A Freshman’s Perspective on Distance Learning

Attending high school online is difficult — but it shouldn't be this hard.

Waking up for the first day of school is usually an exciting experience for us students. As we prepare our outfits, we think about the coming year, and the new people we’ll meet. We ready ourselves to adapt and learn. That sense of anticipation is only heightened when a student is entering a brand new school — as I did in August.

This year, however, instead of getting up, getting ready, and going to class, my peers and I found ourselves getting up, getting ready, and staying put, as we logged onto Zoom or Google Classroom. Instead of beginning my freshman year of high school meeting new people and learning the layout of my campus, I’m meeting my classmates and teachers through video calls and emails.

My own transition to distance learning has been complicated by the fact that I moved from Aptos Middle School to Lowell High School this year — a magnet school that draws students from middle schools all over the city — and I am in a largely new cohort. Developing new relationships can be difficult enough to do in person, especially with the drastic change in environment. Attempting to forge relationships online is even harder.

Without face-to-face interactions, I find it more difficult to focus and complete work efficiently. Without the social aspects of a normal school day, the work I put into my studies does not feel rewarding. And I’m not alone. “One of the hardest parts of distance learning is not getting to meet new people, make friends, or get to know the people you will be learning with,” one of my peers told me. “The lack of structure makes work feel optional,” another said.

Students are not the only ones struggling. Teachers are having a tough time as well. Some of my teachers are a full month behind on grading, while others — in an attempt to ensure class participation and student engagement — have taken up policies that I find counterproductive. Although the district’s distance learning guide states that students may attend a class with their webcams off, some instructors have attempted to force pupils to keep their webcams on. One of my teachers made a class policy that if students do not turn on their cameras, they must record themselves during the lesson in order to receive credit. First and foremost, this is an invasion of my privacy (my family and I were never asked to fill out a consent form to be recorded). Second, allowing video can slow connectivity of Zoom sessions, which is a common issue in many of my classes. 

High school and middle school students in the San Francisco Unified School District are required to receive 240 minutes, or four hours, of virtual instruction each day. This does not include time spent on homework, studying for tests, or participating in extracurricular activities. During the week, I often find myself spending more than five hours a day online for school alone. On weekends, it’s probably between one or two hours a day. That’s close to 30 hours per week sitting in front of the computer. Additionally, I was recently informed that the district is considering an increase in class time. These increases should not be made.

An increase of 10 minutes per class will result in an additional five to six hours of online weekly instruction for students. This means that students are likely to have a work week upwards of 35 hours. (To put this in perspective, under the Affordable Care Act, an adult is considered to be a “full-time” employee when they work 30 hours a week or more for a single company.) In a survey conducted by my teacher in class, none of the 33 students surveyed said they would be in favor of an increased class time. If these changes go through, not only will it lead to a longer work week for students, it will disrupt many students’ and families’ schedules.

Furthermore, there is evidence that this much screen time may cause both psychological and physical harm to students. Personally, I find that I am often frustrated and mentally tired after just a few hours of distance learning. There’s a term for this: Zoom fatigue. These factors are bound to reduce students’ performance in terms of school work. Which brings me to the next issue, grading systems in distance learning.

Last spring, we were using a pass/fail system. The pass/fail system made school feel less important to me, as well as other students. This fall, we are using a standard letter grade system. This is also problematic, as students have many unprecedented factors affecting our performance. Despite everything students have lost, and everything they have to deal with, students are still being graded on a standard system without much forgiveness or leniency.

Due to technological difficulties, lack of time, and other intangibles, distance learning cannot be as effective as in-person learning. SFUSD acknowledges this fact. However, there was little feedback collected and insufficient discussion when deciding a grading system. I was not asked to provide feedback in terms of a system for grading, nor was I informed before the beginning of the school year. With all of the students’ circumstances considered, it is not reasonable to grade on the same system. Additionally, distance learning puts many socioeconomically disadvantaged students (55 percent of the SFUSD population) at an increased disadvantage. This brings me to the next issue: equity within distance learning. 

