By: Natalie Tursi, Gateway Regional High School
WOODBURY HEIGHTS, N.J. – The worldwide pandemic the world faced in early 2020 proved to be a struggle, disrupting every aspect of people’s lives, especially regarding school. COVID-19 resulted in students engaging in class over Zoom from their houses.
Virtual learning has affected every aspect of schooling, from student behaviors to mentality, to different ways of teaching and learning. Students who might have been active participants in class prior to going online may have come back to school more anxious and quiet. Teachers have had to make a variety of changes to their class structures to accommodate the new learning style.
But it’s not all negative. Online learning has resulted in some benefits to schooling as well. Some kids say that they have gained better time management skills and picked up new studying techniques.
Learning is different for every student, and teaching is different for every teacher. No classroom is the same as another. Each self-taught skill or newly developed behavior has in one way or another been carried over from virtual learning back to in-person school.
The first thing teachers say they noticed since coming back were the obvious changes in their students’ learning skills and class behaviors. Students were coming back to school with gaps in their learning due to the two years they had done school online. Teachers say that they are lacking in basic foundational and academic skills, like division, multiplication, writing, and reading.
“It’s like they were never taught it,” Danielle Hack, special education teacher at West Deptford Middle School says. Her school has even placed class-specific IXL programs (Online self-driven learning programs) to fill in the gaps in learning, because as teachers, they are spending a lot of time in class reteaching things that their students should already know — but they don’t, since being virtual made it difficult for them to learn and retain information. Some students have faltered in test taking and memorizing information as well.
However, teachers say they have noticed some positive changes in students, aside from negative behaviors in class. Following the first few steps back into in-person school, a lot of students had trouble getting back on track with school. They were coming off straight from a self-taught routine being at home, and right back into the regular school system that was trying to remain normal.
“Immediately following the virtual learning, a lot of students struggled with ‘being’ a student. It seemed like the students did not want to learn,” Patricia Slater, a history and psychology teacher, observes. Nonetheless, she found that some of her students have a newfound sense of appreciation for school and a genuine desire to learn. Because these kids were away for so long and didn’t get a typical school experience, they seem to be trying to make up for that lost time now. Their aspiration for being in class and wanting to learn has made teaching a room full of students who previously didn’t seem to want to be there much more exciting.
“I am seeing more and more students who seem to be embracing the idea that school is a place to try new things and gain knowledge,” Slater says with a smile. “If students can say ‘Yes, there are some things about school I don’t like, but I do like how it feels to accomplish something and gain more information to help me understand and experience the world’, then that’s a win for me.”
In addition to this, online instruction has influenced the way teachers teach their classes. So much of what they were doing in the classroom before COVID-19 had to be changed — but surprisingly, a lot of those changes became permanent teaching techniques as students began to come back to school.
Teachers have implemented tools like Gimkit, Kahoot, and Google Jamboard in their everyday classes after seeing a positive impact on student’s learning abilities when using those websites online. “Some kids learn better online, and I’ve tried to implement that in class more,” Hack says.
A balance of hands-on learning and virtual learning has become an immediate need in classrooms. Hack in particular, found that her class worked infinitely better when they had the option of doing an online educational activity, or doing an assignment with paper and pencil.
“Kids are different learners, and I learned that. You need a balance of technology and in-person learning. All virtual is not good for kids who need hands-on activities, and all hands-on isn’t good for the kids who have found that they work better online. That balance is necessary.”
Another change that teachers have needed to accommodate is their students’ newfound relationship with doing their assignments. Slater explains that, “students seem to be programmed now for instant answers, instant responses. So, I found that I wanted to make kids more responsible, while also making handling materials easier. I put the entire unit into a Google document, and it shows them everyday what they are doing and how to do it.” Her calendar document of the unit also helps kids who struggle with keeping their schoolwork organized, because everything is in one place. Since instituting this, she has seen significant growth in her kids’ work ethics.
“I’ve seen less passivity, less students struggling to make up work, less ‘what can I do to get my grade up?’,” she says. Kids are now able to finish up their assignments and organize their work the way they want to in order to hand in their best work. It also teaches them time management skills and gives them a sense of independence.
On top of virtual learning’s effect on teachers, it also heavily influenced students’ studying and learning skills and behaviors in class, which carried over from being at home to being back in a classroom.
Alex Pfender, a student at Gateway Regional High School, explained that his year being all virtual impacted his first year back in person, especially in his AP classes. “My work ethic went way down, and since we were in the first year of APUSH [AP US History], I did not prepare myself for the second year and that’s why I did so poorly,” he says. Pfender also mentions that doing school online worsened his ability to study and do well in his classes when he went back due to the fact that being virtual made it so easy to turn away from the zoom class, do other things at home, and look up the answers to any tests, quizzes, and homework.
