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By: Paige Britt, Senior, Gateway Regional High School, Woodbury Heights, NJ
WOODBURY HEIGHTS, N.J. — On March 14, 2020, students from Gateway Regional High School received a phone call that would fundamentally alter their day to day life. The week before was filled with worried, hushed conversations between students and skeptical reassurance from teachers. Rumors traveled quickly through the hallways, including everything from “We’ll only be out for two weeks!” to “We’re not coming back at all.”
The next day Gateway’s phone number lit up cell phones, telling the student body that they would be doing online school for the next two weeks. Two weeks turned into a month, one month turned into three, and suddenly it was summer. The leaves are now changing, marking the beginning of a new school year, and students are still attending class via Zoom.
Within those first few weeks of virtual learning, students were constantly adjusting to what would quickly become their new normal.
Gateway Regional High School senior, Haley Johnson, said that not being around her peers, not having to wake up early, and not being in a classroom setting provides her with a sense of flexibility.
“I am able to work at my own pace and I seem to have more time to do my work separately. I can be more comfortable in my own home and don’t have to abide by the schedules of bathrooms and food,” Haley said.
On the contrary, Catherine Cimino, a fellow senior at Gateway, expressed how lonely being out of a classroom setting is for her.
“It’s so much more different than being surrounded by your peers in a classroom,” Cimino said. “There are no side conversations with one person on Zoom. It’s harder to ask peers around you for help because of Zoom.”
When comparing the online learning experience in the spring to now, Gateway senior Julia Ognibene expressed a sense that the spring would be temporary and would not continue into the fall.
“It was fun in the spring because I was able to compare the normal school day to a day at home, and I didn’t think it was going to last, even if it was bad,” Ognibene said.
Ognibene said that the possibility of future hybrid learning would be a step in the right direction. “I think it’s a good balance if we were to have people actually at school,” she said.
Johnson expressed her doubts about returning to school within the next month.
“I think we have a better chance of going back to school in January,” she said. “I feel that it is too risky to send people back now with flu season and there are several spikes in our area, such as Rowan College.”
While virtual learning has been a difficult transition for students, it has also been challenging for teachers as well.
Gateway Regional High School English teacher Elizabeth Desmond said that teachers have become better equipped with technology to find the most effective way to convey information to students.
“Since I’m not someone who spends a lot of time online, I spent much of my summer researching online learning, and learning about some new apps and techniques I could use to make online learning comfortable and interactive for my students,” Desmond said.
Julie Wenner, a math teacher at Gateway, turned to finding and creating videos for her students effective.
“Math is a hands-on subject, and students need to be able to see the problems and hear me teach,” Wenner said.
Both teachers agreed that the chaos of online teaching in the spring has prepared them for a much more structured fall. The teachers said that there are now guidelines implemented and students are required to come to class, and they have developed a routine.
Desmond mentioned the difficulties of cultivating a relationship with students through online learning.
“In some ways it’s harder now, because in the spring I knew everyone, so I had a good relationship with those who did come to class and we had an established rapport,” she said. “Now, most of my students are new to me, so building relationships and getting to know them is more challenging online than in person.”
Desmond and Wenner both agreed that hybrid learning is the best option for the time being.
“Bringing back the teachers first was a good step before bringing the students back.” Wenner said.
To maintain social distance guidelines, Desmond said she must modify some of her teaching methods.
“One-on-one conferencing 6 feet apart, for instance, will eliminate privacy for the student, so I need to think of new ways to approach that in a hybrid setting,” Desmond.
Despite the challenges that are bound to appear with hybrid learning, both are devoted to make the experience as positive for students as possible.
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