The pandemic has upended the traditional school day. Instead of gathering in classrooms, many students are sitting in their bedrooms using Zoom to “attend” class. Most are seriously missing their friends and social lives. Before this they had no idea how much they like school … when it’s a physical destination. Whatever the drawbacks, there’s a silver lining to virtual learning. Students are adapting in ways that will serve them well in college. They’re improving organization skills, learning to motivate themselves and adapting to independence.
Painting everyone with a broad brush, however, isn’t totally fair. “How students are faring is variable, depending on their support at school and outside of school, financial stability, physical and mental health, and other conditions,” says Tori Cordiano, Ph.D., Consulting Psychologist at Laurel and Director of Research, Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.
“Many students are faring okay and maintaining strong connections with loved ones and their communities,” she notes. “Others are facing more difficult circumstances and experiencing more significant challenges that may have long-term effects for their physical and mental health.”
Whether extrovert or introvert, connecting with others helps in times of distress. “Connection with others benefits not just mental health, but physical health, as well,” says Cordiano. “It is extremely important for teenagers as so much of their social support derives from connections with peers.”
The news isn’t all negative. This generation will grow up with strengths.
“The pandemic has been a master class in flexibility and resilience,” she says. “It has presented immense challenges to how students learn and interact with the world around them, and in many cases, they have had to develop strong self-advocacy skills to ask for what they need from teachers, organizational skills to manage different learning formats and platforms, and motivational techniques to keep them focused and working, even when they are not physically in class.”
Erin Roche, a senior at Laurel School has been attending class virtually all year. She feels the weaknesses and strengths that go with this new normal. Roche’s classes are all via Zoom, five classes a day with 20-minute breaks between. She logs in from a new desk in her bedroom, something she considers less than ideal.
“I work best in a school environment,” she says. “Being in my room all day, it’s hard to find motivation and it’s hard to focus. I miss being able to walk into school and meet my new teachers. I don’t believe you can get to know someone through the computer. It’s not the same as being in one biology lab together, asking questions in person, writing on the white boards. I’m a hands-on learner.”
On the flip side, Roche sees new skills developing. “I learned that I’m more adaptable than I thought. My junior year, a big problem was being able to focus at home,” she says. That has shifted. “I can’t use that excuse anymore. I’ve found motivation and have been doing really well online.”
Mia Dent, a sophomore at Laurel School, started the 2020-2021 using a hybrid rotation between school and home. Now she’s fully remote, working from a new desk in her bedroom. “I feel like not being in the school environment makes it harder to have accountability with teachers and peers. While the academics are familiar,” she says, “It’s harder to stay on top of what you’re supposed to be doing since you’re not in the building and they can’t see you.”
Remote attendance, she says, has shown her flaws in her approach to academics. While school was easier in early grades, she says, she takes more time to get work done during the pandemic.
“I’ve learned how poor my time management skills were beforehand,” she says. “It’s so easy to fall into doing more leisure activities. I’ve been working to do better.”
Socially, she’s disappointed. “There are fewer options to socialize with my friends. My relationships with other students have dissolved in some ways because I don’t see them in class.”
Sara Cody, an eighth-grade student at Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, attended in-school classes for a while before shifting to online.  “I like in-school way better,” she says. “The end of the year (Spring 2020) online wasn’t good. This year it’s gotten better, but I would still rather be in school with my friends.”
Cody attends class via Zoom and works on an iPad from an office in her home. A lot of success depends on motivation, she says. “At the end of Spring 2020, I wasn’t motivated. I didn’t want to do school because I wasn’t with friends and it wasn’t fun. I had missing assignments.”
Time and experience help. She admits, “It’s gotten a lot better. I don’t have missing assignments.”
And while she visits with friends on Facetime, it’s not the same as going to someone’s home to hang out. Recently, to combat loneliness, she started to call classmates at random. “I’ve made more friends by calling people,” she says.
The benefits of working from home, she says are improved relationships with her siblings and parents as well as stronger organizational skills. “I’m more organized than I thought I was. Last year at the end of the year it was not good. I’ve learned that I can do more.”
