The first quarter of high school is often intimidating and stressful for freshmen, but this year starting as a freshman was especially hard. Public schools across the Triangle transitioned to virtual learning for the start of the 2020-2021 school year in response to the pandemic, and as an incoming freshman from a non-feed school, it can be scary to feel like I don’t know anybody because virtual learning makes social connection harder. For example, students might not have their cameras on; this is understandable because it isn’t always comfortable or accessible, but it does make it difficult for students to engage with each other. A lot of teachers have expressed discomfort with teaching to black screens, too; it isn’t just students struggling.
In some classes, teachers try to combat this disconnection with breakout rooms to help us get to know each other. Some students are still hesitant to speak in breakout rooms though; I know personally from being in breakout rooms that it can be awkward to talk in a breakout room if no one else does. I normally try to introduce myself and turn on my camera so people can get to see what I look like. My hope is it will make them feel more comfortable so they might do the same, and we can all connect with each other a little more. I encourage all students, freshmen and seniors alike, to turn on their cameras when possible and start conversations in their classes and breakout rooms. Doing this can help us get to know people and make the atmosphere more welcoming.
Another aspect of virtual learning that can be hard to get used to is the distractions that come with it. These can come from the at-home working environment: family members, pets, noises, cell phones, and access to other electronics and websites make it hard to focus. Within the virtual space, people not being muted in class when they are supposed to, noises from other devices, and even the occasional “Zoom bomb” can be distracting. But there are many ways that you can prevent and reduce distractions. Try to turn your phone off or put it on silent to limit the distractions coming through text messages and social media. One thing that works for me is putting my phone on silent and putting it across the room where I won’t be tempted to pick it up; you could even put it in another room if necessary. Ask your family members to be considerate of how loud they are and to be conscious of coming in and out of your study space. Pets like dogs and cats (or even turtles or lizards) can be distracting, too. Try and keep your pets out of your room and ask your other family members to tell your pets to be quiet if they are being loud. In Zoom classes try and remind people that they are not muted but they need to be. When doing all of these things remember to be respectful.
Despite these struggles of virtual learning, there are benefits to virtual school. I’ve found I have more free time– which is good as long as you don’t use it to procrastinate on assignments. (This has happened to me many times and caused me more stress!) It’s important to reserve free time for yourself; we don’t need to always be working. You should use some offline time to work on assignments or go to office hours, but free time should also be spent doing fun things like playing sports, hanging with friends, and picking up new hobbies. Personally, the new schedule has given me more time to go play tennis, join clubs, and volunteer around the community, activities which I normally wouldn’t have time for with school. It’s especially good to get outside and off your screen, even if it’s for just 30 minutes a day. I know that I sound like all the adults in your life, but excessive time on screens can have tolls on your health, both mental and physical! To make the best of everything, be sure to reserve some of the asynchronous time in your schedule to protecting and maintaining your wellbeing.
Online school has been an adjustment for everyone: students, teachers, staff, and parents. Teachers and students have had to adapt to the new schedules and new technology, with varying degrees of success. Plenty of my peers and teachers have reported issues navigating Canvas, but as time goes on it’s easier to get used to how each class runs their Canvas pages. Other technical difficulties can be frustrating and make it hard to understand people speaking on Zoom or cause delays in the submission of coursework, for example, but these difficulties are to be expected as everyone gets used to virtual education, so have grace for yourself and your peers. It’s tempting to try to blame the hardships of digital learning on teachers who might struggle with the new technological demands, which makes it even more important to remember to empathize with your teachers–they’re having to figure out all these changes, too!
Dealing with everything can feel overwhelming, which makes it easy to get stressed or anxious. Remember that it’s okay to feel a little off right now, and to take lots of breaks from the screen. Utilize the wellness resources our administration has provided; it’s comforting to know they’re there for us. As the quarter winds down, reflect on what you can do to make next quarter easier for you as we all continue to get used to our new learning environment.