For 10 months since Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) initially closed public schools as the COVID-19 virus began spreading in Maryland, students in the state’s largest school district have remained in virtual classes.
One of the first states to halt in-person instruction at the onset of the pandemic, Maryland has allowed individual school systems to reopen on a county-by-county basis. In Montgomery County, most schools ― public and private ― have fully transitioned to online learning.
High school students in the county follow a schedule which grants each class 2 hours of synchronous instruction per week. The primarily lecture-oriented classes often resemble the structure of college courses. However, “pre-pandemic high school” would have allowed these same classes almost 5 hours of in-person instruction each week.
Despite a plethora of problems brought about by the sudden transition to online learning, some students have discovered a silver lining. “I feel like completing assignments is easier and I like setting my own schedule,” said Andrew Shigetomi, a junior at Poolesville High School.
Imani Oaga, a student in Montgomery College’s early college program, agreed. “I enjoy being able to work from the comfort of my own home…and enjoy doing work on my own time.”
MC’s early college program enables high school juniors to take college-level courses for two years. Upon completion, students receive a high school diploma as well as an associate’s degree from Montgomery College.
However, the online setting has made such advanced courses difficult for some students to digest. “It is a lot harder to grasp new concepts we learn with so little personal interaction, especially in courses I would struggle with in a normal classroom,” lamented Oaga.
Students taking difficult courses can feel helpless, partially due to a lack of interactive support from both teachers and peers. The instantaneous interaction which is readily afforded in an in-person environment is gone.
To make up for that, teachers assign course-related video clips to help students strengthen their understanding of course material, but the one-size-fits-all videos can be difficult for students to follow.
To make matters worse, sitting through long online classes has caused many students to experience physical and psychological “zoom-fatigue.” Frustrated with a lack of interactivity, Shigetomi said “sitting on the computer all day for virtual lectures and assignments is so draining.”
Limited class time has forced teachers to budget their time explaining new concepts, and it can be difficult for students to develop a thorough understanding of their class material. Though some students enjoy their newfound freedom, they also have fewer opportunities to ask questions and learn interactively.
Lewhat Kahsay is a freshman at Richard Montgomery High School. Her transition from middle school to high school has occurred entirely online.
According to Kahsay, the “hardest part of distance learning is actually contacting teachers when in need of help…a lot of the time, we aren’t able to actually speak out in class due to time constraints.”
To remedy these situations, Kahsay thinks discussion boards with teachers or other efficient methods of contacting them quickly should be utilized. “I believe that communication is critical in education and that if students aren’t coming to thorough understandings with their teachers, we have to change whatever we can to make sure students are actually receiving an education.”
Though she does enjoy working at her own pace outside of class, Kahsay misses the support provided by her peers. “In online school, I don’t have as much support from others, because [class] is over the computer,” she said.
As the freshman class president, Kahsay and her team of officers have had to put great effort into ensuring the freshman class has the ability to experience virtual events and activities. “All events need to be approved by the SGA and [teacher] sponsors… online, it’s a lot harder to go through with plans and reach out to sponsors for help with certain events.”
While in-person events like homecoming and other school sponsored events have largely been canceled, Kahsay and her officers have introduced creative contests to replicate events such as school “spirit week” in a virtual setting. For example, students were invited to design and vote on homecoming banners to win prizes.
Additionally, an online setting has created opportunities to host events that might not have been possible during a typical school year. Kahsay and her officers have planned a “Black History Month Panel, where the event is about 2 hours [long] and [will] occur over zoom.”
Despite the challenges they have been faced with, she and her team are “working even harder… to make changes and have events for the freshman… [they] jumped right into what [they] wanted to accomplish this year.”
Distanced learning also means less social interaction, which affects some students more than others. Shigetomi misses “certain casual experiences like having short conversations in the hall and eating lunch with classmates.”
Extracurricular activities provide students with various opportunities to interact and meet people with similar interests.
Although Kahsay hasn’t been able to mingle with her peers as she might have in an in-person setting, she says being “really involved in advocacy and other clubs at [her] school” has given her a chance to meet new friends.
While clubs are offered virtually, many have failed to survive the transition online. Shigetomi, the captain of Poolesville’s K-Pop Club, thinks “opportunities that allow students to create a sense of community and interact with others in a non-academic context, like clubs,” are crucial to the improvement of virtual school.
Not only have extracurricular clubs been severely limited, MCPS canceled in-person sports during the fall semester. For athletes who rely on school to practice and compete in their sport, this change has been detrimental.
Makhi Walker, a junior at Quince Orchard High School, has been playing football since he was 7 years old. Football has always been a big part of his life. “Everyone in my family has played and I’ve had a brother play [football] and start at UMD,” he said.
The radical changes to the sports seasons has impacted him in profoundly negative ways. According to Walker, “Football was the place where I could let emotions and anger out, but football was also a big reason I was so focused in school.”
Athletes hoping to pursue their sports in college or as careers have been placed at a tremendous disadvantage. “I haven’t been able to play with coaches at all, only with my brother who sometimes trains me,” added Walker.
The school system recently opened registration for fall sports, with a delayed season beginning later this month.
Last month, Hogan and State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon required all Maryland school systems to draw up plans to return to classrooms by March 1.
Last week, the Montgomery County Board of Education discussed the updated state guidance on re-opening. The school system is exploring bringing back groups of students receiving special education service and those in Career Technology Education programs by March 1.
MCPS is continuing with its plan to phase-in the return to classroom learning for other students beginning March 15. The school system will present more information to the board next week.
The writer is a student at Poolesville High School in Montgomery County.