LEARNING THROUGH COVID: Students and Faculty at Arcata High Schools Say That the New Distance Learning Regime Has Been Successful, But Weird | Lost Coast Outpost

Destiny Viator

Arcata High School. | Outpost file photo ### What’s missing for Abram Rau — what his high school, Northcoast Preparatory Academy, hasn’t been able to replicate, or simulate, one way or another — is a normal sense of progression. “The days have blended together,” he said. “I don’t even know […]

Arcata High School. | Outpost file photo

###

What’s missing for Abram Rau — what his high school, Northcoast
Preparatory Academy, hasn’t been able to replicate, or simulate,
one way or another — is a normal sense of progression. “The days
have blended together,” he said. “I don’t even know how to
explain it.”

Warped
COVID time is messing up Rau’s senior year, which, until recently,
he imagined would include a school trip to Spain, a handful of
infamous NPA traditions and collaboration with fellow seniors on
college applications.

Despite
these bummers, school itself has been going well for Rau, given the
circumstances. NPA is doing virtual learning, but the campus is open
to students who want the option to learn in a familiar educational
environment, while wearing masks and staying socially distant. Most
teachers host Zoom lectures from their own home, and Rau estimated
that about half his class physically goes to campus. Students are
required to attend Zoom meetings every morning, and must be seated in
a desk and have their camera on.

“Our
teachers care for our learning, and so they want to make sure that
we’re getting the most out of it and not slacking off because it’s
pretty easy to do, I guess, just sitting in bed and logged into the
call, but not actually engaged,” Rau said. “Our teachers have
been like heroes.”

Serendipity
Welsh, who is a junior at Arcata High, also has few bad things to say
about attending high school online, although she doesn’t have tons
of praise for it, either.

“I don’t think the learning is much worse than it would be if we were on campus.”
— Arcata High freshman Violet Cloutier

Welsh
discusses online learning with the same resigned tone that many have
come to adopt when talking about the countless systems COVID-19 has
undermined — it is what it is, and we’re doing our best. Schools,
in particular, are embracing that mantra.

“In
terms of the workload, it’s manageable,” Welsh said from her
tapestry-clad bedroom over a Wednesday morning Zoom interview, which
didn’t conflict with her classes because of the school’s
significantly refined COVID-era schedule. Decreased instruction time
and schoolwork is the result of California
Senate Bill 98
, passed in late June, which decreased
the number of daily minutes of required instruction in high schools
from 360 minutes to 240 minutes.

Welsh
said that she values increased family time and control over her own
schedule.

What’s
been more difficult for her is summoning motivation, which is a side
effect of staring at a screen all day. Northern Humboldt Union High
School District — which consists of five schools — works to break
up the time students have to spend at the computer by allotting half
hour breaks after each class and an hour break for lunch, and also
has designated Wednesday as a free day for students to briefly check
in with teachers and catch up on schoolwork — but distance learning
is still a huge screen time adjustment compared to what students are
used to.

Ensuring
that students are engaged and have access to the curriculum is the
main concern of Arcata High’s principal, Jim Monge, who assumed
that position following Dave Navarre’s retirement in the spring. To
mitigate connectivity problems the school has loaned out “several
hundred” Chromebooks, according to Monge.

“We’ve also had students who weren’t successful in the classroom be more successful in an independent kind of model with distance learning.”
— Arcata High Principal Jim Monge

English
teacher and Northern Humboldt Union High School District Bargaining
Chair JoAnn Moore said that engaging students virtually is especially
difficult because the school year is so new, adding to the challenge
of establishing strong teacher-student relationships. In such a
separated format, being able to identify problems at home — and
whether those problems are technology or health related — is a
challenge that all teachers are contending with.

Monge
said that parents have expressed concerns that online learning is
more difficult, and are worried about the lack of one-on-one support
that is hard to replicate online. Some students, however, are
benefiting from the change. “We’ve also had students who weren’t
successful in the classroom be more successful in an independent kind
of model with distance learning,” Monge said.

It’s
an adjustment, but for the high-schoolers who spoke to the Outpost,
it’s working. Online teaching methods have sustained educational
value, and unique elective classes haven’t been sacrificed. Monge
confirmed that all hands-on classes — including wood shop, art, and
science lab classes — are still in the curriculum.

Violet
Cloutier, an Arcata High freshman enrolled in culinary arts, made
French pasta for her first cooking assignment on Thursday. Cloutier
said that although the lesson was probably a challenge for her
teacher, given that every student had to work with different
materials and ingredients, the class was fun and successful.

“I
don’t think the learning is much worse than it would be if we were on
campus,” Cloutier said. “They have really good teachers at Arcata
High.”

But
starting high school during a pandemic has been disappointing, mostly
because Cloutier was looking forward to meeting new people and being
on campus.

Rau,
Welsh and Cloutier each expressed that peer comradery has been hard
to maintain virtually.

“I
miss being able to go and, like, talk to whoever on campus,” Rau
said. “There are people in the class I haven’t spoken a word to in
like six or seven months.”

NPA Principal Michael Bazemore said the school is brainstorming ways to maintain the community.

“It certainly presents an additional challenge to maintain our traditions and sense of community in this situation, though we are doing everything we can to do so,” he said. “Some of the traditions can be continued virtually, as with our Cotillion Ball last spring, which turned out to be a wonderful all-school event.”

At
NPA, which has an enrollment of about 125, maintaining social
connections is the challenge, but for Arcata High’s larger student
population — 963 students at the start of the term — it’s more
about meeting other students.

“In
some classes we’ve done community-building exercises,” Welsh
said, “but it’s definitely been limited and I still couldn’t
name a lot of the other students in my classes just because I haven’t
gotten to speak to them. They mostly are muted, and our screens are
off while teachers are talking just to have a better connection.”

Moore
said that clubs at Arcata High School will be virtually reinstated
later this month so that students will have the opportunity to build
connections in a non-academic setting.

Beyond
the social strain, Welsh said that Arcata High has adapted well. The
school has prioritized balancing mental health with schoolwork, and
dedicated the first two days of school to outlining the mental health
resources available to students. Those resources include access to
school counselors (guidance and crisis) and designated times when
students can discuss non-school-related matters with teachers.

“We have a superintendent, a school board and administration that leads with science and follows the facts … They have the attitude that, you know, one person getting sick is a problem for everybody.”
— JoAnn Moore, Arcata High English teacher

Welsh
also acknowledged that Arcata High is much more organized now than it
was last semester, when schools transitioned into crisis learning.

Dozens
of district administrators, faculty and classified staff dedicated
hours to sculpting a new curriculum, weeding out technology issues
that interfered last semester, learning new technology systems
themselves, and structuring a renovated class schedule. Many
underwent professional development and took workshops on online
training as well. “It was a huge undertaking,” said Moore.

Moore
said that the district, board and union have been united in their
goals. “We have a superintendent, a school board and administration
that leads with science and follows the facts,” she said. “They
have the attitude that, you know, one person getting sick is a
problem for everybody.”

The
school year is still new, and Moore said that Arcata High’s
pandemic methods might evolve over the coming months. “We think
that the framework is really solid,” she said. Now it’s a matter of
“how do you make it adjusted, just a little bit, to make it even
better.”

Monge
said that he hopes school won’t need to be remote all year. “At
this point we’re being a little bit conservative, I think, in a good
way, to make sure that we’re safe,” he said. In the coming weeks
and months the district might start discussing shifting back to in-person instruction, perhaps in a small-group format.

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