Pandemic Life: Students, Experts Reflect On A Year Of Online Education
This story is part of a series, Pandemic Life: One Year On. Click here for more.
Luis is a seventh-grader currently attending Rancho Del Rey Middle School in Chula Vista. As with the vast majority of students in San Diego County, he’s spent the past year attending school through a computer screen.
“It was a big change,” said Luis, who did not want his full name used. “First you were in school and now you’re on a computer all day every day, Monday through Friday.”
Luis and his guardians, Curtis Dowds and Judith Stubbs insist he’s doing all his schoolwork, but when he turns it in they say his teachers aren’t counting it. So his grades have plummeted.
“Right now I’m not doing too good because they’re giving me Fs and Ds for all the work I turned in,” he said. “They’re saying that they’re missing when I turned them in.”
Luis has tried for months to get his grades fixed but with no success. Luis and his guardians say that before the pandemic he was a high-performing student and received the equivalent of As and Bs.
Experts say Luis’ experience speaks to a huge underlying problem with distance learning: The lack of face-to-face contact between students and teachers has created in many cases a lack of trust. This leads to at least the perception that educators only care about the grade book and not the struggles of students.
It also underscores the reality distance learning has exacerbated an already large achievement gap between low-income students of color and their wealthier white peers.
Christopher Nellum, the interim executive director at Education Trust-West, a think tank based in the San Francisco Bay Area, said building personal connections need to be the top priority when in-person learning resumes.
“Sure, we have to be focused on the academics,” Nellum said. “But in order for young people to be successful, they have to feel whole, and they have to feel taken care of and feel like the folks they’re around who they’re engaging with care about them.
Luis, who has been living with Dowds and Stubbs since September, has also struggled with the added stress of being separated from his family for most of the year. His mother, who previously lived as an undocumented immigrant in San Diego, has lived in Tijuana since 2016. They’ve barely seen each other during the pandemic.
“Not being with my mom for six months was hard for me because I don’t have my mom next to me so we can go out, go places, go shopping,” he said.
Kate Chasin lives in Tierrasanta, less than twenty miles up the highway from Luis, but their realities during the pandemic have been worlds apart.
Chasin is a junior at Canyon Hills High School, formerly known as Serra High School. School has been stressful for her, but she’s maintained high grades. She’s also been able to continue her cello lessons virtually.
“Luckily I’ve been doing OK and getting my work in and I’ve had straight A’s thus far,” Chasin said.
She said she wants to study public policy in college and she’s even gotten involved in activism work raising awareness for teen mental health. She said her future goals have kept her motivated.
“I know it’s kind of cheesy, but I'm looking at really competitive schools and you need really competitive grades in order to get into those schools,” Chasin said. “So, in order to set myself up for success in the future, I need to be successful now.”
Minjuan Wang, a professor of learning design and technology at San Diego State University, said advantaged and motivated students like Kate have fared better in the virtual classroom, but only as long as they have access to technology and a stable environment.
Wang said a silver lining to the pandemic experience is that teachers have become more proficient at using technology. She sees an opportunity for them to use their new skills to better help struggling students even after schools reopen.
“I think after the pandemic some teachers might go into hybrid mode if that’s a possibility,” she said. “And they’ll definitely reach out to students who need more help by having a Zoom session or any other online conferencing.”
While Chasin has done well during distance learning, she said she struggled with social isolation and anxiety. But she’s completely aware of her privilege.
“The fact that I already had a laptop going into the pandemic. My family has wifi that has good bandwidth, so three of us could be on a zoom call at the same time,” she said. “My parents can come home at the end of the night and I can be comfortable knowing they are making enough money for us to survive.”