By Georgia Schultz, Staff Writer
After a year and a half of this strenuous COVID-19 pandemic, it has become apparent how influential and critical in person school is to students and teachers. With the COVID cases in New York state having risen, the threat of returning to remote learning has loomed overhead, and it begs the question, what might remote learning look like if we returned full time, and what would we like to see changed?
“As an educator, the pandemic has highlighted some of what is broken in our system,” said Dr. Urbina Medina, the Superintendent of New Paltz Central School District. “It shines a light on what we need to do better.”
Urbina-Medina became superintendent during the middle of the violent storm we call COVID-19. With no real direction, and the winds of confusion blowing fast around her, Urbina-Medina adapted to the difficult times with thoroughness and determination.
“Some people have said starting a job like this in a pandemic is crazy, and it is.” she said. “There really wasn’t a playbook on how to do this, and that made it a little bit easier.”
With COVID cases rising 60% in the last 14 days alone, it’s no surprise the virus is inside our own schools. But going back to the remote wasn’t the first option on the school board’s mind.
“I don’t think the decision to go remote will be made as quickly as last year,” Urbina-Medina said. “Now that people understand the implications of going remote on the economy, on mental health, and the educational impact, it would be a last resort.”
Attendance rates during distant learning dropped significantly in 2020, with around a 20% decrease in New York State. On top of that, according to the Center of Disease Control, symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders have increased considerably in the United States during 2020, compared to pre-pandemic 2019.
“This is such a fluid situation.” Urbina-Medina sighed, leaning back in her chair. “If I can close my eyes, I can go back to last spring, feeling so hopeful with the vaccinations and the direction I thought we were heading. And then Delta showed up.”
Viruses are constantly changing and mutating, and COVID is no exception. Each variant causes infections and spreads differently than the one that came before it, making it nearly impossible to predict. Nobody can tell for sure what the future for in person learning is.
“If we were to be in this place again, I wouldn’t embrace hybrid learning.” Urbina-Medina said when asked to consider the possibility of returning to school from a distance. “It would be either remote or in person, not both. It was too messy and absolutely impossible.”
“If we were to be in this place again, I wouldn’t embrace hybrid learning.”Urbina-Medina
Students who underwent remote learning firsthand reported feelings of disconnectedness, from their teachers as well as their classmates. Even with the hybrid plan– half of the week in person, and half in their own bedrooms– they struggled to complete their work.
“It was so hard to comprehend and retain any information because there was no connection between students and teachers.” Maggie Heenan, an 11th grader at New Paltz High School commented.“I genuinely didn’t learn anything.”
“In retrospect, it would have been great in some of the early days in September if we could just spend a couple hours getting to know each other,” Urbina-Medina responded, “Setting aside the syllabus and spending time together, even if it’s a virtual space.”
The country has remained divided on the best angle to handle the growing rate of the virus in education, and after we experienced a taste of returning to remote learning in early January, it’s important to hear how our students felt last year.
“It felt like a waste of time.” Heenan describes. “I was so far away and separated from everyone else; it was like I was talking to an empty room.
Like so many other highschool students, Heenan struggled with learning remotely last school year. While trying to stay motivated from the comfort of their beds, teens also had to balance complex social relationships and higher stake academics.
“Honestly, I don’t know what I would do,” Heenan said when asked how she felt about the possibility of going back to remote learning full time, prior to the few days we returned to it just after winter break. “Looking back, I didn’t realize how bad my mental state was, and I’m in a much better place now. Going back after knowing what it was like would be terrifying.”
But not all students remember the lockdown the same. “It was helpful to me because I could make my own schedule,” said Parker Reed, a 10th grade student. “I enjoyed the lack of pressure. Obviously, people were difficult sometimes, and we didn’t get a lot of work done, but now it feels like there is pressure 24/7.”
Though remote learning was a last resort to the demanding problem of the rise of COVID-19, it was unavoidable, even if it only lasted a couple of days. As students and as teachers, there are things that we could all have done and can do in the future to make the experience more manageable, if the situation arises.
“I want to see more participation from my classmates.” Reed explained, when asked what she would like to see improved in the case of returning to remote learning. “I was the only one answering, and that made me feel scared to talk. It’s hard being the only one; it feels like you’re the only one holding up the room.”
“I would like for everything to be more present,” added Heenan. “And to have smaller class sizes so people feel more comfortable speaking.”
Now, returning back to full in person learning, students in New Paltz have reported overall better mental health, and claim to have better grades than before. Though the change was hard, most everyone agreed that in person learning was more beneficial.
“If we went back to remote school, I know that it would start feeling overwhelming and isolated and that’s not something anyone wants to go back to,” Hanna Beukelman, a 10th grader at New Paltz High School commented.
COVID is always changing and mutating into a new and more complicated problem. It’s hard to know for certain what the future will be in a day, a week, or month. It’s important to recognise that there is no handbook for the pandemic– no guidelines and restrictions– and that we are all doing our best.
“I think we all got pretty good at making smart decisions,” Urbina-Medina commented, “and not just taking care of our own health, but that of our family members and friends. At the end of the day, if we just act responsibly, that makes you a good member of the community. It’s important for all of us to do our part.”