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Students Sound Off! LI teens react to return of in-person learning

Students attend a Spanish class, led by Jenny

Students attend a Spanish class, led by Jenny Stortz, at the Hollis Student Center, a room that was turned into a classroom at The Stony Brook School in Stony Brook. Credit: Randee Daddona

Newsday invited students who appeared in the "Way to Go!" section during 2021 to respond to the question: "How has the return to in-person school changed your learning experience, and what do you think could be improved?" Here we share some of the responses; they have been edited for length clarity.

Jared Ohebshalom, senior at Great Neck North High School

The transition from remote learning to being back in person has shifted some of my perspectives about education. It has opened my eyes and made me appreciate aspects of my high school that I took for granted before the pandemic.

With the exception of wearing masks, Great Neck North High School has done a great job making it feel like any other "normal" year of school. Now that I have engaged in learning both at home and in school, I can say that I truly appreciate having the privilege of learning safely in school. Being physically back, I have the opportunity to create bonds and relationships with both my peers and teachers, deepening the learning experience. Despite our best efforts, this just wasn’t really possible via Zoom.

One way in which school could be improved this year is by using Zoom when needed. For example, if a student does get sick or has to quarantine and miss 10 days of school, classes are not available remotely and the student falls far behind. While Zoom classes are not preferable, there is a place for them to help students stay on top of the coursework.

Alexa Moore, senior at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket

The Three Village School District has done an outstanding job making it possible for its students to receive their education in-person five days per week for the entire 2021-22 academic year while at the same time making accommodations for students who needed to participate remotely.

During 2020, many of us needed to attend school remotely and/or through a hybrid in-person/remote model. Having done both, it's clear to me that there is no substitute for in person learning. The feeling of camaraderie and in-class participation is critical to the learning process, and it’s difficult to replicate that in a remote educational environment. As senior class president and an active member of Student Government, I am involved in listening to my fellow classmates’ concerns and ensuring that their voices are heard. Obviously, it's much easier to take action when I’m at school with access to my faculty and advisers.

Three Village has set the bar high and is in my opinion the gold standard. Our school district communicates regularly with parents, students and the community to navigate through this pandemic.

Mitchell Meyer, senior at Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK High School

There is little debate whether virtual or in-person instruction is better. By and large, in-person instruction is more social, personable, engaging and supportive. I am so grateful that my district is fully in-person despite the constraints imposed on us because of COVID-19.

Hybrid learning had its challenges, particularly with the varying degree of proficiency levels of teachers. Lessons that flowed, were well planned and structured proved very meaningful. This, unfortunately, wasn't the norm. The consistency of the school day and intimacy of personal relationships is a reminder of what was lost during virtual learning. Interacting face to face with peers, teachers and administrators is such an important contributing factor to healthy social emotional development, of course, impossible during virtual instruction. Being back in school is helping to repair and strengthen our mental health.

I believe my school is doing the best it can to stay open, but I look forward to the day when activities will resume as they were pre-pandemic. I would like to see more 21st century experiences back in the classroom. Students typically participated in group projects, collaborative assignments and cohesive learning communities. Getting back to these basic but meaningful routines is what I'm missing.

Summer Looney, senior at MacArthur High School in Levittown

The return to in-person school has definitely been difficult, but my learning experience has changed for the better. MacArthur High School did a good job of transitioning students back to in-person school by introducing full in-person learning at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Before that, students had the option to participate in a fully remote manner or attend school every other day.

Being able to sit down in a classroom every day with a teacher in front of you has been ideal, especially when taking rigorous Advanced Placement classes. My school has continued to use Google Classroom, which has helped me stay organized. All of my teachers have done a great job of managing the number of assignments and have been flexible with students because they understand the stress of these circumstances.

Throughout the transition back to in-person learning, there are things that could be improved. Since wearing masks is mandated, there has been a decline in socialization and communication in the classroom. To improve this, teachers can incorporate more group work into the students' learning. The entire classroom can be used for station work to get the students active and engaged.

