Learning from the Students' Pandemic

By Lily Mulhall

October 28, 2021

Like many others this past year, I spent so much time in online classes. It was an enlightening experience, and showed me what I truly need to succeed in an academic environment. Personally, I appreciated not being on display during classes, turning off my camera when I needed privacy. I also adored not having to worry about running across a building to get to class, using the extra five minutes to take a break. Online classes gave many schools the opportunity to help students thrive and individualize their education, effectively learning how to learn, whether the schools and students realized it or not. For me, online learning was a mixed bag of success, anxiety, and heightened self-awareness.

The Benefits of an Unstructured Day

One benefit of online learning is giving students the opportunity to manage their own time, since online students aren’t as monitored as in-person students. Online students can roll out of their beds and log onto class, keeping their camera off, and having the freedom to work in their own space. My school held online classes for the entire student body and faculty every Wednesday. For most of the year, we enjoyed these virtual Wednesdays with two hour delays tacked on top, which meant classes started at 9:30am instead of 7:30am. This one day in the middle of the week gave students two extra hours of sleep, two fewer hours of classes, and the ability to stay comfy in their pjs. It was a mood booster and a much needed break from the stress of five days of in-person learning a week. A lot of these classes ended up being asynchronous too, meaning we would be assigned work but we could complete it on our own time. On these days in particular, I got more work done than any other day of the week. I had the freedom of an unstructured work schedule, plus the added bonus of more sleep. I missed these lazy days of surprising productivity in May and June, when our virtual Wednesdays and delays were cancelled all at once. I feel that these Wednesdays showed our district of high achievers and, in my opinion, overworked teens and staff, just how helpful a break can be.

When students couldn’t physically attend school together, teachers shifted to online platforms like Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, and our platform, Allelo. COVID-19 forced changes to the learning environment, showing teachers and school districts just how easy it is to provide accommodations for those who are hard of hearing, have vision problems, are neurodivergent, or have mental health issues like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The ease at which a student at home can control their learning pace, environment, and schedule provides for better learning experiences and makes it easier for many students to complete coursework.

Online learning can of course make it more difficult for some students to get in-class assistance. Learning through a screen took away the ability to ask privately for and receive one-on-one help, unless the teacher made breakout rooms and met with a student individually. When at home, students could turn off their cameras and leave their rooms or sleep, missing entire lessons and never participating. Students took advantage of this newfound freedom, and when I returned to school in person (our district allowed us to choose virtual, hybrid, or full in-person for a time), I heard many a story from kids in my classes and even my own sister about students who weren’t completing their work and were forced to attend in-person school by their parents as a ways of making sure they were on task and completing work. I have too much anxiety and perfectionism to not submit work that is my personal best, even if my mental and physical health deteriorate because of it. In fact, this deterioration led me to seek professional help.

Asking For Help

Now, I’m not saying online learning was terrible or great for me. Like so many other students I struggled through the early days of the pandemic, reframing distance learning as an unofficial start to my summer break. Eventually I got the hang of it. My in-person habits were still set, and I felt as if I had all the time in the world for my assignments. I began to put everything off to the last minute, working myself to the bone to complete all my work. I let my stress build until the last possible second, causing me to rush through assignments. Somehow, this pattern of torture caused me to do extremely well. Now, I can’t say these habits were due to online learning. Even though it was my freshman year of high school, my procrastination had been getting steadily worse since 5th grade. I knew my academic journey was near a tipping point, but I just kept denying the struggle I faced.

After a year full of failing to establish a healthy school routine, I shared my worries about my circle of doom surrounding school with my then therapist, and it was brushed off as anxiety. I wholeheartedly agreed with this diagnosis at the time, as it is something my mother and sister have, but the tips I was receiving for dealing with my anxiety weren’t working. I felt lost, and stuck in a cycle of burn-out and sleepless nights. The problem was, I couldn’t see it as serious, so I never brought it up again to my therapist. I told myself that everyone felt this way, that the stress of high pressure class and extracurriculars exhausted everyone. I came across a wonderful community of people on the social media app TikTok, including influencers like ConnorDeWolfe, who were talking about stuff that I experienced and related to. Eventually, after being scared I was wrong and was just not trying hard enough, I turned to my doctor, and asked for help. It turns out, I have ADHD, and I am so thankful that I have a doctor who is willing to work with me to find the right meds and methods for helping my brain.

Before I was diagnosed, the schoolwork I had would become overwhelming, even if it wasn’t a lot of work. Now, the motivation to have one less thing to do, or an upcoming deadline motivates me to work. Asynchronous classes gave me the opportunity to work on other subjects during the class, relieving some of the stress, and letting me complete assignments whenever I wanted during the day. This isn’t something I would ever get to experience during in-person learning, as when you finish classwork in-person, you are just handed more work for that particular class. I enjoyed the freedom to build my work schedule and work at my own pace during classes, but I can see how for some students, myself included, the lack of a set schedule could be a problem and could lead to procrastination and missed assignments. Getting to manage my work at my own pace and time forced me to work on my time management. In the process, I learned and am continuing to learn about what learning and studying styles are effective for me. I was given more self paced work, and was even put in the position where I got to teach myself certain topics. Online learning taught me how to ask for help, both in and out of the classroom.

In no way, shape, or form is online learning or in person learning designed to benefit every student, but taking from the experiences of students this past year, schools are able to see what students need to flourish and get the most out of their learning experience. I hope that schools see the resources provided during online schooling helped students succeed during a worldwide pandemic, and that they should continue to utilize and provide these resources when in-person learning resumes, whenever that happens.

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