Remote Learning: In the Words of the East Community
Written By Leo Kamin
It has been three months since the United States’ first case of COVID-19, six weeks since the first case in Colorado and 22 days since Denver East High School students learned they would not return to school this year. In that time, the lives of nearly every person on earth — few more so than those of American high school students — have changed in remarkable ways. East students, who were accustomed to seven or more hours a day of constant social interaction, are now confined to their houses and bedrooms. For most, contact with friends comes only digitally, through Snapchat, FaceTime and video games.
Society has shut down — many shops are shuttered and professional sports are indefinitely suspended; however, for East’s teachers and students, school continues. Rather than a full week of online classes, remote learning for most students at East entails a couple of assignments per class, a few prerecorded online lessons and maybe a live review session with their teachers. Most students have described remote learning as a mixed bag. “I enjoy not asking to go to the bathroom and eating when I want,” said senior Rajha Davis. “I hate rules like that.” However, Davis did admit that remote learning is — obviously — not perfect: “I miss seeing my friends and being able to go out to eat with them.”
Though many students, like Davis, enjoy the freedom of remote learning compared to in-person school, many others said that they missed the everyday structure of actual classrooms. Junior Haden Ringel said that, although remote learning was “going well” for her, she missed the everyday routine of real school. “I miss having the same type of structure for my day that school gives me.” Junior Will Grawemeyer also described missing the structure of regular school days; however, he did say that he somewhat enjoys the flexibility offered by remote learning: “I try to finish as much of [my work] as early in the week as possible so I can take longer weekends.”
Perhaps even more so than their students, East’s teachers seem to uniformly miss in-person learning. “This experience has reinforced my strong belief that education is only 30 percent academic content and 70 percent in-person human interaction,” said government teacher Susan McHugh. In Ms. McHugh’s opinion,“The enjoyable and transformational aspects of teaching and learning are all centered around in-person interactions, conversations, connections, etc.” Math teacher Angela Rivas expressed similar views: “I love teaching because I am able to get to know so many students each with their own unique perspective,” she said. “Now that we’ve moved to online learning, I feel disconnected from my students and I miss them everyday.”
Most teachers suggested that for them, teaching is not about merely teaching their subjects to students — the true enjoyment for educators comes from simple, daily interactions with students. History teacher Christopher McHugh explained it like this: “Teachers love their content, but teachers also love the energy, challenge and personality that high school students bring to classrooms each day.” For Mr. McHugh, it is the year-long interactions and relationships that “are what keep me coming back to the classroom each year.”
Beyond not being able to see their students on a daily basis, teachers expressed a number of other issues with remote learning. A major problem, according to most teachers, has been engagement: “There are a few students who engage more now than they did in person, but, for the overwhelming majority, it is totally incomparable to in-person learning,” said English teacher Jakob Meils. On top of noticing less engagement overall, teachers have found it difficult to track the progress of their students. Ms. Rivas explained that “it is difficult to know exactly how much students are engaging without seeing them in person everyday.”
As a result, it seems that some students are falling through the cracks. “In a regular school setting, most students attend class every day, and even the most reluctant students respond positively to in-person meetings with their teachers,” said Mr. McHugh. But now, with no opportunity for in-person interventions, “less than eager students are just not responding to assignments and follow-up emails.” This, Mr. McHugh said, is the biggest downside of remote learning.
Ms. McHugh has noticed a similar pattern in her classes. She observed that “a few kids did not engage the first week and a subset of students are still not doing the assigned review work at their usual level.” She attributed the lack of engagement to “the combination of senioritis, coronavirus remote learning and . . . [the new] DPS grading policy.”
It is, after all, unsurprising that some students have been less engaged in remote learning. Many students see the work as, in the words of Grawemeyer, “mostly just tedious” compared to in-person school. Furthermore, many students have larger worries on their mind. Davis wonders “what is college going to look like for me? Am I still gonna be able to go?” However, “more than anything,” she said she is worried about her family. “I want to make sure that we all stay healthy, but it’s kind of out of my control.”
For other students, remote learning simply does not mesh well with the way they traditionally learn. Senior Lindsey Weyant said that “at home, there’s more of an emphasis on doing the work yourself, which is something I find incredibly difficult.” Remote learning, Weyant says, “caters to a specific learning style that I do not have and I find it challenging to engage with any of the material.” For students like junior Vaughn Vial, who describes himself as a natural procrastinator, “the lack of structure is difficult.”
Nobody, from Denver Public School’s leadership to East’s students, ever expected remote learning to be a perfect solution to the massive educational challenges presented by a global pandemic. Mr. McHugh described remote learning as a “short-term fix to get us through April-May.” Now, though, there are growing concerns that remote learning will continue through the fall. Many colleges and universities are making plans for an online fall semester, and Governor Jared Polis has told Colorado’s school superintendents to “prepare for the possibility” of not returning to the classroom until January 2021.
Talks of an online beginning to next school year fall especially hard on East’s seniors, who have missed their graduation, prom and now potentially the beginning of their freshman year of college. “If my first semester of college is online, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do,” said Weyant. “I would even consider deferring until school could be in person.” Seniors must deal with this uncertainty and the fact that, as Weyant explained, “I didn’t really treat the last day of school as a ‘last day of school,’ and I’m not really ever going to come back.”
Davis put it simply: “I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye.”