The present and future of virtual schooling

A screenshot of an English IV: Page & Stage Canvas Conference on April 1, 2020 – Mr. Thomas Stambaugh

When the first signs of the pandemic reached our school neighborhood, no one had predicted the impact of COVID-19 to be as devastating or overwhelming as it is today. Americans witnessed one of the most calamitous tragedies of the modern era. And they weren’t ready for it. 

     Nevertheless, life continued. School continued.

     “When we were going into this, nobody knew that we were going to be doing this for two months,” English teacher Mr. Daniel Keefe said. “I specifically remember saying ‘Okay, so I’ll see you guys soon.’ That was the last thing. I didn’t even say goodbye.” 

Mr. Keefe’s message for the Class of 2020 – courtesy of Mr. Dan Keefe

     Many were surprised, but as a community, the school responded swiftly. Virtual Haverford, an alternative distance learning program, provided a new solution to the challenges of COVID-19. 

     Still, faculty and students expressed their concerns with the virtual curriculum.

     “I can see my student’s face on a screen, but it’s really not the same thing,” History Department Chair Ms. Hannah Turlish said. “It’s like live theater versus watching a movie. The human aspect of teaching and learning was lost, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

poll by Austin Zhuang ’22

     Ms. Turlish is not the only one troubled with the loss of communication in online education.

    Latin teacher Ms. Sara Adkins said, “It is weird talking to just little tiles of people and sometimes having the Google Meet on one part of my screen and having what I’m showing on another part, and trying to look at the little tiles of people.”

     While teachers are aware of the problems within virtual schooling, students also noticed the significant difference between a normal school day and a day with online classes.

     “Something about looking at a bunch of faces and all that movement on the screen is a lot more strenuous than just looking at a Word doc or a website,” Sixth Former Vincent Scauzzo said.

     Amongst different departments, the application of virtual lessons also had distinct outcomes.

     “English classes are essentially divided up into classroom discussions about text or novels,” Mr. Keefe said. “That can easily be replicated inside this spectrum. On top of that, I’ve had lots of students who’ve been turning things in as a Google Doc, and I give feedback on the writing. Some of the elements that go along with this seem to easily align.”

     Mr. Keefe prefers the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. But he agreed that Virtual Haverford allowed him to pick up new tools. Other departments too found difficulties specific to their practices.

Ms. Sara Adkins congratulates the class of 2020 – courtesy of Ms. Sara Adkins

     “It’s even different in the language department, between Latin and the modern spoken languages. Latin was a little bit harder to teach online because we’re relying on actual books,” Ms. Adkins said. “So to some extent, the skills that we’re trying to train and build are ones that were taught one-on-one with a kid in the classroom.”

     Knowing these challenges, adjustments need to be made. Classes need to be taught in a way that suits the virtual curriculum. And the faculty was ready for some changes.

     “Part of it was deciding what content was non-negotiable,” Ms. Adkins said. “What are the things we need to have the boys learn? What are the things that we can toss out because we can’t do this virtually or it’s not as important? We are all using different tools: Flipgrid, Pear Deck, and Padlet. And I think we’re still finding that there may be better tools out there.”

     Teachers also emphasized the importance of student participation in the virtual curriculum. Success would not be possible without the cooperation of the students.

    “It really depends on the students themselves to come ready to engage for the hour sessions, because virtual schooling makes it really very difficult on my end to check on them,” Mr. Keefe said.

     Ms. Turlish said, “I’ve been battling that sense of being overwhelmed. And I feel like I’m succeeding. I feel like I’m doing something that’s consistent with how I am as a teacher in person. Overall, thanks to the students themselves, I would say this year was a success.”

     Mr. Keefe said, “I think more student feedback would be helpful: was this successful? Did you find that this was helpful?  What were the classes that I liked? There are classes that have been more successful, why is that? It really helps us as faculty members, to be then reinforced. We readapt, and we come out next year with two months of experimentation under our belts so that we get better with every iteration of this.”

“The virtual school also triggers my curiosity because now there is more time for fewer classes.”

Mark Polonsky’23

     Student feedback has been positive. 

     “School is a great place to immerse yourself,” Third Former Mark Polonsky said. “The virtual school also triggers my curiosity because now there is more time for fewer classes.”

     Ms. Adkins did express some concerns about not being able to include everything in her Latin class this year. But feedback suggested that her innovations and willingness to adapt had a great outcome.

     “She did this cool thing with Pear Deck, where we would have 25 questions prepared for the class. It was entertaining, and it was a good way to help the class stay into the material and focus,” Scauzzo said. 

     Students appreciated the new technologies in virtual schooling. As a conclusion to this school year, Scauzzo thanked the student body for working together as a community. 

     “We were tested way harder than anyone in high school ever should be with online school. We had to really get intimate with our teachers and figure out what’s the best way to learn. The student body’s judgment was superb, and we had a great impact on everything. So as challenging as it was, I have to salute them because I think we all did a really good job getting through this,” Scauzzo said.

     At the end of the school year, students and teachers began to contextualize their daily lives, which are now dictated by the quarantine. 

A student’s view of Ms. Turlish’s asynchronous lectures alongside a notes outline she provides – screenshot by Agustin Aliaga ’21

     “As a historian, I often find myself wondering, what was it like for a 17-year-old going through Word War II, hiding in a closet for three years?” Ms. Turlish said. “On some level, if we can get through it intact with our moral and ethical cores, we’re all going to be fine. I want students to remember that. Every single teenager on the planet is going through this on some level. And that is, I hope, reassuring.”

Author: Jingyuan Chen '23

Jingyuan Chen has written for The Index since 2019. His news piece “Inside the middle school construction project” and his opinion “What can the U.S. learn from Chinese media censorship?” each earned a Silver Key from the 2020 Philadelphia-area Writing Awards.