Student Voice: ‘Canvas’ Bitmojis, Fascinating Teacher Digressions and Other Reasons to Be Hopeful as Virtual School Starts Anew

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This article was published in partnership with Student Voice Forum.

This was the least nervous I’d ever been for a first day of school. No harried backpack repacking when the longest trip I’ll be making is from my bed to my desk. No frantic outfit selection when all my peers will see are the seven or so pixels composing my shirt on Zoom. I wasn’t totally unruffled: There was a good deal of unnecessary reorganizing going on in my room at 11 p.m. Still, I went to bed filled with a surprising sense of calm.

In some ways, I enjoyed my unanticipated tranquility. And part of my serenity was undoubtedly attributable to my new status as a high school senior — with 11 years of first days under my belt, it’s no surprise that some of the anxiety has worn off.

Still, I think my feelings, or lack thereof, about the return to virtual school speak to the broader sense of loss students are experiencing: perhaps less a sense of calm than one of dull disappointment. My school decided to start the semester entirely online, with plans to re-evaluate every four to six weeks. This was a wise decision given Kentucky’s continued rise in coronavirus cases, and one that’s allowing me to avert the anxiety experienced by so many students facing unwise school reopenings elsewhere in the country. But those of us fortunate enough to not have to worry about contracting COVID-19 in crowded school buildings are facing an entirely different set of challenges.

The things that always make me nervous on the first day of school — meeting new teachers, reconnecting with old friends — are part and parcel of the things that bring me joy and excitement for the other 170 or so days of the school year. I was less excited to reconnect with my friends when I knew our conversations would be mediated by a computer screen, absent the privacy and intimacy of in-person communication. I was less worried about making a good first impression on my teachers when I couldn’t meet them face-to-face. I lost that sense of renewed structure and schedule effected by the return to a physical building, a feeling that can put butterflies in my summer-accustomed stomach but that also provides a sense of constancy for nine months of the year. I lost the unstructured moments, hanging out in teachers’ classrooms during lunch and chatting with friends in the library, that feel just as critical to the school day as actual instructional time. Going back to school simply didn’t feel like much of a meaningful shift after a similarly Zoom-filled and homebound summer.

Sadie Bograd

There are advantages to the virtual format, to be sure. I’ll be avoiding the perennially disgusting bathrooms that are a prerequisite for any building occupied by so many adolescents. I can head outside and breathe in the fresh air between classes rather than weave my way through jam-packed hallways that somehow manage to contain around two thousand students. Best of all, I’m getting an extra 45 minutes of sleep without the need to pack my lunch and drive across town every morning.

But I think we all know that for most students, these limited benefits aren’t a replacement for the opportunities in-person schooling provides. While online instruction is certainly necessary to protect the health and safety of students and staff, it’s indubitably the less-popular option under regular conditions.

It’s simply more difficult to make a virtual classroom engaging than a brick-and-mortar one. People of all ages are realizing just how real Zoom fatigue can be. One recent study from Kentucky’s Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, of which I am a member, found that 65 percent of respondents felt less engaged in their learning after the start of the pandemic. Online learning also provides fewer opportunities for the social interaction that’s deeply embedded in the typical school day, leaving many students feeling more isolated.

And none of that comes close to the additional difficulties faced by the students without stable internet connections or access to technology, the students who can’t attend synchronous classes because of familial or employment obligations, and the students who rely on their schools for healthy meals or mental health services.

Still, my school, at least, is giving me reason to be hopeful. Despite the unexpected and undoubtedly challenging circumstances, the teachers and administrators of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky, are making a laudable effort to keep students engaged and upbeat, to provide not just a traditional learning experience but also the social education and connection schools regularly provide.

As I moved from class to class (or Zoom link to Zoom link) today, several moments made me smile. Many teachers adorned their Canvas pages with virtual Bitmoji classrooms, their avatars guiding students to important links and decorating class calendars. Others got distracted from their syllabi and embarked on rambling digressions, reminding me of the fascinating tangents I’ve loved in years past. In short, my teachers’ personalities managed to come through the small box they occupied on my laptop, reassuring me that even without the possibility of face-to-face interaction, I’ll still be able to make meaningful connections.

Even the structure of the school day had a reassuring familiarity to it. Small instances of continuity were helpful: My school is keeping its five-minute class breaks, the need to run across the building replaced with the desire for a pause from staring at screens. Despite some changes to the schedule, my administration retained the A/B block schedule I’ve become accustomed to, whereby students take an alternating set of four classes instead of having the same agenda each day. And lunch was an especially pleasant reminder of the possibilities of a virtual format, when my friends and I set up (this time on Instagram rather than Canvas) yet another Zoom call, chatting from seven different kitchens.

As the weeks progress, we’ll see what instruction looks like beyond the syllabus discussions and introductory activities that have always filled the first days of school. But now I’m less nervous in a different sense than I was before. In the lead-up to our first day, I experienced a startling lack of anxiety. Now, I’m feeling a bolstered assurance that virtual instruction will work out somehow, as we eagerly await a time when we can safely see each other in the hallways again.

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