Equity is potentially the biggest issue in online learning, and it is seldom adequately addressed. San Francisco is a city with huge economic disparities. Multi-million dollar homes stand minutes away from neighborhoods with median rent below the national average of $949. It is clear that the negative effects of distance learning disproportionately affect socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

LAUSD reported that last spring, 50,000 of it’s Black and Latinx students did not regularly attend online classes. SFUSD has a similar demographic, and it would be reasonable to predict similar results. The disparities go far beyond the simple issues of access to technology. Many parents need to work, and rely on school for childcare. These parents do not have time to deal with distance learning and micromanaging their children. Many students are worried about other issues, and lack motivation to attend school. Many students are responsible for their younger siblings, and do not have time to attend online classes. Some students need guidance and extra support, which often comes from role models at school such as counselors, security guards, and social workers. These students cannot be expected to complete work at the same pace as their more privileged classmates. I personally have friends in SFUSD who have issues focusing on distance learning, as they have other issues to worry about and it does not feel valuable to them.

While the school district seeks to project a progressive stance and signal a commitment to equity — most recently by identifying 44 schools with “inappropriate” names — officials don’t seem to be demonstrating these values with their current approach to distance learning.

The challenges posed to public education by the pandemic are certainly substantial and there is no easy solution. However, there are improvements that can be made. For one, there needs to be a reduced workload and more benefits for students. I, like many other students have effectively not interacted with any friends since March 13, and students have been expected to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, while maintaining our responsibilities for a long time now. 

During this pandemic, individuals over the age of 18 have received benefits, such as unemployment insurance, stimulus checks, grace periods on rent, and more. But students cannot effectively take sick days: when a student is sick during distance learning, they are expected to complete the work and attend the Zoom session if possible. Furthermore, students do not get a break from schoolwork: I find myself working all days of the week including the weekends and holidays. Sick days and (potentially) mental health days should be granted to students during distance learning. 

If distance learning is to continue, it is essential that the district work to reduce students’ workloads wherever possible. Additionally, students should be granted forgiveness for missing assignments when warranted. This would mean that if a student loses track of an assignment, or does not reasonably have enough time to complete an assignment, they will be forgiven and will not be marked down. Another change needed to provide a lowered workload is for students to be guaranteed weekends off. Students should not receive any assignments to be completed over the weekend. In order to make work easier to manage and keep track of, asynchronous attendance forms must be eliminated. 

A modified grading system is also essential for students. The pass/fail system of last fall, and the current letter grade system both have significant drawbacks. I propose a letter grade system in which students are graded on their effort and participation as determined by their instructors. In this system, a student who attends every class, and completes their work to the best of their ability would receive 100 percent or full credit. This will prevent the reduced effort and apathy of a pass/fail system, and the stress and frustration of a standard system. On Mondays, students’ lunch periods must be extended — 25-35 minutes is not a sufficient amount of time for a lunch break. Reduced instructional minutes and more breaks should also be considered.

In terms of equity, SFUSD should do their best to understand students’ circumstances and respond accordingly. If students have additional home issues, they should not be expected to follow the same workload as their more fortunate peers. Chromebook loans are a good start, however the issue of technology is just the tip of the iceberg. SFUSD has many disadvantaged students with many instances of trauma. Many students have lost family members and friends to oppressive systems such as the prison system and gang violence. Prior to the school closures there were experiments with providing troubled students with counseling. These experiments yielded positive results. With the given issues of the school closures, it is essential that free counseling is provided to students in need. At one point, public learning pods prioritizing students in need were proposed. However, private learning pods organized by parents brought negative attention to the issue. Public learning pods which prioritize socioeconomically disadvantaged students need to be considered once again. 

Another possible method of reducing stress among students is a postponed start time. It has been proven that adolescents operate with a different biological clock, causing them to naturally wake up later than adults and children. Even with virtual learning, I have had teachers chastise me for logging in less than three minutes late to an online class.

In summation, if distance learning is to continue. We need a reduced workload, a modified grading system, and improvements to equity programs for disadvantaged students. Most of all, teachers and staff need to understand that students are imperfect and grant more leniency for minor errors.

Students have suffered from substantial loss during this pandemic. We’ve missed out on once-in-a-lifetime events, like graduations and prom. We’ve gone without seeing our friends for more than half a year. And in return, we’ve been required to take similar work schedules and routines expected of adults. It is not sustainable, and something has got to give.

Charles Chu is a 9th grade student currently attending Lowell High School. This essay was written with input from his parents and guidance from SF Weekly Editor Nick Veronin.

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