Freshmen Reflect on Unconventional First Semester of High School


Consisting of hours of computer calls, online learning is often dull and tiring.

The transition to an entirely new format of school due to the ongoing pandemic is a challenge for both students and teachers alike. Spending hours at a time on the computer for school has created a learning environment that is unmotivating and isolating. Seniors are missing out on moments that they have been anticipating their entire high school career. As a freshman, I recognized the things that my year is missing and our unique difficulties around online learning. In order to get an accurate and direct perspective, I created and distributed a survey to hear from freshmen themselves. I also spent time interviewing fellow freshmen about their experience with different areas. The information I found proved that the online learning environment is having negative effects on both mental health and academic performance.

E-learning has had significant effects on the quality of learning for students in every grade. Everyone learns differently, and many people believe that the online format does not work for them. This was evident after seeing the performance of many students this year, especially freshmen. According to principal Dr. McCoy, “In the first quarter, about 50% of freshmen failed at least one class, and about 30% failed multiple classes.” He also discussed how as the grade levels went up, the amount of poor grades decreased, with only about 10% of seniors failing a class. Although Dr. McCoy noted that some of these numbers have been altered as students have requested grade changes, it is apparent that all students, but freshmen specifically, are failing at an extremely alarming rate. 

There are several different theories for why this may have been, but I believe a huge component of this is the online learning dynamic. 

An anonymous freshman wrote, “I honestly know it is not, but everything about online school feels so optional.” This sort of environment is not functional for learning and there are several relevant contributors to this idea. 

When asked how often they turn their camera on in class meetings, 66% of the 104 freshmen who completed the survey said that they only put their camera on when specifically required for tests or quizzes, if at all. Only 2% of people said that they consistently turn their cameras on, while the rest reported that they never turn their camera on. Additionally, only 32% said that they try to unmute and participate in class as much as possible, with the remaining saying they rarely speak in class. 

These dramatic numbers prove how difficult school must be for both students and teachers. The lack of face-to-face communication leaves teachers without the ability to gauge reactions from students, and forces them to guess whether their students truly comprehended the lesson. On the other side, the slightly awkward video calls create an environment that isn’t very inviting for students to speak out when they have questions, leaving many confused and not retaining the information. 65% of students who completed the survey said they do not feel comfortable engaging in class. Many feel that they would both participate and maybe turn their camera on but don’t because they don’t want to be the first one to do so. An anonymous freshman said, “I used to participate a lot in class, but on the online meetings, I am not at all comfortable with doing it. I get very shy and nervous, and I feel isolated from the class whenever I participate.” 

This sense of isolation also leads to students truly not having any connections with their teachers and creates a lack of support for students. Upperclassmen may have past teachers that they could talk to or get help from, but freshmen can only base their high school experience off of impersonal meetings over a computer. 70% of survey respondents said that they do not have a personal relationship with even 1 teacher, and 29% said they don’t have a teacher or administrative member that they would even consider talking to if they needed support. There is also a similar dilemma with freshmen and their peers. When school was in-person, freshman year was an important time to meet new people and make new friends. However, with school online, it is somewhat impossible to find new friends over the computer when you can’t even see people’s faces. Only 21% of the freshmen surveyed said they had made at least one new friend, so if we do not return to in-person, many freshmen will miss out on important interactions with their own class.

I also got a chance to hear from freshmen that are new to the district — several of them were completely new to Pittsburgh altogether — and it showed that their perspective is even more interesting. One of the students described their experience with the technology, saying, “Transitioning to the new school’s technology has been very difficult, and it is hard to get around because if something is messed up, I don’t know anyone to ask for help, or to ask what I missed in class.” While some freshmen know old friends in their classes, new students who don’t know anyone in their class, are completely isolated and it is very difficult for them to succeed without any support from teachers or friends. 

Some freshmen also spoke about their involvement in school activities. The survey showed that only 10% of  respondents participated in a school activity this semester, while at the same time, 80% were interested in joining one but were just uncertain and hesitant in getting involved. Many students noted that they were unsure about the online aspect of a school club, even if they liked the idea of it. On the other hand, many freshmen participated in sports this semester and enjoyed it. Almost all of the students who said they played a sport this fall said that the sport did in fact allow them to make more friends and they were able to get more social interaction because of it. School clubs and school sports could be a great way for freshmen to start getting involved in the Allderdice community, but online school is influencing their ability to participate.

Almost all of the freshmen from the survey agreed that this school year and quarantine altogether has had significant negative effects on their mental health. 62% percent agreed that their immense workload, lack of social interaction, and time spent on computers led to a dramatic increase of anxiety and stress for them this year.

Despite all of this, there are still those who prefer e-learning. A freshman wrote, “I am personally very satisfied with online learning. I can work mostly at my own pace, and get many benefits from doing school at home. For me and my family, it is the safest option until Covid-19 poses as less of a risk.” Several other freshmen concurred, and believe that learning from their home is significantly simpler and less dangerous for them.

Whether we are in-person or online, everyone learns differently and it is essential that all students and teachers feel supported in school. The first half of the school year has been a time of a lot of exploration and firsts, but now we must create an environment in which all students of any grade and background can succeed during this difficult year.