Over the past few months, students around the world have had to adapt to an unprecedented and turbulent time.  With many schools transitioning to emergency distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and administrators have been forced to develop new learning practices and accommodations for students so that they can continue to learn.

For high school students like me, this new form of learning has posed several challenges, with many students feeling isolated, frustrated, and unmotivated.

ONLINE CLASSES IMPACT HOW STUDENTS LEARN
With the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) transitioning to a pass/fail system for the spring semester, there have been mixed reactions among students.  For example, many juniors are upset since the spring semester plays such an important role in college admissions.  These students feel that all of their hard work has simply gone down the drain.  On the other hand, most students are in agreement with the decision by IUSD, as it seeks to accommodate those who lack the proper tools and/or learning environment and will relieve the stress of students who find that distance learning is having a negative impact on their academic performance.  Many teachers feel that this new system will help to highlight students who take the initiative to learn and produce high quality work, even when the stakes are low.  In addition, the system will ensure that students who cheat on exams or assignments will not have an unfair advantage.

Another major challenge facing students has been the ability to access the proper resources necessary to facilitate their learning.  Many students lack the proper technology, fast-speed internet, and home environment that enables them to excel to the same academic level they had achieved prior to school closures.

STUDENTS NO LONGER CAN PARTICIPATE IN EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES
Clubs, sports, performing arts, and volunteering play a critical role in student life and are particularly important for students who have passions outside of academics.  Northwood High School here in Irvine is a great example. With more than 2,000 students, Northwood is home to over 90 clubs, an incredible Visual & Performing Arts (VAPA) program, and a competitive athletics department. With all K-12 students being out of school in Irvine, these students have not only lost the ability to actively engage with their peers but have also lost the opportunity to showcase their other interests.

In addition, many competitions and conferences that students have studied and prepared hard for over the course of the school year have been canceled.  With these cancellations, many students — particularly juniors who will be applying to college next fall — feel discouraged and anxious about the potential ramifications.  Beyond school activities, many summer programs designed to foster creativity, teach leadership skills, and introduce students to the rigor of research and skill-building have been canceled.

Although distance learning is nowhere near as engaging and exciting for students, teachers all around the country have done an amazing job digitizing their curriculum.  Take the average high school science class as an example.  Without extensive labs and equipment, chemistry, physics, and biology teachers are unable to move beyond mere theory and into practical lab applications.  This poses a real risk to students, who have been stripped of the opportunity to develop team-building skills, practice critical thinking, and solve problems through experimentation.  Many science teachers have been able to get around this issue by assigning online simulations such as the PhET Simulations from the University of Colorado, which allow students to access interactive, research-based simulations that mimic real-life experiments and engage students in the scientific method.

With students having limited time to contact their teachers, many of them, even myself, feared that they would become too dependent on YouTube videos, websites, and digital textbooks to answer questions.  These methods of learning are often challenging, as the information is often not curated and cannot be found in one place.  To bypass this issue, some teachers are creating YouTube videos, Question & Answer sessions, and virtual class discussions to continually engage students and closely mimic the classroom atmosphere.

Even the VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) program at Northwood High School has come up with innovative ways for students to perform music.  For example, the choir program is working towards mixing and rendering over 250 virtual video performances in order to create a digital concert for students and their parents.

Although teachers have done an amazing job adapting to these challenging times, it is important to acknowledge that, at this moment in time, distance learning is not nearly as effective as in-person learning, which fosters interaction and the sort of skills that prepare students for the real world.

MOST STUDENTS SAY THAT REMAINING CONNECTED TO THEIR FRIENDS IS ESSENTIAL
Social interactions are one of the most memorable and enjoyable parts of school.  With students being isolated, many of us are finding fun ways to keep up with our friends.

Nick Gauthier, a junior at Northwood High School, is one of the many students who have expressed their concerns about the social impact.  Nick recently said, “Our social lives have also been affected by online learning.  We can no longer see our friends and interact with them on a daily basis.”

To get around this issue, more and more students are turning to social media.  We’re using social media platforms like SnapChat, Instagram, and TikTok to keep up with our friends.  According to SnapChat Inc.’s most recent earnings report, engagement has hit record highs.

For many high school students like me, distance learning has really made us appreciate school more.  Although many of us loathe waking up early and learning for hours on end, we now have a greater appreciation for the social interaction and learning atmosphere that takes place at school.  At the same time, since students are no longer on a strict schedule, many of us have the opportunity to explore our creativity from home and pursue things we never had the time for.

WHAT I’M DOING DURING MY FREE TIME
In addition to keeping up with my schoolwork, I have used the past few months to develop an organization that teaches middle school students about entrepreneurship and finance.  The Young Entrepreneur Initiative is a series of workshops designed to facilitate the growth of young, curious minds.  Through a curated curriculum, the program provides students with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to bring their creative ideas to life.  By teaching the fundamentals of business and marketing, we hope to instill a sense of confidence and self-sufficiency in young students so that they feel capable of greatness!

Over the next month or so, I plan to finalize my curriculum and run an online pilot program to see how things go and gain valuable feedback.

Arya Bhalla
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