As COVID-19 has continued to spread, around 124,000 schools nationwide have been shut down in an attempt to promote social distancing among their 55.1 million students, my school among them. Hence, there has been a sharp rise in “online learning” as teachers begin incorporating various technological components into their lesson plans such as Google Classroom posts and Zoom video calls. 

As a high school sophomore myself, I’ve found it quite challenging to deal with the immediate shift from face-to-face interaction in the classroom to completing work on a computer screen at home. Online learning has led to an academic and emotional disconnect for hundreds of thousands of students across the nation. As a majority of these students approach their fourth week at home, the side effects of such isolation are becoming apparent.

In my area, central New Jersey, school closures came quickly, and within 24 hours, teachers were required to come up with a plan that would sustain their students until spring break two weeks later. Most classes switched to Google Classroom, which we had  used significantly even before the break, so students could easily complete assignments online. Each morning, students are expected to sign in to their school dashboard and mark themselves “present” by 9:30 AM each morning; if a student fails to do so, their parents will be called. Assignments for each day are posted by teachers on Google Classroom by 11:00 AM, and due dates are often the next day at 11:59 PM. Teachers are available by email or Google Hangouts from 9:00 AM-1:00 PM, and some teachers offer optional office hours through Zoom calls on the weekends or in the morning. Other than requirements to turn in their assignments on time, students are on their own.

For the first week or so, this system worked fine for me. Each morning I would wake up in the late morning, have breakfast, and mark myself present. I tried to complete my assignments at least a day before they were due and felt free to ask my teachers any questions I had. The workload was manageable, and I had minimal issues with learning. However, as time went on, I became more lethargic and less willing to complete my work, waking up and sleeping later. 

I found myself ignoring videos that my teachers had posted and working on assignments for a few minutes before returning to my phone. Instead of marking myself as present each morning, I’d  stay up until the wee hours of the morning, sign in, and then go to bed, only to wake up past noon. The work became more intense and more difficult to complete as teachers began assigning multiple papers and projects, while my attention span only weakened. Realizing that I needed some serious order  in my life, I began restricting the time I spent on my phone and even created a schedule to follow. Despite my best efforts, however, I often strayed from this schedule as Netflix and Instagram remained tantalizingly accessible. 

I reached out to Titilayo Aluko, a junior attending a small public high school in Manhattan, and she expressed the disparities between in-person and online learning, stating, “I would say the workload is [heavier] with online learning. Even though we only have to be on Zoom for 45 minutes to an hour, the amount of work we are given–1-2 hours [per]class– is so much more compared to the work we do in school… Also given that I am taking hard classes like Neuroscience, Statistics, [and] AP Seminar, it does not help that I don’t get to see my teacher when I need help. I have to schedule a time to talk when I need help with them and that is sometimes too much.” She went on to mention, “I don’t learn by just watching, I learn by doing and being in action and putting things together and just using my creative and intellectual side of my mind,” something that’s been hindered by online learning. Despite the relative downfalls of online learning, especially for those who are used to physically attending school every day, Aluko spoke for all of us when she said, “I am more appreciative of those around me [and]thankful for what I have. Even though it is not a lot, just knowing that my family situation is not the worst puts my mind at rest. I am trying to stay positive and hope for the best for everyone and pray that we all come out of this stronger and better and just have a better sense of appreciation for those around us and life.” In my opinion, this online learning experience has demonstrated how important the structure schools provide is for my life, as well as how the comfort of home simply does not mesh well with the atmosphere of academic rigor that schools often provide. For others, however, this comfort takes some of the pressure off of schoolwork and makes it easier to complete assignments. 

Although there is a clear educational disadvantage to online learning, the more pressing issue is turning out to be the emotional and social detriments of keeping students at home, which are undoubtedly connected to the decline in academic performance that is being exhibited across the country

Sadie Rose Honchock, a junior from Louisiana enrolled in her school’s Early College program who actually attended online school even before coronavirus, addressed this relationship, saying, “Even though I’m accustomed to online learning, the fact that COVID-19 is looming over my life so much has really depleted my energy and motivation to do schoolwork, because I constantly wonder if a degree or diploma is going to mean anything if there’s a pandemic that’s killing people as well as jobs and the economy.” This added stress can often tie into the anxiety some students may feel regarding online learning and how exactly that signals a change in their futures. Fear of what the coronavirus means for educational outcomes past college are putting a damper on the effectiveness of online learning and, in turn, lowering the effort students are putting into their work during this period.

Many students, myself included, are noting a lack of structure within their lives due to a shift to online school and fears of the future, leading to erratic sleep schedules, fluctuating moods, and lack of motivation. For me, personally, I wake up at around 10:00 or 11:00, complete my work throughout the day, and go to bed by 3:00 or 4:00 the next morning. As dramatic as it may sound, time seems to lose all meaning. Other kids my age are finding that their days have become entirely flipped, as they sleep during the day and are up at night.

For some students, shelter in place orders have stripped them of the activities they were only able to enjoy at school, like sports and school musicals. For others, the flexibility that online learning provides has allowed them to pursue passions such as working out or playing video games.

Lucy Troy, a sophomore attending private school in the Bronx, commented on this duality, noting that, “I definitely have an increased flexibility with online learning in terms of location… It is because of this that I have become increasingly lazy. I do not have a concrete routine after school each day, and have not been as active as I usually am… I have found that my mood changes depending on whether or not I go outside. My sleep schedule has also taken a dramatic turn for the worse. I go to bed extremely late and sometimes take short naps between classes. Overall, my days lack a sense of the structure and rigor that I am used to.” 

“Despite this,” she continues, “the unfamiliar amount of free time and flexibility in my schedule has unleashed my inner creativity and artistic abilities. I have begun to do a lot of painting and drawing, and… I am happy to have picked up this new hobby while in quarantine, and hope that it will carry into my normal everyday life when school resumes.” 

Although there is a lot of uncertainty circulating right now, particularly surrounding the status of online learning, Troy summed up the thoughts of many students: “Online learning is fine, mainly because I know it is temporary. It is interesting to experience this unique method of learning, and my stress levels are at an all-time low. Online school does feel like a bit of a break, especially because all of my classes are being graded on a pass/fail basis, and I do not experience the same amount of pressure as I do at school. However, it is difficult not being able to see my friends, have an established routine, and move around as much as I do on a normal school day. In the long run, I think I learn best and flourish most when I am physically at school.”

 

 – A big thank you to Lucy, Sadie, and Titilayo for their in-depth answers and cooperation! –

Inica Kotasthane is a fifteen year-old writer who attends Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, New Jersey. Kotasthane is the Politics and World News Editor in her school newspaper, The Arrowhead; Secretary of her school’s Future Business Leaders of America, and remains active in speech and debate. Inica plans on pursuing her interests in Political Science and Writing through journalism or policymaking, and hopes to continue to raise awareness and change for social issues affecting the world today.