This month, in light of the COVID-19 health crisis, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) students launched the start of their school year completely virtually. After months balancing different risk factors, the PPS district decided that all of its students would spend their first 9-week quarter attending classes via Microsoft Teams. This plan, however, did not involve an arguably crucial allowance — instead of shortening school days, all students in kindergarten-12thgrade are still required to be on computer calls the entire length of a school day.
Launching into their first week of online school, PPS students and teachers alike have had to make extreme adjustments, both to the mental aspect of this requirement and to the technological one. Though many found the start of the experience rocky, there have been distinct advantages to learning from home. “I am having a much easier time managing my levels of things like sleep and tiredness and energy levels,” says Allderdice senior Zev Haworth. “I am a busy person, and my schedule this year is much easier to manage.”
“Initially it was pretty stressful, and then it got less . . . and now online school is going pretty well,” he explained.
Other students have pointed to the fact that learning from home can be a much less intense or stressful experience. “It’s nicer to work from home because it’s easier to make my schedule more flexible,” says Allderdice freshman Varun Bhat. “It’s ok, but it’s nicer to do the activities in regular school.”
While learning from home is advantageous in terms of a more comfortable and personal setting, it can pose unique challenges to students when it comes down to the actual learning. For starters, the requirement of sitting on calls all day is taxing, especially given that kindergarten students as young as 5 years old are given the same amount of school time as 17 or 18-year old high school students. The district’s decision process did not factor in necessary parts to students’ mental health, such as the difficulty of paying attention to online classes day in and day out.
In addition, students are simply not able to have the same level of academic support or resources that would be accessible to them in in-person classes. Haworth expressed the unfairness of holding students to the same standards one would in the classroom, due to the fact that, “we have a situation where you cannot assume anything about any of your students’ lives.”
“Not every student has equal resources. For instance, you cannot just expect that any students are going to be able to print anything out,” he says. “Secondly, you should not expect that any students are going to have any resources externally to like literally what is on their computer, for instance, a protractor.”
“I wish and hope teachers who have students that don’t have complete access to download large files or watch long videos would work with students instead of just saying, ‘figure it out,’ said senior class president James Blodgett.
Generally, however, the transition to online school has been just as taxing for teachers as students, and the Allderdice staff has been extremely supportive in helping students adjust to the circumstances. Bhat attributed having success in his first week to the support of his teachers, saying, “The first week was surprisingly good, some teachers made it feel normal and they understood how to use Teams [the communication platform PPS has been using for class calls].”
“I think that there are a lot of teachers who I have enormous respect for, because I think what they’ve done is made it abundantly clear that . . . they are acknowledging that this is a super weird situation, and that they need to be super understanding,” said Haworth.
Not surprisingly, technological difficulties have been a universal struggle amongst students. Had the PPS district not demanded students be on their computers all day long, it likely would have been much easier for these students to have the time to figure out their issues more successfully. “I absolutely have at least one technological struggle every day,” said Haworth. “My primary struggle is that my computer dies really quickly so that is sometimes a little bit frustrating.”
“My first week started like many, unable to log into homeroom . . . I’ve had my fair share of technical issues and navigating websites,” said Blodgett. “But I’ve actually been more laser focus than ever before,” he conceded.
Adjusting their methods of learning to accommodate virtual education is not expected to be easy for students, nor is adjusting their methods of teaching expected to be easy for teachers. But, despite the tough PPS requirements to propel learning forward, the Allderdice community is continuing to adapt.