HHS North Remote Learning: A Teacher’s Perspective

HHS North Remote Learning: A Teacher's Perspective

Patrick Sweeney, News Editor

The teachers at Holyoke High School had a very short amount of time to develop a plan for remote learning. On Friday, March 13th, all of the students at the high school were in the building. On Monday, March 16th, all of the students were at home doing remote learning. None of these teachers knew what was ahead for them or their students. They did not know that the coronavirus pandemic would become one of the worst crises in American history, at one point claiming over 2,700 lives in one day. They did not realize that the school would be partaking in remote learning for the foreseeable future. However, they did realize one thing – they needed to come up with a plan to keep students learning and they needed to do it fast. 

Remote learning has evolved in many ways since it started last March. The district knew things needed to be changed in order for all students to succeed going forward. Sheila Fallon, the Team AVID English I teacher at HHS North, stated that remote learning is “more organized and accessible.” She cited the district-wide Chromebook distribution as a large factor in making things easier for students. Emma Lewin-Opitz, a Biology teacher at HHS North, also cited the Chromebook issue as a factor in remote learning, stating that in the spring, there was “only one Chromebook per family.” She also agreed on the fact that HPS distributing Chromebooks to everyone this year was a major factor in student’s success, stating that “we had time to plan over the summer.” This extra time to plan helped the faculty and staff at HHS North in a major way. It helped them assess how things went last school year. It also gave them an idea of what needed to be fixed in order for all students to succeed in remote learning. Zachary Baru, a business teacher and Faculty Advisor for the Business Club and The Herald at HHS, also stated that organization was a major factor why remote learning has gone so smoothly since it began on September 14th. He also stated that student attendance has been much better than in the past and said that it may be even better than it was when school was happening in-person. This says a lot about how well the teachers and staff have reached out to everyone and made sure online learning is accessible.

There have been many positive and negative parts of remote learning at HHS. Teachers have felt the effects of this because they went from holding a class in the building to doing everything over an online platform. Opitz stated that a positive of remote learning is the “privacy” of everything. She stated that she does not have to “call out anyone for not being on top of their game…” She said that the chat box feature built into Zoom benefits her and her students in a positive way. If a student does not feel comfortable speaking in front of the class or is having an issue, they can message her privately in the chat. This private chat message is also helpful if the student does not feel comfortable sharing their response with the class. It benefits both the student and the teacher. The student gets to share their answer with someone who will not be judgmental of their thinking and the teacher knows that the student is participating in class. Opitz stated that a negative part of remote learning is that she cannot “…read body language or see who has their head down” or “how fast things take…” as far as completing assignments. This contributes to the atmosphere of teachers not knowing how long to stay on a topic during class. Opitz also stated that there are “access barriers” that “most school districts are struggling with as well.” Fallon stated that a positive is students having the opportunity “to develop their technology skills.” She stated that when school was in-person, students did not have the opportunity to develop these skills since most of the teaching and learning was done on the white board in the classroom. She also stated that having these skills will help students in the long run. It could help them when they move on to college or when they are trying to get a job in the technology industry. She agreed with Opitz on the issue of not reading body language, stating that she has some students in which she “does not know what they look like.” She said that once things go forward, people will start feeling more comfortable participating and turning on cameras. This will make it a lot easier for teachers to know what they need to do in order for all of their students to succeed.

The topic of continuing full remote learning and when in-person learning will resume has been a question that is always in the back of a teacher’s mind. Some school districts have been more clear about what their plan is moving forward, while others operate on a model in which teachers do not really know what is going on. Daniel Thiombiano, the Team AVID Environmental Science teacher at HHS North, stated that “some meaningful learning has taken place” during the time of remote learning. He also wondered why we would want to throw away the opportunity to advance our technological skills “and expose ourselves to a much greater risk which is COVID-19.” Fallon stated that “it is definitely difficult to not know the decisions that will be made.” She stated that it is so important to “listen to the scientists that are doing the work…. and look at the numbers.” She also stated that there are many people who are vulnerable in Holyoke. For example, people have asthma, which could prove a greater risk for contracting the coronavirus. Osmar Prospere, who is a Geometry teacher at HHS North, stated that “education is important.” He stated that teachers need to continue to do their best to keep all students learning. He also stated that “learning can happen” during the time of remote learning, adding that “teachers have to be willing to learn and students need to work and learn at the same time.” Baru stated that “no one has a crystal ball” and “you have to do what is right for everyone.” He also stated that politics should not be a factor in deciding when to open schools back up, stating that “we need to do what is best for our students.”

