A Semester Like No Other
Reading Time: 8 minutes
During the summer, students across the state were faced with a decision that would’ve seemed so alien just one year ago: Would they like to go back to school this fall with fully remote or blended learning? Those who chose blended learning geared themselves for wearing masks through their classes and sitting six feet apart from their peers. Remote learners prepared themselves for lessons on their electronic devices while sitting at home. No matter which option was chosen, no choice was flawless, and each came with its own obstacles for both students and teachers to face.
The advent of the first year of high school for freshmen is, needless to say, a major, perhaps a little nerve-wracking, but exciting step toward their future. The transition from middle to high school is certainly a huge step and is riddled with many questions and concerns. Now, on top of that, concerns have heightened even more with the ongoing pandemic, and students’ choices between blended and remote learning will determine how their first year at Stuyvesant will play out.
For one anonymous freshman, the choice between the two learning styles was simple. “I chose to go full-on remote. I did this because I feel like I don't exactly trust the school will be safe, at least this first quarter,” she said in an e-mail interview. It’s not hard to see why safety is a major factor in making the decision between remote and blended learning, and she notes that she doesn’t “have any reason to put [herself] and [her] family in harm's way.”
Unique Zhang, another freshman, agreed: “Right now, education isn't my main priority; my health is.” However, along with this choice comes numerous challenges to contend with.
The anonymous freshman, like many other students at Stuyvesant, has siblings, and this situation presents conflicts of its own. “I have two little sisters that I help with homework, so I'm not sure how I'll help them and do my work at the same time,” she explained. “I’m definitely not excited to stay welled up at home staring at a screen.”
Learning from home is especially hard for students like Zhang, who described herself as a “people person” and initially chose blended learning. “I love being around people, even if it is just a wave in the hallway. I appreciate the slightest bit of human interaction, and remote learning doesn't provide that for me,” remarked Zhang.
Another main challenge freshmen face is not being able to get a traditional and complete first-year experience at Stuyvesant. Both Camp Stuy and admitted students night have gone virtual. “Since it is my first year, I find it disappointing that this was my impression of the school and how I won't be able to experience Stuyvesant to the fullest, knowing that I would love to go into school by train and join as many clubs as I can and get to know everyone,” Zhang explained. The anonymous freshman shared the same sentiment, specifically adding, “I'm also sad I'll have no swim gym.”
While some rising ninth graders have chosen remote learning, freshmen Karen Chen and Alex Fertman have decided on blended learning. Though they chose a different learning style, they echo similar worries as remote learners. An important part of the freshmen year is making new friendships and creating lasting bonds. Fertman acknowledges that though he will be present at school, the social distancing guidelines will “make it hard [...] to make friends.” In fact, meeting new people was one reason he chose blended learning. “I don’t know many people going to Stuy, and I wanna make new friends and meet my classmates,” Fertman responded.
In addition to this, both he and Chen noted that blended learning will help them academically. Chen wrote, “I found remote learning to be a little bit challenging, and I don't enjoy looking at my computer for the whole entire day and reading a long Google Docs full of words. I believe I would do better academically if I went to school and learned rather than staying at home.”
Fertman also noticed that his grades were better when he was at school. Despite this benefit, he is aware of the danger of the coronavirus. “It doesn’t care [...] how ready or unready your lungs and immune system are [...] to take it on. If one kid gets the virus and is asymptomatic, they can spread it to many classmates who can spread it to older staff members,” he noted.
After completing freshman year, rising sophomores harbor concerns regarding their second year at Stuyvesant. After becoming accustomed to the Stuyvesant environment, worries now erupt from the lack of socialization that comes with strict regulations in place to combat the transmission of coronavirus within the school. “This was also our year to further socialize, get to know the freshmen, finally have time to join a lot more clubs and be really active, hang out at the sophomore bar, and [do] other ‘sophomore’ things,” sophomore Ella Chan expressed.
Along with socializing with newly found friends from the previous year, students find that clubs and extracurricular activities are a great way to find and connect with those with the same interests as them. “I was gonna join a lot more clubs, but it’s still a bit unclear how that’ll work out,” sophomore Afia Bidica conveyed. While some may want to join new clubs, others are also anxious as to how the ones they are already a part of will continue.
Aside from non-academic matters, sophomores find that their grades may decline under the circumstances, creating a harder transition into junior year. “I seriously doubt we'll be able to go through it [the blended learning model] without careful planning, and I'm honestly concerned for whether that planning will be feasible, considering the teachers will have to do such planning for all their classes and all their students,” an anonymous sophomore revealed.
The complications that come with teachers and students adapting to the remote learning and blended model for different cohorts may also cause more stress during finals season. With struggling marks comes a tougher shift into junior year, especially if your work ethic has to be built back up again. “I’m just scared that everyone including myself will just ‘cheat’ their way through sophomore year and be thrown into an increasingly difficult junior year,” Chan conveyed.
