School district’s work around virtual learning has been good; we need more if we’re to thrive

In March, when the school system transitioned to remote learning, it was as if the world of education as I knew it evaporated, leaving nothing but a …
By Grace Gillig

Saturday, November 7, 2020
Empty desks awaiting students. (Photo: Renato Ganoza via Flickr)

At this moment, there are thousands of students across Cambridge doing the things students do. They could be sitting in a park, chatting with friends from 6 feet away. Or maybe they’re at home with their families, or finishing the last page of an essay. And, in addition, most mornings, they wake to the sound of an alarm, get ready and attend class. These are statements that, after months of receiving my education in a desk in the corner of my bedroom, feel almost surreal. In March, when the school system transitioned to remote learning, it was as if the world of education as I knew it evaporated, leaving nothing but a Zoom meeting once a day and a list of assignments on my computer. Of course, the structure of the school day has since drastically improved, and our days have morphed into something resembling normalcy. But there are still some issues, both isolated and inherent, regarding remote learning in Cambridge.

I commend Cambridge Public Schools for its efforts to increase communication between teachers and students – we have study support hours in which students can get help or additional instruction in a class, and mandatory weekly meetings with advisers in which we talk about how we are faring during this time. Despite this, the lack of communication is still a prominent issue in remote learning. We have far less contact with our teachers and peers, which brings fewer organic, meaningful interactions, as well as less outreach through teachers and administrators. This has manifested itself in several ways, one of the most prominent being the lack of communication regarding current events. Last spring, the murder of George Floyd sent shock waves through the world, further exposing the severe racial inequality in the United States. Our school system’s response to this was viewed by many as insufficient. During class, we had the opportunity to have a group conversation about events at the time; but this was all, save for some emails from administrators. Especially considering that racism and racial inequality are significant issues at our school, I would have hoped that the student body would get a more thorough and compassionate response. Many speculated that if we were in person, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School would have done a far better job of addressing this. This leads me to believe part of the issue was with communication, or the lack thereof.

Additionally, I have noticed a lack of communication in my day-to-day life as a student, which tends to affect mental health. It is very easy for students to simply turn off their cameras and microphones and barely say a word for an entire class, and it should come as no surprise that in remote learning, contact with teachers and peers is drastically decreased. This has repercussions: I have seen teachers expressing sadness that they may spend an entire semester or year teaching some students and never see their face; I have observed students, including myself, meditating on the disconnectedness of class, and the decreased frequency of normal interactions. All of this has resulted in an environment in which it is easy to feel lonely or sad. For this reason, I hope the school district increases mental health support and information available to students and educators. Everyone in Cambridge Public Schools should have a safe space where they can talk about mental health, and administrators should ensure everyone is aware of these opportunities.

Another challenge students face is a lack of motivation. For many, school served as a physical location to associate with work and learning, while home was a place for relaxation. This has caused difficulty in transitioning to working from home, since there is less of a separation between school and downtime. I struggled with the lack of structure last spring, since at that point we had classes only once a day and did the majority of our work independently. This school year, we have switched to a school day that more closely resembles that of in-person learning, with four slightly shorter classes per day and time for study support. While I appreciate that we were given study support periods for help with homework, motivation remains a prevalent issue among students. And while I understand that especially with shortened classes and fewer days of school per week, homework is important to make sure that students have a thorough understanding of the content they’re learning, considering the difficulty many face with motivation, I would encourage teachers to put less weight on homework and take a comprehensive approach when evaluating students.

Remote learning has been an uncertain time for all of us, and I truly believe the Cambridge Public Schools system has addressed its students’ needs in a thorough, holistic manner. Despite this, there are issues that remain and must be confronted, as well as some challenges that are simply inherent to remote learning. In addition to improved communication, especially regarding current events; social interaction, with time for students to work in small groups; increased mental health support, with more spaces to talk; and more comprehensive evaluations, with less weight on and homework, my suggestion to every person working in a remote environment would be to remind yourself frequently:

Behind every name on a Zoom call is a person, somewhere in Cambridge, going through many of the challenges that you are. Although it certainly feels like it, you are not alone.


Grace Gillig is a sophomore at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.

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