The topic of students turning their cameras on during class has been a main point of discussion for many teachers at HHS North. Last year, students turning their cameras on was not a requirement. Live classes only took place once a week. In addition to this, it was just the beginning of remote learning. Teachers could not make cameras mandatory since some students were not adjusted to the remote learning environment. However, teachers started to notice that many of their students were not turning their cameras on. Administration began to worry if the students were even participating in class sessions. This is why the administration came up with a new plan for the 20-21 school year. They encouraged students to keep their cameras on during class time. This would ensure that all students are paying attention and engaged in the lesson. Many students do not turn their cameras on, so most teachers have not made them a requirement. Fallon stated that she and Thiombiano, who are both part of the Freshman Team AVID at HHS North, stated that she and her colleagues came to a conclusion on the issue of cameras. She said that “as long as a student is participating, as long as they are writing in the chat or if they are at least unmuting themselves to contribute, then we know there is learning happening.” Thiombiano stated that the camera discussion is only “another wrinkle in the already complicated remote learning situation.” He brought up the idea of legal issues and privacy surrounding cameras being turned on during class. He stated that it is important to give the students options. He cited Fallon’s point, stating that students can keep their cameras off “as long as they are exploring the other options to participate in class.” Prospere stated that it benefits him and many other teachers when students have their cameras on. He brought up the fact that when none of the students have their cameras on, the teachers feel like they are “going crazy.” He also stated that teenagers may not feel comfortable showing themselves on camera and that it is something that teachers “cannot control.” 

Holyoke High School has been implementing office hours after school for many years. These office hours are a time for students to work with their teachers after the school day is complete. They could review work for a specific class or for other classes. They could also go to get support in their personal lives or just to be in a classroom setting for a period of time. Office hours took place from 1:30 pm to 3 pm when school was fully in-person. The administration at HHS came up with a plan to utilize office hours this year during remote learning. The student school day runs from 8:45 am to 12:50 pm. However, there is a period of time set aside for office hours. These check-ins run from 1:30 pm to 3 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Many teachers have encouraged their students to come to office hours if they are struggling in a specific class or if they need help with a particular assignment. Thiombiano stated that “the number of students who have attended office hours so far is very disproportionate to the number of students we know need to make use of those office hours.” Prospere stated that “there is not much interaction.” He also said that students who have a problem need to have the mindset of “I need to understand this lesson or assignment” or “talk to a teacher.” Fallon stated that she has “not had many students come into office hours.” She attributed this to “computer fatigue.” She said that once the final class of the day is complete, students want to do something else besides stare at a screen for a longer period of time. Baru added that “one of the great pleasures of being a teacher is when a student comes back from college….. and gives you an update on how college life is going.” He added that students often cite that the office hours and support they received during class helped them prepare for college. He stated that office hours are a great way to get students out into the real world and prepare for college life. It upsets him that very few students are taking advantage of this one-on- one opportunity with teachers. 

The teachers at HHS North have done an amazing job teaching their students new concepts during this difficult time. They have posted assignments and been available for students when necessary. However, an important aspect of remote learning is technology. Teachers need to make sure they have a reliable device to use and good internet connection in order to make remote learning happen on their end. Fallon stated that she is “learning a lot” during this time. She has not had any technological issues, which has helped a lot. Thiombiano stated that many teachers “have the luxury” to afford things like personal computers, which helps them be successful during remote learning. Baru stated that the “technological training” and professional development helps all of the teachers prepare the necessary materials for classes. He stated that “we need to remember that our students might not be having such an easy time.” He said that he has had a few minor issues with connectivity during the time of remote learning. This reminds him what many students go through multiple times during a class. Only time will tell how long the coronavirus pandemic will last and the effect it will have on remote learning. During this time, we need to recognize the challenges the teachers face while trying to educate their students. As the famous baseball player Babe Ruth once said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”