Teachers are getting first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and the level of new virus cases continues to decline, both promising developments after a year of pandemic schooling. Two weeks ago, Supt. Alexis Meyer announced the end of “asynchronous Mondays.” Meanwhile a parent group has been pushing for a full return to in-person classes.
But how do the middle and high school students feel about the change of schedule – and the idea of going back to the classroom full-time?
Students like asynchronous Mondays
Throughout the school year Cole and EGHS students have been split into two groups based on their last name, with one group going to school in person on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the other on Thursdays and Fridays. On days in which a group is not in person, they learn from home through synchronous online courses. Since the beginning of the school year, Mondays have been a day for them to catch up on work at home and check in with teachers for one-on-one sessions if desired. There are no traditional classes on these days, online or in person. The goal of this schedule has been to limit the number of students in school each day to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
But beginning on March 22, Mondays will become an alternating in-person day, so every other week each group will go back to the classroom. This means that each student will have five full in-person days and five distance learning days over the course of two weeks.
Many students who spoke with East Greenwich News about their experiences found the asynchronous Mondays beneficial for catching up on work and were disappointed to learn that they were ending.
“I haven’t really heard anyone who’s happy about [the return of in-person Mondays],” Rylee Shunney, a sophomore at East Greenwich High School. “[Monday was] a nice break. It’s a really productive day because you can take breaks and not stare at a screen for eight hours.”
Rylee’s sister, Logan, agreed that expanding in-person classes to Mondays was disappointing. She also said alternating Mondays between online and in-person could be a bit confusing.
“I think it’s going to be a little strange because of the placement,” said Logan, a senior. “My half of the alphabet will be in-person on every other Monday and then Thursday, Friday. If they have to put us in school for an alternating day they should have done it Wednesday so it’s right in the middle.”
Jacob Connolly, a junior, said the Mondays provided a sense of normalcy to an otherwise unusual school year, while Cole Middle School eighth-grader Catherine Sprague said it provided a much-needed break when necessary. They both felt that removing this day late in the school year would unnecessarily disrupt student schedules. Additionally, freshman Dennis Smith felt that having Mondays as a free day gave him time to not only catch up on work, but improve his work’s quality.
Others have spoken out about the value of asynchronous Mondays, including the student mental health group ASAPP and signers of a petition circulated by other students that has garnered more than 1,000 signatures though signers were not limited to EG residents.
Some school staff members have said the Mondays have benefitted certain students academically and mentally.
“I think some kids really benefited from the type of learning that goes on on those Mondays, the tutorial style where you work independently from home,” Bob Houghtaling, the town’s substance abuse coordinator, said. “I also think there’s significant advantages of async days even as we go back to normal. Going from Point A to Point B without transition points will be hard on some kids.”
Yet Anne-Marie Flaherty, school counselor at East Greenwich High School, noted that getting students back to normal, albeit gradually, will be necessary.
“People don’t like change, and they were getting used to this schedule,” Flaherty said. “They may not be happy about [ending asynchronous Mondays] but I think it’s a good idea. I think people assume when the pandemic is over we’ll be totally back to normal but it needs to be gradual.”
Questions about academics, mental health
Although students East Greenwich News generally praised asynchronous Mondays, their thoughts on a return to full in-person school were a bit more mixed – at least for the time being.
Pressure has been building in recent weeks among some EG parents to get kids back in school full time. Now that teachers and staff in East Greenwich have been able to get their first dose of vaccine, there is more pressure than ever for school to be what it was pre-pandemic.
Members of the Facebook group EG Parents for In-Person Learning are asking the school department to allow middle school and high school students back in the classroom full-time, five days a week, arguing among other things that students were falling behind.
Rylee Shunney said when the schools went to full distance learning last March, most of her coursework was review instead of new material, but she chalked that up to everyone being thrust into a completely new teaching and learning situation. While learning had improved in the past year, Rylee said, it wasn’t the same quality as completely in-person.
“It takes a week or two more to really learn the material because you only have two classes in a week,” Rylee said. “When we were all in person we were flying through material and you could do a lot more materials, but this is the best with what we got going on.”
Catherine Sprague also said there are academic advantages to in-person learning, and that she felt she hadn’t learned as much in 2020 and 2021. Her brother, sophomore Robert Sprague, said that he missed the hands-on learning that comes from going to school in-person full-time.
On the other hand, Logan Shunney said she did not notice a huge difference in education quality between in person, remote or hybrid. Jacob Connolly added that since class periods are longer this year, classes get to go more in-depth in the material.
But most everyone agrees school is important not just for academics: many students rely on school for social-emotional learning and building friendships. Distance learning and hybrid learning alike have hurt some students in this way.
