Distance Learning ft. ISL Schools

By Natalie P. and Gigi C. ’23

Are you constantly rubbing tired, overstrained eyes? Joining the masses in ordering blue light glasses? Not leaving your room for weeks? While these circumstances may have sounded like a bad dream a few months ago, they have become reality for students all over the country. With the current pandemic putting the world in quarantine, school administrators have been working tirelessly to find the best ways to continue their students’ education and communicate with them during this unprecedented time. Never before have institutions relied so heavily on digital platforms for teaching. While there are certainly many challenges to this fresh approach, distance learning has brought together many communities during this difficult time. Currently, the Winsor School is entering week six of distance learning, and we were interested in how other schools in the Independent School League (ISL) are handling the health crisis. The two of us reached out to friends who attend other private schools in New England to collect perspectives from a diverse group of students on distance learning in the ISL.

Most of the ISL schools are using the same platforms to facilitate online learning. The most popular video conferencing programs include Zoom, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime. Many ISL schools are also using PowerSchool, a software that allows educators to post course assignments and grades. However, while the use of technology is similar, the number of synchronous meetings in a student’s schedule varies from school to school. At Winsor, Upper School students attend around three synchronous classes a day. However, boarding schools face complications: for example, students at Andover only have asynchronous classes. A senior at the academy, Jacob Barkan ’20 explains, “It’s an equity issue to have students [in] different time zones required to meet. There are optional meeting periods, but I haven’t attended a Zoom in 2 weeks now. Classes are also pass/fail for the trimester.” Similarly at Milton Academy, Isabella Kanczuk ’23 notes that “All Zoom meetings between teachers and students have been optional, in order to best suit people in different time zones. We receive around 3-4 hours of homework per subject per week. Therefore, personally, I think that the amount of work is very reasonable for all students during this pandemic.” 

One of the most prominent concerns for students while learning online is the increase in screen time. Staring at a computer for hours every day not only hurts the eyes, but it also reduces motivation to learn. Eliza Barker ’23, a freshman at the Brooks School, does not enjoy online learning because it “requires students to be on their screens for a majority of the day, which is tiring, and usually you are sitting in the same spot. Also, being at home the entire day can get boring, which I have found leads to low productivity.” She is certainly not alone in her sentiments. Arjun Bose ’23 at Roxbury Latin (RL) also reported that “it is hard to pay attention and stay focused because classes are all on a screen.” Luckily, RL soon realized that maintaining a regular schedule was too ambitious. Arjun is glad that the school has “shortened the day to five classes and pushed [the school day] back so we can begin later.” It is clear that the faculty at RL are responding to feedback from their students and are still trying to accomplish as much of their original curriculum as possible.

While there are many challenges to remote learning, some students have found benefits in the new schedule. Vanessa Xue ’23 believes that “Rivers has been very helpful and supportive of all the students during remote learning. While this was an unexpected turn of events, I think Rivers [created] an environment that continues to push the students with their academics. Some pros for online school are that you become more independent and self-sufficient while learning; otherwise, you’ll fall behind.” John Austin ’23 from RL also finds distance learning to be “much more stress-free, since there are no extracurriculars and sports, and in general there is more time in the day to work.” Many are thankful for the dedication of administrators to further the education of ISL students during quarantine. For example, Claire Mao ’22 and her classmates at Nobles are “grateful that the teachers have put in a lot of time and effort in developing the virtual learning program; it must’ve been a lot of work.” Likewise, Jordan Stuecken ’24 observes that her Milton Academy peers are “trying to be very open minded, and we can all tell that the teachers are trying their best to make sure all of the students are succeeding.” 

Students who have boarded throughout high school also find the sudden transition between campus life and home life extremely difficult. Eliza Barker ’23 comments on the absence of physical interaction with her friends. For Eliza, the hardest part of social distancing is “being away from Brooks… since it is a boarding school, I feel like the level of separation sadness is higher in comparison to day schools. Most of us are used to living at school all the time… I have gotten so close with the people I live with, my roommate, and dorm parents that it feels weird to go about my daily life without their influence.” 

Along with the frequency of virtual meetings, grading and assessments vary between institutions. John Austin ’23 is concerned that “The biggest challenge for teachers seems to be assessments. Besides a few quizzes, most teachers haven’t tested students at all, and many are clueless on how exams will work if the quarantine lasts into June.” His classmate Gabriel Stankovich ’23 also voiced his strong opinions about the RL assessment calendar: “We now attend four to five 45-minute online periods instead of the six to seven 45-minute periods we had before. However, all of the tests are still [happening] on the same dates.” As of May, Roxbury Latin has canceled most of its spring exams, to the relief of the student body.

Distance learning has certainly changed the education system in unprecedented ways, including redesigning the way students and teachers communicate, promoting student initiative and independence, and deepening our reliance on technology. As schools figure out how to best finish the 2019-2020 school year, Winsor students and their families can look forward to the weekly “Sunday Greetings” from Head of School Ms. Pelmas. Her messages, which are full of warmth and love for the community, inspire others to approach the days in quarantine with optimism, gratitude, and faith. In her most recent one, she notes, “[This situation] will also certainly unite us in our shared sense of awe at the miracle of this life, and in our fierce commitment to come through this pandemic celebrating the people and the values we hold most dear.”