Students begin school year from home

Distance learning raises series of student questions

Contra Costa County high schools have started the school year from home. When asked about their thoughts and opinions on distance learning, students and teachers earlier this month responded with a variety of concerns and questions.

Will students be able to retain what they are being taught in this new at-home environment? Will they be able to stay motivated?

One thing is certain: This school year will be unlike any before.

“I think online learning will definitely still be hard to adjust to despite the time spent practicing distance learning in the spring,” said Lauren Minx, a Ponte Vedra High School junior. But “I believe we will find a way to work around the difficulties and learn as much as we can.”

It is due to the COVID-19 pandemic that schools in Contra Costa County were ordered to start the 2020-2021 school year from home. In mid-July, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued guidelines that said schools could only reopen physically when the county has been off the state watch list 14 consecutive days, according to press reports. Contra Costa County was one of 32 counties on the watch list at that time.

Distance learning isn’t new for the schools since students were sent home in early April of 2020 when the pandemic progressed. But now students are facing many unknowns and that raises new questions, such as whether they will be able to process what is being taught.

“It’s good to keep us safe,” said Marleni Cepeda, a Making Waves Academy sophomore. “But I’m not sure we’ll fully understand what we’re going to be taught.”

Some students say they lose their motivation at home and they also have to dedicate their time to home chores. Some have siblings we need to take care of on top of school work that we need to complete. In fact, some students said they enjoy being at school as an escape from their home lives.

“It sometimes gets hard for me to keep my work ethic and productivity up when I am constantly home all the time,” said Kristen Nalagan, a DeAnza High School sophomore.

Students expressed concern for whether their classmates have access to the supplies necessary for distance learning. They fear some students may not have the right conditions to learn as well as they would in a classroom setting. Distance learning would require the students to have access to the internet and electronic devices.

Last spring’s experience of learning from home provided some clues as to potential issues. Students said they were not able to have quick access for help as they would in a classroom environment. Sometimes they would have to wait a while to get a clearer explanation on their assignment or lesson. They also struggled to contact their teachers. Although teachers tried their best to be able to respond to all students, they also had to go through lessons and many more projects.

Teachers interviewed said they see challenges about the learning environment their students would be taught in. Many students weren’t able to meet their teachers ahead of the start of the school year to understand how their classroom would be taught and to start their relationships.

“I’m worried about how teacher-to-student relationships will build this year,” said Elizabeth Orona, a Making Waves Academy Eighth Grade math teacher.

Isabel Gil-Garcia, a Making Waves Academy Eighth Grade history teacher, said students need to be able to gain trust from their teachers and have an environment that makes them feel safe and welcome.

“My teaching style is so deeply based in community and relationships; it’s going to be really challenging to gain that same level of trust in the learning process,” she said.

Kylee Hu, a Contra Costa Middle College High School junior agreed. She noted that the lack of personal interaction between teachers and students can affect how a student feels, which impacts how well the student can learn.

“I think distance learning takes away a lot of important aspects in learning,” she said.

However, students also said they believe that it was a good decision to stay home and “do [their] part to prevent COVID cases from rising in the United States,” said Jenny Huang, a Making Waves Academy sophomore..

And while making home a learning environment may be difficult for most students, some students said they thought there were benefits. They observed that during the end of the 2019-2020 school year learning from home made them more independent towards learning.

“It’s not all terrible. I love how independent online learning has made me. Doing online learning propelled me to do additional research on lessons,” said Yvette Tejada, a Making Waves Academy sophomore. “Overall I love that I am able to depend on myself to learn more.”