COVID-19 + the Class of 2022

How are this year's juniors faring at home?

September 18, 2020

I prefer in-person learning because you get more social time and it’s easy for teachers and students to communicate and easily understand each other. ”

— Mia Sebak, Class of 2022

An empty coffee mug sits on a desk, still warm from the liquid it held a moment ago. Two more, equally empty, have been left behind it. Around them are scattered stacks of paper, lit by a lamp and a laptop with twelve open tabs. The time in the corner of its screen reads 12:31 AM. A student sits in front of it and types frantically, hoping to finish the rest of their schoolwork soon, as they have been hoping for the past four hours. Standardized testing prep books lay open on the floor. There’s no room left for them on the desk. More evidence of this teen’s academic life litters the room in the form of pencils and highlighters.

The image you have in your head now might be what a standard junior year would have looked like for many members of Panther Creek’s Class of 2022– late nights of seemingly endless homework fueled by caffeine and stress. Something must have gotten mixed up along the way, because this year, all work is homework. That “something” turns out to have been global health. With the COVID-19 pandemic taking the world by storm at the tail end of the Class of 2022’s sophomore year, classes at Panther Creek were put on hiatus before being transferred to an online setting. As the disease continues to grip the nation, this year’s juniors are attending what is widely regarded as the hardest year of high school from home.

I would love to have days included for independent study, like the ones we had in the first week of school. Having a more flexible school schedule now and then could be really nice because we can definitely adjust to spend more time with family and just doing our own thing while being free to work at our own pace. As almost everyone else, I’ve picked up new hobbies since the start of quarantine, and it felt so nice to actually have time to do things that made me happy. Working according to our own pace gives us freedom because we’re not tied down to a schedule. Having days for independent study would also allow us to spend more time with our families, like maybe going on a road trip or just going out for a morning picnic without having the obligation to be present for classes during a certain time.”

— Vera Polyakova, Class of 2022

You can’t go long before getting another email including the phrase “in these unprecedented times” or seeing an advertisement claiming that “we’re all in this together during these stressful times.” Even now, half a year into the pandemic, no one’s quite sure what to do about school given the current state of things. We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetimes. Wake County has ventured into the unknown by giving students the option of continuing to take classes online or returning to school in-person on a rotating schedule.

While no students have been able to go back into a building yet, roughly a third of the juniors we polled took that option in the hopes of returning to a physical classroom soon. Of the remaining students, approximately half opted to try out the Wake County Virtual Academy for a semester, and the rest decided to stick with it for the entire year. Nearly a third of the juniors we asked are still happy with their various decisions, while almost half aren’t so sure if they would have chosen the same way knowing what they know now.

Just over ⅔ of the surveyed students told us that they preferred in-person learning to an online structure. Responses to the question “on a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate your experience with online learning so far this school year only?” were overwhelmingly 3s and 4s.

From all of this information, it seems reasonable to conclude that the majority of juniors, while they would prefer to be learning from a teacher face-to-face, are pretty okay with the current face-to-screen way things are running, whether it be because they like the system or they know it’s something we’ll have to endure for now. Avery Sallean summarizes it well: “I wish we could be in person, but I know that it’s necessary to run school the way it’s being run.”

Many of the students who prefer in-person learning do so “because of the social aspect” (Haley Bleasdale-Velky) or the idea that “it’s easier to focus” (Andrew Pugsley). On the other hand, the ones who prefer taking classes online say that it’s because they can do so from “the comfort of my own home” (Cindy Sun) and “do the assignments whenever instead of a clocked class time” (Katie Levey).

Here’s a pros and cons list centered around virtual school, compiled from the responses of the juniors PCNN surveyed.

PROS: getting to stay at home; not having to walk to the bus stop; having more free time for sports, traveling, etc; waking up later; being more comfortable; working at your own pace; having more open-note tests; location flexibility; wearing pajamas; eating, going to the bathroom, or taking a nap whenever; being more easily able to multitask; lower infection rates; not being called on in class

CONS: having less one-on-one time; falling behind more easily; teaching yourself a good chunk of the time; being bored; having less motivation; being distracted more easily; having less social interaction with friends; having a harder time communicating and making personal connections; not having homecoming or prom; feeling isolated; no one is used to this environment yet; bad for sitting posture

PCNN also asked juniors what sorts of changes they’ve noticed from last year to this one. “I mean, obviously it’s online now. But this gives me a lot of freedom to move around and keep my mind engaged. I don’t have to sit still for hours at a time, I can spin in my chair and listen to music while still getting my work done; without penalty,” explains Ethan Suehs. It’s a thought that’s easy to agree with, and one that many juniors see reflected in their own lives right now.

A lot of my teachers go way over time and still assign a lot of work. I never have time to complete my work during the school day.”

— Haley Bleasdale-Velky, Class of 2022

“Why does it seem we are getting more work online?! Is it just me?!” asks Sarah Mulu, frustrated with her workload. While some juniors reflected her sentiment in their own responses, others felt the opposite. “Honestly, there seems to be less work since things are online,” says Cindy Sun. Cindy also added that “students are now forced to take more responsibility and motivate themselves since there is no one to push them. There is also less social interaction; in almost all of my classes, only a few students turn on their camera and mic on.” This is largely true for lecture-heavy, typically worksheet-based classes.

Many juniors have noticed that their ability to learn and retain information has deteriorated. “It’s a lot harder to keep information in my head because now I just look at my notes when taking tests or quizzes,” explains Alexandra Pantoja. “I definitely have to work harder to learn a concept than I did last year, but I can still do it,” adds Mia Sebak. Some haven’t seen any significant changes in their retention capabilities, while others have noticed improvements. Ethan Suehs has observed a problem with the system itself, one that some students have been concerned about since even before the age of online school. “I feel the grading system is focused on grades, not how much the student can remember. I know a lot of kids who are more worried about getting an A, than actually learning the material for use later in life,” Ethan explains.

Writing this article has been like writing a DBQ with over 30 document sources to consider– a comparison which should spark some sort of visceral reaction from almost any upperclassman in a history class. Thank you to all of the juniors who took the time to answer PCNN’s questions when we reached out! You all gave us so many helpful and insightful responses, it was impossible to include them all.

“I just thought it was worth mentioning: thank you teachers, for all that you do!! Thank you for working hard to make online learning more effective, interesting, and easy! And also: just a friendly reminder, to be good to yourself and to others! Consider your actions when you’re on social media or elsewhere and be kind! 🙂 Do to others what you wish would be done to you!” – Vera Polyakova, Class of 2022