Howard County high school students worry about what’s lost in online schooling

When Doniele Cooper, a rising senior at Wilde Lake High School, heard last week that Howard schools will start the new school year online, he was stunned.

“Oh my god, are you kidding me?” he asked. “I can’t believe this.”

The Howard County Board of Education approved a plan on Thursday, July 16 to teach students solely via online instruction until at least Jan. 28, answering the much-anticipated question: Would students be headed back to the classroom anytime soon amid the coronavirus pandemic?

A minute later, Cooper began processing the news. Half, if not all, of his senior year of high school would be spent sitting in front of computer at home by himself.

“I think we’re going to have to see how this will go,” he said. “For safety concerns, it’s the right thing to do.”

Riley Macon saw the announcement on social media and was instantly relieved. Macon, a rising senior at Reservoir High School, called potential in-person learning “a reckless decision.”

As students across Howard County come to grips with their new reality, they are acknowledging collective concerns and lessons learned as they fight to stay a part of the conversation surrounding their education.

“I don’t feel like the student perspective is included in most of these conversations,” said Brianna Floyd, a rising junior at Wilde Lake. “I feel like it’s mostly parents and staff and administrators.”

Diminished learning

Macon recalled the Friday in March when classes across Howard County officially went online.

“We thought it would only be a few weeks, but it wasn’t,” Macon said. “It was hard because you’re used to being in a classroom with 30-plus faces and a teacher. Now you’re seeing 30 black squares on mute.”

Just the act of muting and unmuting microphones on the Zoom online conferencing platform the school system uses for classes disrupted the natural flow of dialogue that takes place in person, Macon said.

Public school students in Maryland were last in their classrooms March 13. After schools closed, the Howard school system took more than a month to launch its virtual learning program. Then, in early May, Gov. Larry Hogan announced students would distance learn until the end of the school year.

Aris Williams-McKinney, a rising junior at Wilde Lake High, misses the classroom environment, too. She also said she worries the time it took to get students learning virtually and the nature of online learning is creating a lag in education.

“I don’t know how we’re going to be able to catch up and continue to learn effectively since we were put so far behind,” Williams-McKinney said.

Floyd agreed. Hoping for a career in a STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – field, she worries she’ll fall behind in her science courses.

“I feel like we’re not learning as much as we should be learning virtually as we’re supposed to,” Floyd said. “It makes me nervous I’m not learning as much as I should be.”

Kristina McKirahan, a rising senior at Hammond High School, recalled finishing her theater and marine biology classes with sadness in the spring. It was impossible to finish those subjects virtually, she said, so her classes were mostly busy work to fill the minutes until the virtual bell rang.

“I learn from listening to a teacher, not reading in a book,” she said. “We did not learn anything over that last quarter. It was all busy work.”

Now McKirahan worries how the upcoming school year could be any different.

“They say it’s going to be different, that we’re actually going to be learning content, but I don’t see how it could be different. I don’t understand how we’re going to be learning,” she said. “I do not trust that I’m going to be getting an actual useful education [through the Howard County school system].”

Imagining possibilities, challenges

Addyson Miller was excited to start high school. The rising freshman at River Hill High School said she misses her friends, but she’s worried, too. She said her peers aren’t taking the pandemic as seriously as she is.

“I don’t think people my age are taking [the coronavirus] seriously,” she said. “Their brain doesn’t think past the point of ‘I want what I want.‘ They’re not thinking about the health of others.”

As an incoming freshman, Miller doesn’t know any of the teachers or staff, so her first introduction will likely be online.

“It’s nerve-wracking. I wouldn’t be as nervous if I was going into sophomore or junior year,” she said. “I’ve haven’t heard of any of the teachers. I don’t know anyone.”

Cooper, the rising senior at Wilde Lake, said it doesn’t matter what grade anyone is in – the venture into the unknown is shared mutually. Students still haven’t met their teachers, and they don’t know each other.

“The teachers knew their students last year in March, but these are brand-new teachers to students,” Cooper said. “The teachers have never met us in real life. They don’t know what kinds of issues we have going on at home.”

For Cooper, Miller and the other students, there are far bigger potential problems they see with going back to school.

Earlier this month, the Board of Education approved a semester-based model with four classes in each semester for middle and high school students. The 4×4 model, as it’s commonly referred to, would reduce the number of classes students take from seven to four and would only change for the 2020-21 academic year.

Miller is concerned the 4×4 model will force students and teachers to cram content into a shorter period of time, which could reinforce the “memorize-forget, memorize-forget cycle,” as she called it.

“By the end of the year, I’m not going to remember my stuff from the first four classes,” Miller said. “If I have Spanish the first semester of the year and then don’t have Spanish the second semester, I’m going to forget everything by the next [school] year.”

Macon and Cooper said taking four classes a semester could be helpful to students who are overwhelmed because of the pandemic.

“We won’t be as stressed if we only take four classes,” Cooper said.

For students taking advanced placement classes, like Williams-McKinney who has AP Biology and AP English Literature coming up, having a six-month gap between when a student finishes a course and when the AP exam is given could be difficult.

“[The 4×4 model] probably wouldn’t be in the best interest of people who are planning to take AP classes,” she said.

What it means for the future

Cooper is the starting quarterback for Wilde Lake’s football team. The team has a group on the messaging app Snapchat that Cooper said is buzzing with anticipation about what might happen.

Every time a new theory is posted online or an article explaining the likelihood of high school sports returning is posted, discussion in the Snapchat group ensues.

While private schools in Maryland have made the decision to postpone fall practices to a start date of Sept. 1 or later, there has been no decision about public school sports.

“How can you take my senior year away? It just hurts my heart,” Cooper said. “But then I think of the safety concerns. I don’t think going back to school would be the right thing to do.”

For Cooper, it’s not just about this one season, though. Football, he said, is his future since he’s hoping to play in college as well.

“It could affect whether we get scholarships for college,” said Williams-McKinney who plays softball in the spring and cheers in the fall.

Macon doesn’t see a safe way forward with most extracurricular activities, sports especially. She said there’s no safe way to play contact sports, despite her desire to be back on the field hockey field come fall.

“Three years we’ve all been playing together, and we might miss out on our last season together,” she said. “It’s really sad that our very last season might not happen or might be cut short.”

For her upcoming first year of high school, Miller also had been excited about trying out for the River Hill field hockey team.

McKirahan, the Hammond student was only able to perform one show of “The Addams Family,” the school’s spring musical, before the pandemic shut everything down.

“You put months into that show, and you don’t get to do it; that’s painful,” she said. “I didn’t realize that last year was my last chance to do a musical and it wasn’t even fully complete.”

McKirahan said the school’s theater department is looking at alternatives, like doing a play instead of a musical which would require fewer people and could be safer, or doing online improv groups. It won’t be the same though, she said.

“I’ve been looking forward to [my senior performances] for years, and I don’t think I’m going to get it at all.”

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