COVID-19 Turns School Virtual

Everything was “normal.” The stock market was rising to historic levels and America was experiencing the longest period of economic growth in its history. This eleven year span continued throughout a tumultuous decade in American politics, uninterrupted by two starkly different administrations and the rise of partisan gridlock in Washington.

On January 28th 2020, Mr. Monahan was introducing a stock market simulation project that would go on for seven weeks to his five AP Micro Macro periods. Less than seven weeks later, the project was cancelled and the stock market was in rapid freefall. The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted the economy, overwhelmed the healthcare system, and totally altered the way of life across the U.S. America’s education system was completely transformed as students across the country called into their classes from the comfort of their homes (and in some cases—beds). 

The impending coronavirus crisis was looming over Ridgewood students and teachers for a full three weeks leading up to the closure. However, no one was sure if and when school would be dismissed.  This crisis was so unlike anything in modern American history that even in the final days of “regular” school—educators and students had a totally nonchalant attitude about the entire situation.

The College Board, the company behind the SAT and AP programs, released a statement on March 20th, 2020. The cancellations of the March and May SAT administrations were a harbinger for the news to come.

As students circulated the statement in group chats and teachers frantically emailed their students, this now famous line was all that stood out: “For the 2019–20 exam administration only, students can take a 45-minute online free-response exam at home.”

Monahan summed up the situation well, writing that: “This is an unprecedented national and global crisis the likes of which I haven’t seen in my career as an educator. I consider myself a part of the Ridgewood community, and I am eager to do my part to ‘answer the call’ during this crisis. In my capacity as an RHS teacher, that means rising to the challenge of teaching my courses remotely for as long as needed.”

This country-wide shutdown of most schools is certainly problematic for a large sector of America’s students and educators. 

To allow schooling to continue in a virtual learning environment, students need broadband internet access at home and the school board needs to supply those students with Chromebooks and teachers with Google Classroom and district-wide email. 

In many schools across the country, however, this technological infrastructure does not exist at both the school and home levels.

When asked if the College Board’s steps to remedy the inequality for the online AP exam were enough, RHS APUSH teacher Mr. LaFemina was adamant: “No it’s not enough. It’ll never be enough across the nation. But then again, what ever is? Schools can do a ton, states could do a ton to try to make these kinds of interventions for better equity but the fact is that a place like Ridgewood is extremely privileged and we’re able to do this fairly smoothly. You know, we’re probably among the best positions of school districts across the whole country to do this, especially because we have such a talented… student body that is adaptable and ready and willing to step up.”

Monahan echoes LaFemina’s sentiments: “The Ridgewood schools have always been a leading district when it comes to technology, and in this crisis that commitment will pay dividends because our staff and students are prepared for flexible learning as a result.” 

Remote learning is working. In the era of online tutoring services and YouTube videos available to learn almost any topic, many RHS students are already accustomed to learning virtually. “Learning a concrete set of skills” says Mr. LaFemina, “Yes, you could do that in a variety of ways.” 

However, Mr. LaFemina argues, school is a lot more than checking boxes on a rubric. The actual content comes secondary to what LaFemina believes “is the real curriculum, which is how you learn, how you learn how to think, how you want to interact with other folks, discuss, debate, that kind of stuff.”

Monahan describes the myriad of different options Ridgewood teachers utilize to communicate with and teach students: “by using screencasts, Google Classroom, and synchronous learning platforms, my students will still succeed in the course and on the AP exams in May.”

LaFemina has a similar outlook and believes that the College Board made the right decision by shortening AP exams and being transparent about the process. However, because Ridgewood High School has a two year US history curriculum compared to other schools that cover the same material in a year, LaFemina contends that “a longer test is like the MLB regular season, whereas this 45 minute exam is more like the playoffs. There’s more volatility to it and any team can win in the playoffs once they make it. Whereas in the regular season, the best teams tend to get the best records. So in that sense… a longer AP exam with four distinct sections favors our class with its two year curriculum, favors our class with its deep, deep knowledge and practice and all that.”

For students, virtual school can be advantageous in some regards and stressful in others. For most juniors, it does seem like a tremendous upside to have a “relaxed” end to the third quarter without many tests or quizzes, if at all. 

However, at the same time, teachers are uncertain on how to grade and assess students, so students that started off the third quarter poorly but were looking to recover their grades by the end of the quarter are feeling pressure, not knowing how to best raise their grades. Some students are also worried because they have spent months studying for the SAT or the ACT, only to have them cancelled. Most juniors are now worried about how colleges will perceive their hard-earned grades and concerned that college tours are called off indefinitely.

As an upside, most students have forgotten about checking Skyward and started prioritizing sleeping more, spending time with family, and relaxing. For most students, a slowdown in the pace of life does reap some benefits and allows students to take a much needed “break” in this fast-moving world.

While students may enjoy having more sleeping time, time to relax, and decreased pressure from the cancellation of most exams (standardized and otherwise), the vast majority of students and educators can agree with Mr. LaFemina on this: “we still need to check in face to face and… the relationships between teachers and students are irreplaceable.” 

Of course, the vast extent of the crisis is quite unfathomable, and while looking at the positive aspects is a healthy way to process the entire thing, most people can not weather the crisis as well as most Ridgewood residents can.

With all of the headlines and news reports, most students are just left wondering: will school ever go back to normal? 

School will obviously reopen, although the timeline is uncertain. Students and teachers will adjust to the school environment and everything will eventually return to “normal.”

However, once we do come back, our perspective on the importance of school and social interaction may be drastically different after missing each other and our teachers for so long. Obviously, students, administrators, and teachers will all be happy to see each other again—at least for the first day. But how long will this appreciation for school and friendships last before everyone forgets about the inherent loneliness and boredom of social distancing? Is it possible that the coronavirus crisis causes us to permanently reevaluate how much we take social interaction and our daily lives for granted?

Aaron Friedman
news columnist

Graphic: Chloe Cho

1 thought on “COVID-19 Turns School Virtual

  1. Loved this article, so well done and the interviews with Mr. Monahan and Mr. LaFemina were super interesting. How long will virtual school continue? What will the changes be to the way we are learning after we get back from break? At the end of the day, we’re so fortunate our school system has this infrastructure set up. We need to help our fellow students and communities across the country who do not have access to the same resources we do.

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