Newfound flexibility, missing their teachers, and looking ahead
What our students have to say about learning amid a pandemic

At first, it felt temporary. Then, learning during a worldwide pandemic began to feel like a series of constant adjustments. Students across Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ Speak Truth to Power network made myriad changes to their school routines in the spring, and they face even more as they prepare to hit the books this fall, both online and in person. 

Over the summer, many of them reflected on best practices for adapting to virtual learning, the struggles and inconveniences they’ve encountered, and the pandemic’s impact on their school communities, with an eye toward the future.

Below are some of their real and raw responses to the situation they find themselves in (edited for length in some cases).

India Norris, a 12th grade student at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, said transitioning to virtual learning made her an adept manager of her own time: She was able to dedicate more hours to difficult classes than the neatly divided school day often allowed, and she realized the importance for both her body and mind of changing gears throughout the day. 

“My first-ever lacrosse season was cut short, so I focused on training to ameliorate my skills for that sport,” she said, adding that “practicing skills for lacrosse helped me take my mind off school for around an hour each day.” She also built an herb and vegetable garden in her backyard, which she tends every morning, another task that has helped her to focus. “I’ve found this to be extremely helpful for preserving my well-being during the quarantine,” she said. 

Norris was candid about feeling isolated by a virtual learning environment. “I had less time to ask my teachers questions during the day, as they were occupied with online conferences in the afternoons,” she said. “My teachers were only available to talk during the mornings, so I had to build my schedule around their office hours. In addition, the amount of schoolwork that I had each week was unbalanced. Some weeks overflowed with assignments, while other weeks contained barely any work.” 

Talking with school friends was different, too. “Frankly,” she said, “it was much easier to converse with my friends face-to-face at school.” 

Despite the challenges, Norris believes the situation opens up the educational system to a more global future. “Now that school systems have experience with teaching online, I think that they will offer classes online for students who live around the world,” she said. “This could also result in more options for students who would rather learn at home after the pandemic ends. This could be a change for all types of schools, including public and private, along with universities. The schedules of students who choose to stay online will become much more flexible and will afford them greater control over their own schedules. In the long term, these students will have to learn how to better communicate with their teachers and manage their own time. This could change how the students’ resumes look for college and work, leading to more options for work applicants who were taught online.”

Anna Perez, an 11th grade student at the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice in New York, noted that submitting assignments virtually “wasn’t always easy,” and that it took a different sort of confidence to voice opinions and ask questions of teachers online rather than face-to-face before and after classes. 

Like Norris, Perez enjoyed some of the advantages of creating her own schedule, like finding additional options to approach tasks creatively and taking lunch breaks when she was hungry, instead of at a designated time each day. 

While Perez said her home environment wasn’t always conducive to learning, with numerous distractions from sometimes loud family members cropping up throughout the day, she found quarantine did not have a major impact on her friendships. “It did, however, make me miss my teachers and realize that I wouldn’t be able to have them again or [make new] memories with them,” she said. 

Perez believes many changes—from required masks to temperature checks to social distancing measures—will be implemented in schools in the years to come, until a vaccine is developed. “As time moves on and a cure has been created to help fight against the virus, some of these regulations will be removed or lowered to a different degree,” she said.

Trisha Amaya, a high school senior at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas, reflected that the freedom and independence given to students to manage their own schedules during the pandemic was eye-opening and “gave me a future outlook on how my life can potentially be when in college.” 

Amaya said she found working in a remote environment bolstered her computer skills, as she only had herself to rely upon when technological glitches arose with the school district-issued laptop she used for online classes. 

Still, she said, her motivation and self-discipline sometimes flagged without daily interaction with friends and teachers, something she realized “made my day so much better.” At times, she said, it was difficult to find a suitable distraction-free environment in her house, which was missing the traditional desks and whiteboards featured throughout her school. 

Now that she’s had several months of online learning experience, Amaya said she is putting the virtual learning that’s ahead for the coming school year into perspective. 

“This situation can also be taken as a time of trial and error in which teachers can apply different formats of virtual teaching and creatively engage their students in a different manner than ‘normal learning’ to see the effects,” she said. 

Nia and Naya Hall, twin sisters who just began their sophomore year at Freeport High School in Freeport, N.Y., were both struck by how much they missed daily, simple interactions at school, from asking teachers questions to sitting at the lunch table with friends every day. Sometimes, Naya said, this caused her to feel down.

Naya believes last spring marked the beginning of lasting changes for students that will be in force long after a vaccine is developed and available. “Our teachers will use e-learning more often now that they have learned how to use it,” she said. “E-learning would be useful for when we have snow days.”

Nia described the coronavirus pandemic as an “emotional learning journey.” “I’ve learned how to do my studies, classwork, reports, and labs via the internet,” she said. “I’ve learned how to utilize my time better. I also learned that the one-to-one interactions between myself and my teachers and classmates are very important to me. Lastly, I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.”