Reflections on learning during COVID, a speech to the Hephaestus Society

Matthew Schwartz ’21

I think we are all still assessing what we’ve been through in the last fifteen months. Our Haverford experience was different in every way. None of us could have predicted that new terms like: “I’ll share my screen” or “you’re muted” are now permanent additions to our language.

     I’ve come to realize that my most profound learnings during COVID weren’t just in the classroom, but were lessons learned from the adaptations we all made to our altered lives. It will take a while for teachers, staff, and students to have enough quiet moments to come to terms with all we have experienced. And I’m not sure we’ll fully grasp how profound and unique it was for years to come. We owe ourselves a little time for looking back, but we owe it to one another to keep looking ahead.

      First, I want to acknowledge how much more other school communities were affected than Haverford. It’s been a very hard year for so many students, educators, and parents across the world. Children living in low-income communities have been disproportionately affected by the abrupt shift to remote schooling. Many of these families still don’t have the job security, stability, means, or computer and internet access necessary to provide a safe and consistent environment for their children to get a quality experience. People have been hurting—badly—and in some cases students slipped away from school entirely. We also know that for younger kids, social interaction at school or playdates is an important part of their development and this past year was filled with social deprivation, replaced with virtual get-togethers and pandemic school. It may take some years to get those students back on track academically, physically, mentally, and otherwise. I worry that this lost year for some could impact racial and economic equity for a generation.

     At Haverford, the school did everything in its power and more to preserve all that school should be. We pushed the boundaries of what society, politicians, the county and even some parents thought was acceptable for teaching in a pandemic. More than most, the school did its best to preserve all the elements that make up this place since we aren’t here just for the academic lessons. If we were, school could be reduced to a series of on-demand videos on Khan Academy. We’re also here for the interaction: the interaction of challenging each other as we learn together, the interaction of friendships being built with classmates and teachers, the interaction of sports and activities allows us to expand our bodies, competitive spirit, and minds. 

     In other words, not everything in the curriculum matters and not everything that matters fits into the curriculum. 

Matthew Schwartz ’21 in a virtual Index Meeting- Screenshot courtesy of Mr. Thomas Stambaugh

     For me, learning has always been a communal experience. There’s something special about seeing those around you get inspired, and it finally clicks how to solve a problem or understand a concept. Or, it can even be comforting to feel that shared sense of confusion, when you simply don’t know what’s going on. We lost many of these experiences when going virtual, as the excitement or disorientation on a student’s face doesn’t translate the same when it’s occurring in a two-inch by two-inch box over Google Meet. 

     This year, more than ever, we learned that the word “school” refers to much more than just academics—because we realized what was missing when it was no longer there. I’m glad the school understood this and worked to make sure our informal education was preserved as much as possible.

     This pandemic unfolded slowly. I remember hearing that things would be back to normal in a few weeks. Then by summer. Then by Fall. Then by Christmas. Maybe a dozen deadlines missed. And guess what: it isn’t back to normal yet, and we’ve all come to realize it never will be. And that’s okay. Some of us stressed out every time the “new” normal date was pushed out. More plans to be canceled, expectations to be adjusted. But at some point, I stopped wondering and started accepting the new normal. Accepting that our world doesn’t have to be perfectly predictable like we’ve been trained by Amazon Prime or the ending of Marvel movies. I also learned that we can take the best of COVID and bring that to post-COVID.

     Prior to COVID I often found myself overscheduled. From interviews for The Index to writing arguments in mock trial, I always push myself to accomplish too much, but when COVID gave me the opportunity to step back and reflect on all my efforts, I realized my life had become more about doing than being. This recognition was long overdue, and I’ve used it to focus more on what matters most to me, such as friends, family, and certain activities at school. It’s also helped me de-stress and better appreciate living in the moment instead of spending the present contemplating something I’ve scheduled for the future.

As I reflect on the experience of COVID learning, I can’t help but think about what lessons and actions we can take forward to improve the plight of future students.

     Staying committed to my schoolwork during COVID was strenuous, but eventually, as time wore on, school represented a break from the mundane. It allowed me to do something else besides sitting around inside all day.

     As I reflect on the experience of COVID learning, I can’t help but think about what lessons and actions we can take forward to improve the plight of future students. We’re at a moment where problems have been exposed, new challenges have emerged, and communities are experimenting with all kinds of new ideas and models. I believe that learning how to use new technology, more flexibility in location and time, and more creative teaching methods will have a long-term, positive impact on teaching and learning, here and beyond.

     One victim of change is standardized testing. As one of many school rituals, it was completely abandoned last spring. Tests play a critical role in education, but the current form of standardized testing—for example, paper-based multiple-choice SATs—is outdated and doesn’t accurately reflect what students from all backgrounds and learning styles know. Haverford has high-potential students of all kinds and yet standardized testing didn’t recognize that. Maybe the future of SATs will now recognize that more.

     While we have all been pushed far out of our comfort zone in the past year, we also should realize that we liked some of COVID’s school changes. For example, the student body has overwhelmingly supported the quarter system introduced this year, and I hope keeping it next year makes the entire learning process more accessible and easy to navigate for students going forward.

Although it [high school] didn’t exactly end as I thought it would, I learned more about resiliency, compassion and self-sufficiency than I ever expected.

     With our senior year ending, many people seem to be despairing over this fact, yet I can’t help but feel hopeful. To me, high school was a stepping stone on a longer journey of discovery. 

     Although it didn’t exactly end as I thought it would, I learned more about resiliency, compassion and self-sufficiency than I ever expected.

Author: Matthew Schwartz '21

Editor-in-Chief Matthew Schwartz has written for The Index for three years. He previously served as Managing Editor and News Editor.