I am a junior at Lincoln High School in Portland, OR, and my experience with online school has been rough, to say the least. For me, one of the biggest motivators to attend school is the people. It is the relationships with my teachers, and with my classmates, that make school rewarding. These relationships are not possible over Zoom. Try as my teachers have to form a community, it feels as if I am forming a community with a bunch of 2 inch by 2 inch squares.
School might still be rewarding despite this if not for the drastic decrease in educational quality. Before COVID-19, we had 4 classes a day, each lasting 1.5 hours. Each week, then, we would have between 3 and 5 hours of class time for each subject. Now, each class only has one hour and fifteen minute periods each week. As a result, we have shorter, less frequent classes.
Despite the lowered class length and frequency, I still find it immensely hard to concentrate in class. From vacuum machines to pets to siblings, there are endless distractions to keep me away from the learning. Not to mention the indescribable disconnect I’ve experienced with online learning, which makes it hard to stay focused even without distractions. By the end of the day, I’ve had hours of classes through a screen, sitting, and hours of homework, also through a screen, also sitting. I end each day with a headache, which just makes me loathe the idea of going back the next day.
When it comes to accountability, there is none. Canvas is confusing for students to use, and is the sole platform for tracking (and often communicating the existence of) assignments. And teachers understand the platform even less than students do. With us only meeting once a week, and multiple assignments due each week, it is nearly impossible for me to keep track of assignments without in-person accountability. And students who get behind largely fall below the radar. My class sizes this year are larger than ever, with the majority having over 30 people. So, at no fault of their own, teachers have been unable to keep tabs on students’ progress to the extent that they should.
Lastly, asynchronous classes are immensely confusing. Teachers are expected to take attendance even during asynchronous class time, so I have been getting random absences called in to my parents. The expectation for how to get marked present differs from class to class, so it is really challenging to keep track of asynchronous attendance requirements.
Put all of this together, and I am isolated from friends, attending a version of school that is less productive, less enjoyable, and often literally painful. As a result, my mental health has been suffering. I have been sleeping more, and I feel less motivated and joyful. I’ve had to resume taking my ADHD meds for the first time in years.
I see a few solutions to these problems. First, loosening graduation/passing requirements could go a long way for students who are struggling in this atmosphere. Similarly, reducing absence penalties offers a level of flexibility students like myself desperately need. Second, enforcing smaller class sizes, less homework, and more consistent use of asynchronous class time will help reduce student stress and maintain connection with teachers. Third, teachers can increase their one-on-one availability to meet with students, thereby increasing accountability. Lastly, the state can reduce the amount of mandatory teaching hours per year in order to give more flexibility to districts, schools, and individual teachers who might feel it is best to lighten the load on students.
While none of these solutions are perfect, one thing is abundantly clear: solutions are desperately needed.
Samantha Block is a junior at Lincoln High School and serves as the Co-Executive Director of Policy, Research, and Operations for Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.