Adjustments, disappointments, and silver linings: Students reflect on remote learning

by Sarah Earle

The final weeks of school are typically abuzz with celebrations and traditions, handshakes and hugs and tears. Teenagers sway to sugary dance tunes. Sweaty, jubilant athletes bond on bus rides home from state championships. Grade-schoolers, lined up on risers like packs of crayons, serenade their parents. 

This year, there will be none of those things. With school closed through the end of the year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, students and teachers are instead soldiering on via computer screen, salvaging the school year as best they can without many of the milestones and moments that give it meaning. 

As they reflect on the past weeks and enter the final lap of the school year, four members of the Weare school community describe bitter disappointments and difficult adjustments, as well as a few silver linings. 

“I’ve learned how to manage my time.”

Homeschooled until his freshman year at John Stark Regional High School in Weare, Nathan Chasse wasn’t expecting to miss being at school so much. 

“I’m an introvert. There’s all kinds of jokes out there saying this is what introverts have been waiting for,” said Chasse, who was studying for multiple AP exams, looking forward to playing piano for the spring musical, Legally Blonde, and starting to think about college applications when the school closures were announced on March 15. “But now that I’ve been around people all day long, it’s been more lonely than I would have thought.” 

Chasse now puts in seven-hour days at a computer set up in his attic. Some coursework has transitioned reasonably well to online platforms, while some has proved more problematic. 

“It’s been challenging to stay motivated and on top of things,” he said. “There are so many things you can’t get when you’re just alone trying to teach yourself.” 

Among the biggest disappointments for Chasse were the revisions to the AP exams instituted because of the school closures. He’d spent hours memorizing facts for the AP U.S. History exam, traditionally a three-hour test consisting of three sections that’s now being offered as a 45-minute open-book test.

“It’s the one I was most excited for,” he said. “The practice I’ve been doing doesn’t translate directly.” 

Chasse is also worried about the next chapter of his life. He’s leaning towards a major in data science, but with such a heavy academic load, he hadn’t had much time before the shutdown to research colleges. “It’s going to be really confusing trying to find a college,” he said. “The biggest advice I’ve gotten from anyone I’ve asked about college is to tour the college … Now I don’t know when I’ll be able to do that.” 

College applications will also be different. With spring SAT exams cancelled, Chasse will now have only one shot at the SAT, unless he wants to schedule it twice back-to-back in the fall. He’s not overly concerned about that change but knows it’s been upsetting for some juniors. 

There is, however, one aspect of remote learning that’s served Chasse well as he looks ahead to college. After indulging in late nights and odd work hours in the beginning, he’s settled into a consistent routine that helps him stay on top of his work and get adequate sleep. 

“I’ve learned to manage my time,” he said. 

Chasse has also found time to practice piano, a habit he hadn’t prioritized in the past. “I’ve always loved music, but I always used homework as an excuse not to practice … now I don’t have that excuse,” he said. “I’ve discovered that it’s actually fun.” 

The stay-at-home order has inspired Chasse and his friends to find creative ways to stay in touch — several of them have started playing Minecraft together like they did when they were kids — and given him a new appreciation for his younger siblings. 

“It’s nice to have someone you can hang out with,” he said. 

“It’s definitely exhausting.”

Physics is the study of how and why objects move around in the universe. It’s a class that practically begs for hands-on learning, and Jake Morrill, a physics teacher at John Stark Regional High School, has always happily obliged. His lessons are filled with energy transfers of both the scientific and social variety.  

“My classes are really built around students interacting with each other and interacting with me and asking questions,” he said. 

With school closed, those interactions aren’t happening. “The normal give and take of the classroom has disappeared,” said Morrill, who teaches one AP physics class and one regular physics class. “I’m really struggling with that piece of it.” 

Several weeks into remote learning, Morrill is still adjusting his lesson plans to make them as engaging as possible while not overwhelming students. One strategy he’s found helpful is giving students choices. For an upcoming assessment, they have three options: building a Rube Goldberg machine, creating a presentation about energy transfer based off of YouTube videos, or taking a traditional test. 

“I’ve heard from students that they like being able to pick what they’re going to do,” Morrill said. 