Orla Roberts, junior at Harborfields High School in Greenlawn

After remote and hybrid learning, the return to full-time, in-person school has been difficult and challenging. I appreciate my teachers because they have tried to make the return less of a shock to students. Without their support, I would be stranded in the stormy ocean that high school can be — even in normal times. But our education has been far from that.

Expectations were lower during remote learning. The jump to "normal" expectations feels greater because I missed the gradual development and maturation that would have usually occurred through my freshman and sophomore years. Let's be honest: Last year we could take a test with a book open at our feet or our phone resting on our computer. I missed two years of final exams and one set of midterms, important exams that help students assess their own learning and efforts.

It's taken me more than a full quarter to figure out how hard I need to work to pass my subjects and perform well on tests this year. Teachers and students can use the new technologies we've learned to support both academics and emotional well-being. The pandemic showed that both are important; schools, parents and kids should never forget that.

Sarah Popeck, senior at Massapequa High School

COVID-19 uprooted many aspects of our schools. There was a loss of daily human interactions that we took for granted. Massapequa was one of the first districts that provided students an option to return for five days of in-person classes. Now, I'm a senior. Desk shields no longer divide me and my peers, and it finally feels like things are falling into place.

Just a few weeks ago, I got to perform with our string quartet. It was my first performance in over a year. Sitting on stage as the second cellist for our winter concert to end my senior year felt magical. Last year, as I watched many student athletes participate in games, I longed for such musical opportunities, so these moments felt rewarding and were worth the wait.

Consider the educational benefits that have derived from the pandemic: Teachers have had to make a move to use technology, giving it a new prominence. We've learned to have plans in place because anything can change at any time. This may be our new "normal" and there may be disappointments, but as we look to the future, we can analyze this as a "win" for accessibility and the integration of technology into daily resources.

Caroline Faber, sophomore at Roslyn High School

The return to in-person school has been an adjustment for me and other students, however it has improved my learning experience a lot. Last year, it was very difficult to focus and learn easily because of being online. Going back to in-person school is very beneficial for my learning experience. It is also a lot easier to communicate with my teachers because of physically being in school and talking face to face.

Being in-person has also improved my focus. When I was online, I had a harder time focusing in class, but now that I am in school physically, it is a lot easier. I also get to see my friends in person now, which is beneficial.

Last year, it was hard to join clubs and extra-help because they were online; bringing them back to in-person helps a lot more students join clubs and attend extra-help. I think that my teachers and the administration have done a great job in bringing us back to in-person school in a safe way.

Lawrence Hon, freshman at Syosset High School

This is my freshman year, and I am beyond grateful that I have the opportunity to attend school in-person. I am highly appreciative of the way Syosset has been enforcing its safety precautions, allowing for my in-person learning experience to be enhanced tenfold compared with hybrid or virtual-learning models.

Class has become more interesting and less monotonous, much because of my ability to truly engage with my teacher and classmates rather than sit awkwardly in the taciturn Google Meets of yesteryear. Attending school in-person every day, I've come to realize the importance of active participation in the classroom. When learning was fully-virtual, despite everyone technically being "in class," I felt unusually disconnected from what we were learning and the course as a whole.

As I feel the current learning environment is a perfect combination of engagement and safety, I am without suggestions for our wonderful school district! Keep up the great work.

Bella Pepe, junior at East Islip High School

I can't be more thankful that my school has gone back to "normal" learning. Virtual learning was really hard because I couldn’t interact with people around me. Being back in school has made me more motivated to learn, and I find myself absorbing more information about the classes I'm taking.

Being back at school full-time has changed my learning experience in so many ways. One of the main ways is my ability to concentrate more. Having a teacher physically in front of me and my peers physically around me has only benefited my learning experience.

Although there are not many things that stick out to me that I would like to improve in my learning experience, I think interacting with my peers more physically could really help not just me but everyone around. Since COVID-19, we have been restricted to a six-foot distance, meaning our desks are not pushed together and we are not allowed to work in a group. I do believe, however, there are other ways to have active class projects as a whole rather than close-knit groups. Overall, I'm just grateful to be back in school.

— MICHAEL R. EBERT

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