What’s missing for Abram Rau — what his high school, Northcoast Preparatory Academy, hasn’t been able to replicate, or simulate, one way or another — is a normal sense of progression. “The days have blended together,” he said. “I don’t even know how to explain it.”
Warped COVID time is messing up Rau’s senior year, which, until recently, he imagined would include a school trip to Spain, a handful of infamous NPA traditions and collaboration with fellow seniors on college applications.
Despite these bummers, school itself has been going well for Rau, given the circumstances. NPA is doing virtual learning, but the campus is open to students who want the option to learn in a familiar educational environment, while wearing masks and staying socially distant. Most teachers host Zoom lectures from their own home, and Rau estimated that about half his class physically goes to campus. Students are required to attend Zoom meetings every morning, and must be seated in a desk and have their camera on.
“Our teachers care for our learning, and so they want to make sure that we’re getting the most out of it and not slacking off because it’s pretty easy to do, I guess, just sitting in bed and logged into the call, but not actually engaged,” Rau said. “Our teachers have been like heroes.”
Serendipity Welsh, who is a junior at Arcata High, also has few bad things to say about attending high school online, although she doesn’t have tons of praise for it, either.
“I don’t think the learning is much worse than it would be if we were on campus.”
— Arcata High freshman Violet Cloutier
Welsh discusses online learning with the same resigned tone that many have come to adopt when talking about the countless systems COVID-19 has undermined — it is what it is, and we’re doing our best. Schools, in particular, are embracing that mantra.
“In terms of the workload, it’s manageable,” Welsh said from her tapestry-clad bedroom over a Wednesday morning Zoom interview, which didn’t conflict with her classes because of the school’s significantly refined COVID-era schedule. Decreased instruction time and schoolwork is the result of California Senate Bill 98, passed in late June, which decreased the number of daily minutes of required instruction in high schools from 360 minutes to 240 minutes.
Welsh said that she values increased family time and control over her own schedule.
What’s been more difficult for her is summoning motivation, which is a side effect of staring at a screen all day. Northern Humboldt Union High School District — which consists of five schools — works to break up the time students have to spend at the computer by allotting half hour breaks after each class and an hour break for lunch, and also has designated Wednesday as a free day for students to briefly check in with teachers and catch up on schoolwork — but distance learning is still a huge screen time adjustment compared to what students are used to.
Ensuring that students are engaged and have access to the curriculum is the main concern of Arcata High’s principal, Jim Monge, who assumed that position following Dave Navarre’s retirement in the spring. To mitigate connectivity problems the school has loaned out “several hundred” Chromebooks, according to Monge.
“We’ve also had students who weren’t successful in the classroom be more successful in an independent kind of model with distance learning.”
— Arcata High Principal Jim Monge
English teacher and Northern Humboldt Union High School District Bargaining Chair JoAnn Moore said that engaging students virtually is especially difficult because the school year is so new, adding to the challenge of establishing strong teacher-student relationships. In such a separated format, being able to identify problems at home — and whether those problems are technology or health related — is a challenge that all teachers are contending with.
Monge said that parents have expressed concerns that online learning is more difficult, and are worried about the lack of one-on-one support that is hard to replicate online. Some students, however, are benefiting from the change. “We’ve also had students who weren’t successful in the classroom be more successful in an independent kind of model with distance learning,” Monge said.
It’s an adjustment, but for the high-schoolers who spoke to the Outpost, it’s working. Online teaching methods have sustained educational value, and unique elective classes haven’t been sacrificed. Monge confirmed that all hands-on classes — including wood shop, art, and science lab classes — are still in the curriculum.
Violet Cloutier, an Arcata High freshman enrolled in culinary arts, made French pasta for her first cooking assignment on Thursday. Cloutier said that although the lesson was probably a challenge for her teacher, given that every student had to work with different materials and ingredients, the class was fun and successful.
“I don’t think the learning is much worse than it would be if we were on campus,” Cloutier said. “They have really good teachers at Arcata High.”
But starting high school during a pandemic has been disappointing, mostly because Cloutier was looking forward to meeting new people and being on campus.
Rau, Welsh and Cloutier each expressed that peer comradery has been hard to maintain virtually.
“I miss being able to go and, like, talk to whoever on campus,” Rau said. “There are people in the class I haven’t spoken a word to in like six or seven months.”
NPA Principal Michael Bazemore said the school is brainstorming ways to maintain the community.
“It certainly presents an additional challenge to maintain our traditions and sense of community in this situation, though we are doing everything we can to do so,” he said. “Some of the traditions can be continued virtually, as with our Cotillion Ball last spring, which turned out to be a wonderful all-school event.”
At NPA, which has an enrollment of about 125, maintaining social connections is the challenge, but for Arcata High’s larger student population — 963 students at the start of the term — it’s more about meeting other students.
“In some classes we’ve done community-building exercises,” Welsh said, “but it’s definitely been limited and I still couldn’t name a lot of the other students in my classes just because I haven’t gotten to speak to them. They mostly are muted, and our screens are off while teachers are talking just to have a better connection.”
Moore said that clubs at Arcata High School will be virtually reinstated later this month so that students will have the opportunity to build connections in a non-academic setting.
Beyond the social strain, Welsh said that Arcata High has adapted well. The school has prioritized balancing mental health with schoolwork, and dedicated the first two days of school to outlining the mental health resources available to students. Those resources include access to school counselors (guidance and crisis) and designated times when students can discuss non-school-related matters with teachers.
“We have a superintendent, a school board and administration that leads with science and follows the facts … They have the attitude that, you know, one person getting sick is a problem for everybody.”
— JoAnn Moore, Arcata High English teacher
Welsh also acknowledged that Arcata High is much more organized now than it was last semester, when schools transitioned into crisis learning.
Dozens of district administrators, faculty and classified staff dedicated hours to sculpting a new curriculum, weeding out technology issues that interfered last semester, learning new technology systems themselves, and structuring a renovated class schedule. Many underwent professional development and took workshops on online training as well. “It was a huge undertaking,” said Moore.
Moore said that the district, board and union have been united in their goals. “We have a superintendent, a school board and administration that leads with science and follows the facts,” she said. “They have the attitude that, you know, one person getting sick is a problem for everybody.”
The school year is still new, and Moore said that Arcata High’s pandemic methods might evolve over the coming months. “We think that the framework is really solid,” she said. Now it’s a matter of “how do you make it adjusted, just a little bit, to make it even better.”
Monge said that he hopes school won’t need to be remote all year. “At this point we’re being a little bit conservative, I think, in a good way, to make sure that we’re safe,” he said. In the coming weeks and months the district might start discussing shifting back to in-person instruction, perhaps in a small-group format.