was “difficult would be the understatement of the year.” 

 

Conard High School recently was able to make the transition from the hybrid-learning schedule to full in-person learning, with the exception of students who are quarantining, feel safer learning from an at-home environment, or are part of the Remote Learning High School. From the student perspective, the return to school full time has been filled with both excitement and apprehension.. For Akshat, the social aspect of the school environment is key, and being able to see friends after so long marked a moment of elation. For many, the return made for a more lively learning environment. Arianna corroborated that in the majority of her classes, especially in Women’s Literature, the transition made for much “better discourse,” and “more interesting conversations.” However, for those who prefer the more intimate conversations that smaller classes allow for, this transition has been overwhelming. Gabriella expressed that for her, doubling the number of students in a classroom felt “chaotic,” and made it more “difficult to engage in conversations…[there is] this sense that I am being watched.”  Even for students like Arianna, a self-proclaimed extrovert, the larger classes have made her “a little bit more hesitant to participate” as the transition has required “adjusting to the new people that are physically in...class” and “read[ing] the room. However, like anything else, all it takes is some time to adjust. Gabriella and Arianna both expressed their determination to maintain their levels of participation, speaking to the courage and the confidence that we must allow to fuel us to participate, even in rooms with students who may be new or unfamiliar. For Akshat, the opportunity to “get back to some sense of normalcy” has been a tremendous relief. Gabriella is reassured that full in-person school will be better for her academically and opens up the door to “potentially meeting new people.” Finally, Arianna enthusiastically conveyed that “the senior class is happy that we are finally getting a somewhat normal year.” Reflecting on the possibility that full-in person school provides, we can all find reasons to be grateful to be reunited once again. 

 

The joy and anxiety that students feel to be back fully in school are shared by the Conard faculty. From the teacher’s perspective, the transition has helped to remedy the lacking participation that plagued just about three-quarters of the school year. Ms. Cruz confirmed that students are far “chattier” than usual and how nice it is as a teacher “not to have a quiet classroom for once.” Reuniting with friends and enhanced feelings of comfort and support have certainly brought out the more confident side of many students. Mrs. Bryan corroborated  the significant degree to which the transition helped the vast majority of her more quiet class periods, and in doing so “reminded me why I do this job.” The teachers of Conard have been able to share in a sigh of relief at once again having students who are engaged and willing to voice their opinions. Mrs. Bryan shared how she has started to see “a whole new side to several students who came off as shy, but now are more comfortable and have found their groove.” With friends comes comfort and with comfort comes confidence, translating into, furthered Mrs. Bryan, “students [emerging] out of their shells” as they feel that they have a “comfort zone” and the support necessary to really find their voices. Having that person we know we can trust, count on, and look to when nervous or confused, provides much-needed encouragement. This transition has been tremendously helpful in transforming the school atmosphere, providing for more energetic, more dynamic classes. 

 

It would be impossible to discuss the transition back to full in-person school without addressing the issue of safety. While the vast majority of the Conard staff was able to receive the Coronavirus vaccine in the weeks leading up to the transition, students, and the families of students and educators alike, remain vulnerable. While Conard has taken many of the necessary measures to reopen safely, especially among students, a level of apprehension remains. Gabriella revealed that from her perspective, “distancing kind of went out the window and one-way hallways might as well not exist as everyone is everywhere all of the time.” The feelings of shock and anxiety associated with the number of people in the building doubling are undeniable. After spending such a long time worrying about not getting within a certain distance of human beings outside our immediate family or circle of friends, for both students and faculty it has been somewhat distressing to essentially be surrounded by a swarm of people on a daily basis. Arianna confirmed that for her, she still feels safe in classrooms as desks are spread out and people are able to remain in their own bubble of space but feels that the “ hallways are a disaster.” Arianna relayed, “it’s just chaos...bobbing and weaving and trying to go to the areas that are the least crowded.” Many students share this sentiment that the hallways, which become flooded during passing time, are prominent points of concern. Although, in reality, the couple minutes spent walking from class to class likely don’t pose as significant a health risk, the continued feelings of stress and worry that come with being around so many people at the same time as the global pandemic rages on, are persistent. However, when I asked Gabriella, Akshat, Arianna, Mrs. Bryan, and Ms. Cruz if they thought there was anything more the school should do to enhance safety measures, the overwhelming consensus was that the administration truly is doing everything necessary and possible given the circumstances, to ensure the safety of the Conard Community. As long as everyone continues to do their part, we can all look forward to a  safe, more united, colorful, and bright rest of the school year!

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