That feedback is critical, and Morrill, like other educators, is making regular communication with students a priority despite the extra time it takes to stay in touch remotely. His workday typically begins at 6 a.m., and he rarely leaves his computer until 5 or 6 p.m.

“It’s definitely exhausting,” he said. 

Morrill, who also serves as an advisor to the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, feels the weight of the pandemic on his students’ social and emotional lives, too. “They seem to be hanging in there okay, but I think losing sports and prom and graduation has been tough,” he said. 

At the same time, Morrill has drawn inspiration from his students, who have undertaken projects like making masks for hospitals and tutoring younger students. 

“Not only are students doing their work,” he said, “but they’re trying to connect with each other and connect with their community and do something to help.” 

“My biggest concern is losing touch.”

Most mornings when Clare Delay logs onto her online classroom, some of her students have beat her there. Fresh from a good night’s sleep, they’re cranking out assignments rather than yawning and blinking through a fifth- or sixth-period class. 

That’s just one of Delay’s reasons for optimism amid a period of immense and unprecedented challenges for educators. 

“It’s been interesting. I’m learning a lot,” said Delay, who teaches eighth-grade science at Weare Middle School. 

Being able to set their own schedules has worked out well for some students and given them a taste of independence, Delay said. They’ve told her that they’re getting more sleep and more exercise. They’re also gaining some new skills. 

“Before all this happened, something that was on my mind was, I wanted to figure out a way to prepare kids better for an online work environment,” she said. “They don’t really have a lot of experience with things like emailing teachers.” 

Delay’s students have also been doing a lot more writing than they typically do in class, which she thinks is time well spent.  

At the same time, Delay is getting a chance to put some new ideas into practice. She’s been utilizing a modified “flipped classroom” model, in which students acquaint themselves with new content on their own and then gain practice and heightened understanding through projects and discussions in the classroom. 

In this case, of course, the classroom is virtual, making the application less than ideal. Delay has made her class discussions and extension activities optional, knowing that students have varied access to resources and materials. 

There have been other challenges, too. Like many teachers, Delay at first had a hard time keeping up with the demands of the new routine. “I wanted to be available every second for the students,” she said. “I’m being more careful now to set aside office hours.”

What her students have lost in these weeks away from school and friends also weighs heavily on Delay’s mind. 

“They are really missing sports. A lot of them were revved up for the sports season. … They say that they practice alone in the backyard,” she said. “That breaks my heart.”

While most of her students are keeping up with their work and staying engaged, a few have been elusive. “Some of them have fallen off the grid,” she said. “My biggest concern is losing touch with some kids.” 

“We’re missing out on so many things that we’re not going to get back.” 

To John Stark High School senior Lauren Zervos, the coronavirus was a wrecking ball, smashing apart everything she’d been looking forward to as she capped off 13 years of school.

“I was really angry at first,” said Zervos, a class officer who was scheduled to give introductory remarks at graduation. “It was hard to comprehend and understand.” 

When schools were initially closed, Zervos held out hope that end-of-year events could be preserved. Now, she knows she’ll never return to her high school classrooms. Prom and graduation won’t happen on schedule and won’t be the same. She won’t go to Costa Rica with her Spanish class or attend awards ceremonies for two major awards she won, the Good Citizen Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Governor’s Arts Award from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. 

“We’re missing out on so many things that we’re not going to get back,” Zervos said. 

Over time, Zervos has begun to accept the new reality and even find a bright side. An aspiring artist who will attend the Maine College of Art in Portland in the fall, she’s been able to devote extra time to painting during the past several weeks. 

Other pursuits, however, have been harder to continue at home. Without access to a studio and supplies, her ceramics class is nothing like it was at school. She wasn’t able to take a camera home for her photography class either, and while she’s grateful to have a good quality phone and photoshop software on her laptop, she misses the step-by-step guidance her teacher provided. 

Zervos tries to maintain a regular schedule and is staying connected with classmates in various ways, including helping with a new “Good Morning, John Stark” page on Instagram. 

If she gets to make a graduation speech in some way, at some point, she’ll remind those coming up the ranks behind her to appreciate the time they have. “I’ve learned not to take anything for granted,” Zervos said. “I thought that I had these four months left to spend with my peers and teachers, which now I don’t have.” 

Coming next week: Administrators discuss how school closures are affecting current and future budgets.