Lori Grassia, another Gateway student, stated that online classes made her prone to procrastination. Because her virtual classes were flexible with turning in assignments, she got into a habit of putting off her work because there was no limit on time. “I had less of a strict timeline for school work, so I’d just keep putting things off,” she says.
Not every effect on students was negative, though. Some aspects of virtual learning have left kids with valuable lessons regarding school and have even given them permanent skills that they now use in each of their classes. Students have started taking notes, managing their time better, and seeking out different resources to study on their own time.
Pfender relayed that notetaking has been the best thing he’s done since going back to school from being virtual. “I have been taking a lot more notes post-covid than pre. I stopped looking up answers for things I didn’t know and actually started retaining information.”
Online instruction resulted in a lot of students losing focus and giving up in classes. But now, teachers say that they are seeing more and more kids take school even more seriously than before, and are actively trying to participate in class and learn from their teachers. Kids are starting to see school as something that excites them, rather than something that they are forced to attend.
Virtual learning created a place where kids had to figure out everything alone, and this ability has carried over into in-person school. Since nobody really knew how to work online, as it was an entirely new, difficult experience for teachers and students alike, the talent to be able to figure all these things out and use them to a certain advantage has become a necessity in some people’s lives.
“[A positive was] being able to work individually. I had to teach myself how to do a lot of my work because nobody was really used to being in class on zoom and it got really confusing. So, I had to find ways to learn everything on my own,” Grassia comments.
Virtual learning also produced a variety of mental health issues among students and in teachers. Both groups have noted that since coming back to school, their anxieties have heightened and everyone’s stress levels are through the roof.
Gabriella Orsini, a Gloucester County Technical Institute student, says that the jump from being at home to going back to school worsened her anxiety significantly. This affected her ability to participate in school, and even to do her work. She explained that because she was alone for two straight years and had absolutely no interaction from anyone in school, she felt like she didn’t know anyone anymore when she finally went back.
“It felt like freshman year all over again,” Orsini says. “I missed so much in classes because I was trying to figure out who everyone else was, and who I was and where I belonged in school again.”
Certain behaviors and tendencies have either been highlighted or newly developed since being virtual, and the age students were also has an impact on the behaviors they gained. Grassia lost her freshman and sophomore years, and notes that behaviors specific to her person are based almost entirely on the age she was when COVID hit.
“Socially, ninth and tenth grade are periods of a lot of development,” Grassia says. “Because I lost those years, I became anxiety riddled throughout COVID. So now, I tend to find myself being awkward and anxious in situations that are pretty normal interactions because I wasn’t able to get that social development.”
Another noticeable change that has carried over to being back in school is the drop in class participation. This is due to a multitude of things, including heightened anxiety and students’ lack of desires to want to be in class. Grassia mentions that her anxiety regarding class participation was one of the biggest things to be hit during online learning.
“I wasn’t ever super anxious to answer questions in class, but when we went virtual and I had to actually unmute myself and talk, it stressed me out and this has continued into going back to in-person school,” she says. This type of mentality and behavior is very common in students who underwent changes during the time they were kept at home. Class participation is a key way of learning, but because the isolation has made kids so afraid to speak up, that aspect of class time in schools has become almost entirely eliminated.
Decreases in mentality have affected teachers as well. They say that they are more stressed out than before because they are trying to figure out how to teach classes that feel like they are two years behind, especially with some of the difficult behaviors from students they are being faced with.
“I have found again, even more than in virtual learning, that nitpicking students to follow every classroom procedure does not work for me,” Slater says. “It made me even more stressed out, and would turn anthills into mountains if a student was having an off day.” Having uphill battles with her students she says was hard on her, and she explained that through her stress, she is trying to see the student’s side of all of this.
“I still struggle to find the boundary, because I am human and sometimes I’m just too tired or find that my philosophies don’t always match a room full of teenagers — many of whom are living home lives that I can’t even begin to understand, but maybe having a place that lets them make a mistake everyday is what they need,” she says.
As teachers, they have connections with their students. They never want to see their students hurt, so when kids started coming back and were visibly struggling, it became difficult for them to teach.
Hack explained that sometimes, if students are having a difficult time, it also affects her as a teacher, because she wants to help her kids but isn’t sure how.
“A lot of them are more anxious and don’t want to participate with partners or in general,” Hack explains. “So to see those kids struggling really takes a toll.”
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