There is an ancient Chinese proverb that states, “Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” This year, St. Patrick-St. Vincent High students had to decide where “everywhere” would be.
The question on whether or not to have students go back to their classrooms on campus during the coronavirus pandemic has been debated for months. On one hand it’s nice to have in-person instruction, but on the other hand staying six feet apart and avoiding big groups is vital to surviving the pandemic.
So why not give the students a choice?
During the first week of October, the private school in Vallejo began “dual instruction,” a combination of distance learning and receiving an education on campus. The school sent emails to the students’ families in September and asked what they preferred and then the family could choose what method they wanted. One third of the students at St. Pat’s chose to return to campus, while the rest are still learning from home.
The dual instruction has two different strategies to learn. One is called asynchronous, where students learn at different times on their own schedule within parameters set by teachers. Communication with the teacher and other students in class is not live. This method provides a convenient and flexible approach to student engagement throughout the week and allows students to work at their own pace. Examples of asynchronous learning include email, screencasts, videos and discussion board posts/comments.
The other version is synchronous, where students learn at the same time in a virtual class or consultation session with their teacher and peers. Communication happens in real-time as this method engages all students at a specific date and time as organized by the distance learning schedule and determined by individual teachers. It allows for instant feedback and clarification. Examples of synchronous learning are video conferencing, live chat, and live-streamed videos.
The students that are learning on campus must wear a mask and are spread out at desks at least six feet away from each other. The classes with a lab have plexiglass set up on the tables to separate students.
So while a teacher might be looking at a few students in their classroom at any given time, they will also see at least a dozen more at the same time online via Zoom.
“Generally I would want to see all my students here in a classroom in person, but that’s just not possible and for a good reason,” world history teacher Gracie Ingersoll said. “But all my classes feature the same lessons whether they are learning from home or in person.”
Ingersoll said she has as many as three people present in her classroom and some with as many as 10 people there in person. Principal, Coleen Martin, said that some freshman classes have as many as 16 people in the classroom, while one senior religion class only has one person learning on campus. So much for hiding in the back if you failed to do the homework.
“It’s very futuristic and a sign of the times,” Ingersoll said. “Of course I would love to have all the students here because I love collaborative work and projects where you work in groups, but we just can’t do that now. But whether the kids are in the classroom or watching through Zoom I still give each of them the same amount of attention.”
The school has three periods of classes (75 minutes each) on Monday and Wednesday and on those days there is no break for lunch. There is a 20-minute break on those days. On Tuesdays and Thursdays there are four classes and a lunch. Fridays are reserved for virtual instruction in case a student needs more help. There are no students on campus that day.
Martin said the first week the students came back to class in October was a very surreal one.
“The first few weeks were a little awkward and it was actually very quiet for a few days,” Martin said. “The students on campus had to learn how to not hug each other, not show pictures of each other on their phones because it violates the six-feet window, things like that. But a lot of them were so happy to see each other again and just be out of the house. Many of the students were spending 16 to 18 hours in their bedroom each day with just learning and sleeping. So many of them were just happy to be out of that surrounding.”
Students who were reached for the story were glad to be back on campus again.
“For me, this decision required hardly any thought,” student Walter Ringler said. “I knew that this was something I needed to do for my mental health, and I am glad that my parents supported my decision. I was enthusiastic to return to school! It was great to see all of my friends on the first day back since it had been so long since I had last seen them. I was growing tired of distance learning, and my motivation was at an all time low. I knew it was time for a change.”
Another student, Janet Cervantes, said the decision on whether or not to come back to campus was a difficult one.
“It was a hard decision because with cases going up we didn’t want to risk our health,” Cervantes said. “However, my family and I came to the conclusion that it would be best for me to go back on campus. Going back to school on campus was strange at first since I was so used to being online. However, I missed being on campus and I missed seeing my classmates the most. Classes are easier in person because in online learning it’s very easy to get distracted and not focus on what the teacher is teaching.”
However, while some kids have cherished being on campus again, two thirds of the school did decide to stay with distance learning, like senior Alissa Sayama, a volleyball player at the school.
“Personally I’m OK with distance learning,” Sayama said. “That’s just the type of learner I am. After the instruction I go over everything and basically teach myself again anyways. What I miss about being on campus is the social aspect and being around my friends.
“I sat down with my parents to talk over the decision and my mom was kind of upset I chose to stay at home, because she wanted me to have some kind of normalcy with my senior year,” Sayama continued. “But I told her that this learning style fits me more and if everyone wasn’t going to come back, then I didn’t want to come back. If I had gone back to campus I’d just be missing all the people that weren’t there.”
After the Christmas break, all students will have to go back to distance learning for the weeks between Jan. 6 and Jan. 19.
“As much as we are telling people to avoid large gatherings for the holidays, we’re pretty sure people are still going to do it anyways,” Martin said. “This way we don’t have the students with each other for the first two weeks after this may happen.”
Martin did add the school will not be doing the same thing after the Thanksgiving holiday and that the “dual instruction” will go on as normal.
Ingersoll said it’s very important for teachers to understand that the times students are going through is very difficult and may be even talked about in her future history books. The second-year teacher and 2012 St. Pat’s graduate said she often discusses the 1918 pandemic and the Spanish Flu.
“It’s a different learning experience for sure, but the students have to know that they are amazing at adapting,” Ingersoll said. “I think it’s important for teachers to recognize and understand that this is hard for students. But at the same time tell them, ‘Look what we are able to do despite these difficulties.’”