“On the one hand, a significant number of kids have shown some resiliency,” Bob Houghtaling said. “That being said there are other kids who have experienced significant alienation, anxiety and depression.”
Some parents at the March 2 School Committee meeting said their children’s mental health had deteriorated this year due to hybrid learning. One parent said both of their children were suffering from depression, with one developing an eating disorder and the other barely leaving their room. Others reported their children were suffering from severe loneliness and panic attacks they never had pre-COVID.
“The current model is significantly harming my daughter’s mental health,” one parent was quoted as saying. “I’ve watched her withdraw from friends and family, cry, lose interest in favorite activities, and go from an independent, straight-A student to having me on top of her classwork so she doesn’t keep missing assignments and getting zeroes.… She is now on prescription medication for anxiety and depression and she is only 11. She needs to be in school for face-to-face learning and daily interactions with friends.”
Flaherty noted the move to distance or hybrid learning had magnified mental health problems that already existed in students but that many other students have developed anxiety or depression due to isolation caused by the pandemic. And while she thinks full distance and hybrid learning had similar impacts on students’ mental health, she said it’s been easier to identify those students in need of help who are in school at least some of the time.
Yet Flaherty said distance and hybrid learning had become an educational experience in and of itself.
“Students are better with technology,” Flaherty said. “Some students discovered they are more resilient. Some students learned things about themselves. Some built connections with family members. One student said we all took our normal lives for granted and we need to appreciate the smaller things in life, and they learned that during all of this.”
Some students said they felt their mental health was similar to how it was pre-COVID-19, but they knew of classmates who have struggled. Jacob Connolly said having a schedule helps him cope.
“Obviously everybody’s mental state is a little more distressed right now,” he said. “Having said that I think it’s nice to have some form of schedule and routine that you can do every day and I feel the online and hybrid learning helps maintain that.”
Although technology has made it easier for people to stay in touch, and some students maintain connections through activities like sports, Catherine Sprague described herself as a social butterfly and said that she misses going in-person five days a week. Her brother Robert said hybrid learning was at least better for his mental health than full-distance learning, and said he cherished his relationships with classmates and teachers.
“Last March it felt like we weren’t going anywhere with school,” Robert said. “But seeing people who aren’t your immediate family makes me feel so much better with my mental state.”
Students were also concerned that the current learning model would have a long-term impact on their future education.
“I felt like I wasn’t learning much at the end of last year and the beginning of this year,” Catherine said. “I’m going to go into freshman year not totally knowing what we learned in seventh and eighth grade, but that’s not necessarily my teachers’ fault since the situation was so weird.”
Flaherty added students may have difficulty visiting colleges, a fact to which the Shunneys attested. While Logan Shunney will attend American International College to play field hockey and lacrosse in the fall, she was able to visit colleges with her older sister before the pandemic hit. Rylee said she had older friends who hadn’t been able to visit colleges and had to rely on virtual tours that may not always be reliable.
From a psychological perspective, Flaherty said the past year had changed people.
“The pandemic will have lasting effects on everyone,” Flaherty said. “It’s a traumatizing situation.”
Full-time in person? Yes, but only if it’s safe
So what’s the verdict among students for a potential full return to the classroom?
Connolly and the Shunney sisters said they’d like to go back to school, but didn’t feel safe enough to do so yet.
“I don’t think it’s the best fit for where we are right now,” Rylee said. “I think a lot of it is coming from senior parents who don’t want their kids to be shocked in college. But I don’t think we’re up to COVID-19 safety standards and a lot of people would feel uncomfortable being forced in. And if we can’t fit enough people in the building do we just not abide by the rules?”
The Spragues and Smith said they felt safe enough to return to in-person classes and thought the school district could offer that, especially if everyone would come back. However, all three said they understood not everyone would feel safe so they do not expect that to happen yet.
“Going back in person would be a huge help but it wouldn’t be fair to everyone,” Smith said. “Personally I’d love to go back, since I did full distance for a while and I didn’t get the full learning experience. Academically it would be much better to be in person. But it’s not fair to the students who don’t feel comfortable.”
Not all students are as excited to return to the classroom. Senior Adam Bikash, who elected to take all of his classes remotely, said he found it more convenient to work from home.
“I don’t really care about graduation and all of the high school stuff, it just doesn’t matter to me,” Bikash said. “It is what it is. It’s a pretty easy senior year, I can be at home, so this is honestly kind of ideal.”
Ultimately, the students agreed that the situation may guide the future of education for years to come.
“It goes to show that the education system in general needs to evolve,” Bikash said. “We were thrown into this and we had to work with it. The system is willing to evolve though it’s difficult.”