Perin Romano, a junior at Hathaway Brown, started her classes online, eased into a hybrid model, then transitioned back to online. She prefers the privacy of a desk in her bedroom while taking Zoom classes.
Change hasn’t been easy. “I miss the experience of having a routine when you wake up and get ready to leave your house. Getting used to this home environment has been hard, but it’s been a good opportunity to learn how to stay focused and get work done,” she says. “One of the hard parts is being unable to ask a simple question. I have to reach out to teachers on my own.”
Romano is connected to friends through social media, but that’s not good enough. “It’s been an adjustment not seeing people. I’ve learned there are so many ways to stay connected with people,” she says. “I still have a support system all around me even if they’re not physically here.”
She says her parents have seen how she learns and are more confident in her efforts. “They see that they don’t have to push me now,” she says.
Perhaps the best bonus of being home so much was adding a golden retriever to the family.
At University School in Hunting Valley, most of the student body chose in-person classes, until the statewide increase in COVID cases forced a transition to remote school.
Junior Peter Pich studies in different locations throughout his home. “Usually, my siblings work near the dining room. When I work near my siblings, school feels more normal and natural,” he says. “During breaks, we sometimes crack jokes or discuss our upcoming and previous classes. If I want to work in a quieter place, I’ll attend classes or work from my room. There, I won’t be distracted or annoyed by background noises. The only issue with working in my room is that classes can sometimes feel isolated and lonely.”
Like his peers at other schools, isolation is a drag. “Although I stay in contact with my closest friends, other experiences have changed. We can’t study together or interact with each other in between classes,’ he says. “I miss interacting with my teachers and my classmates. Although I do socialize and communicate with my teachers and peers during class, the conversations don’t have the same feel.”
“It’s more difficult to participate in extra/co-curricular. In our remote schedule, we only have one block of time for club/organization meetings,” he notes. “With that in mind, many clubs have opted to have meetings after school. By doing so, students can attend more meetings for different clubs. The only issue is that it sometimes conflicts with homework or other class-related activities.”
Pich finds it easier to meet with teachers using online platforms – when internet connections are strong — because the student and teacher don’t have to be at the same place; they can log in from anywhere. And, eliminating 90 minutes of driving from and to the West Side has added time to his day.
“The most important thing I learned during the pandemic, was how important schedules are,” says Pich. “For me, the key to making the most out of my pandemic experience was to maintain a sense of normalcy. I didn’t let myself adopt unhealthy habits. Online schooling was not an excuse to put less effort into my classwork. It wasn’t an excuse to play video games all day after school. It wasn’t an excuse to quit exercising and become unfit. Instead, I created a schedule and followed that schedule every day. It brought normalcy to a time of irregularity. That schedule helped keep me sane during those long months at home.”
Che Jarvis, a senior at University School, refinished his dad’s old desk and created an office space within his home for studying. He feels that academic expectations have remained the same, but teachers have been more accommodating of student needs.
“Often my teachers try hard to encourage group work and interaction, however it’s still not quite the same,” he says. “Active participation is a basic expectation from all teachers which I like because it affords me an opportunity to hear from my classmates.”
“I miss the small normalities of life before the pandemic; the things you don’t really notice until they are gone. I miss handshakes and high-fives, awkward smiles in passing, and greeting hugs. I miss eating at restaurants and seeing most of my friends,” he says. “All these realizations of things I miss makes me extremely grateful for them and anxious for their eventual return.
“The most difficult part of my day is managing my time,” says Jarvis. “It’s very easy to lose focus and fall into a daze scrolling through Instagram or watching Netflix on my phone.”
“Outside of school has been rougher. I see a limited number of people and often spend weekends at home or at the park,” he says. His family has taken steps to manage the downsides, like trying new foods, following painting tutorials and watching new movies.
“The most important thing I have learned about myself is how well I can adapt during these odd times; I believe that I made the best out of the situation presented,” he says. “I have learned to listen to myself more and to work in goal-oriented ways. For example, every night before bed I write down my goals, things I want to accomplish, people or things I’m grateful for, or even just thoughts I had during the day.”