In easily one of the most stressful years, juniors face difficulties, particularly academic ones, this school year. Junior Debolina Sen Kunda strongly expressed her disapproval of blended learning because of the diminished number of AP classes available. “When it came to APs, many of ours got rejected because of this blended model,” she explained. “Many [students] were planning to take as many APs as [they could] to make [their] resumes look good. Now many of us are having to make the decision of self-studying for those APs or not taking the test at all.” Kunda herself has gotten into only one AP class and will consequently have to self-study for the rest.
Another aspect of her academics Kunda was troubled about was the way teachers will teach, which she believes will be ineffective because “they would have to teach students who are going to school and students who are doing [classes] remotely.” These reasons and safety issues prompted her to opt for remote learning. In addition to classes, as someone who hasn’t participated in many extracurriculars, Kunda finds herself unable to be physically part of a club as she previously desired to join. However, she knows it’s something she can’t change. “I will try to see if I like any of the virtual clubs being offered,” she noted.
Because there is still so much ambiguity about the upcoming school year, junior Rachel Lin remarked, “I didn’t do any preparation; honestly, I’m not even sure how the year will turn out.” Kunda, who had stressed the significance of self-studying regardless of which option one chooses, regrets that she hasn’t prepared herself at all for it.
For seniors, it is the last year to spend time with friends, participate in senior rituals like taking senior pictures, and take those highly coveted electives. Neither blended nor fully remote learning offers that full experience, and for senior Angelina Mustufa, the choice was a difficult one. “I was really hesitant with the learning style I chose because I feel like human interaction and the peer environment is essential to learning, but I knew I had to put the safety of my family first,” she explained. She chose to go fully remote after carefully weighing the pros and cons of blended learning versus remote learning. “I learn better and concentrate better when I am in the classroom, and having my friends around me during the school day helps get me through each school day. Without my friends and with the many distractions I have at home, I think learning will be really difficult,” Mustafa emphasized. However, she also expressed that the blended learning model does not seem very beneficial, as peer interaction is limited and there are COVID-19 infection risks.
Despite the challenges, Mustafa is trying to prepare as best as she can for back-to-school this year. “I am hoping to work with my family to create a quiet area in my room where I can work on school work and attend any meetings without the distractions and background noise of the other people in my house,” she said. On the other hand, Mustafa has also found some silver linings in the fully remote model. “It allows us to sleep in an extra hour and gives us more time after school to keep up with the workload,” she explained. Still, uncertainty remains. “Only time will tell if it will work well, but I’d like to see how the extended periods will function with Zoom calls and how different this experience would be,” Mustafa concluded.
On the other end of the spectrum, teachers are facing their own set of hurdles. Since there will be no classes meeting in person, all teachers will be teaching remotely, either from the school itself or from home. As a result, teachers and students “will not have access to that in-person community experience,” history teacher Lori Ann Newman explained in an e-mail interview. “My classroom relies heavily on sharing ideas, talking with partners, discussion, discovery, and unpacking concepts as a group.” This lack of human-to-human interaction has led to a newfound appreciation for the technology available for students’ education.
English teacher Emilio Nieves labels Google, Microsoft, and Zoom as “unsung heroes during the pandemic because they have worked hard to give teachers and students the tools to attempt to replicate in-person learning as much as possible.” Even a simple camera changes a lot, as Nieves believes it “will add more to my classes since I will be able to interact interpersonally with students.”
In response to these transformations, Nieves and Newman have been preparing relentlessly through the summer. Newman asserts, “I have been working every day this summer: attending professional development, collaborating with my talented peers at Stuy, and doing research on remote learning. I am building my own class websites so that all of my resources are digitally available to students 24/7.” Nieves, who didn’t have a chance before, has been “practicing mastering Zoom and Meet.”
But even though preparations are made and teachers have some semblance of how this school year will work, there are lots of things that are unpredictable. “I do not really know how this blended teaching will work. I don’t have [a] new schedule for this fall term yet,” chemistry teacher Jee Paik said. “I am not even sure what courses I am gonna teach.”
Extracurriculars, academics, and socializing have all been disrupted in one way or another, and it is still difficult to say where they will stand this fall. Blended learning and remote learning both come with their pros and cons and appeal to students for different reasons. While some seek a sense of normalcy in blended learning, others worry about COVID-19 infection risks and find security in full-remote learning. In spite of the uncertainty that the upcoming fall semester holds, teachers have been trying to prepare as much as possible. From making the classroom curriculum more accessible to adding more interactivity in lessons, teachers are working to create the most engaging classroom experience they can given the circumstances. Whether students are choosing blended or fully-remote learning, one thing is certain: this will be a school semester like no other.