Since high schools were closed a month ago throughout Illinois to combat the spread of the coronavirus, many students are now sleeping in often, not getting out of bed until nearly noon, as schools have shifted to remote learning.
But just because they don’t have to be at school by 8 a.m. anymore, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any school work to do. In fact, students at Riverside-Brookfield High School say they still have lots to do, and some say that confusion over grading has made things more stressful for them.
“eLearning is more difficult than I anticipated,” said RBHS senior Kenna Howorth. “I think in some of my classes we are going at the same pace as we would have in school. However, since we’re expected to do it on our own and not doing the assignments in class, it can be a bit overwhelming.”
Howorth is taking four Advanced Placement courses among her seven classes, which makes for a lot of work.
“It is a little bit difficult for me to complete all of my assignments in a day,” Howorth said.
Second semester seniors often succumb to the temptation to slack off when they are actually attending school, but attending school from home makes it even more difficult to maintain focus.
“For me it’s really difficult to keep up my motivation, because I’m a senior and have already gotten into the university of my choice,” Howorth said.
Teenagers can often be distracted by all sorts of temptations, including social media, video games or other distractions while stuck at home.
“I often get distracted and do something else for a few hours and completely forget about my assignment,” said RBHS sophomore Olivia O’Donnell.
Confusion over whether the remote school work will count for grades also caused some RBHS students to slack off when schools were closed last month.
The Illinois State Board of Education, concerned about fairness for students who don’t have access to the internet, has issued guidelines that no student’s grade should suffer because of work not completed during the remote learning period.
A few days after Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered schools closed in mid-March, RBHS Principal Hector Freytas and Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction Kylie Lindquist sent out an email to students, staff, and parents stating that any assignments completed during “act of God” days can only help students’ grades, and that students would not be penalized for assignments not completed during this time.
But when Pritzker extended his initial two-week school shutdown to all of April, RBHS officials, perhaps because of confusion about whether assignments needed to be done or a fear that students would not work hard if they would suffer no consequence for not turning in work, came out with a more formal grading matrix.
Under the new matrix, RBHS students who complete less than 60 percent of remote/eLearning assignments and assessments in a class because of a lack of effort would receive a failing grade in that class for the fourth quarter and a grade of “incomplete” for the semester.
A student would have to make up the work in summer school or the “incomplete” would remain on the student’s transcript.
That was harsh wake call to some students who had to rush to try and catch up and make up missed assignments.
“For me it’s definitely driving me to do more work, not out of good work ethic but out of fear of going to summer school,” O’Donnell said.
If students earn a better grade during in the remote learning during the fourth quarter than they received attending school in person, they can improve their semester grade so long as they complete at least 60 percent of the required work during remote learning.
“I think this is a good opportunity for me to raise some grades,” O’Donnell said.
Freytas told the Landmark that the grading system is not meant to penalize students.
“An incomplete is not a failure,” Freytas said. “An incomplete is an opportunity for mastery. No student is going to fail, quote unquote, but there could be an incomplete issued if they don’t turn in the work or show evidence of mastery.”
Freytas said the grading system is designed to help students.
“Students are going to have a chance to redo assignments, to retake assessments,” Freytas said. “Students are going to have multiple, multiple opportunities to pass. We want students to get credit.”
Overall Freytas said that he is happy with the way remote learning is going. In the past month, Freytas said that he has sat in on, virtually through the Zoom video conference app, many classes including a calculus class, a biology class and a Zumba class.
The Zumba class, taught by Madelyn Doyle, was tougher than he anticipated.
“I thought it was going to be something light,” Freytas said. “I didn’t realize how hard advanced dance was.”
Freytas admitted that the abrupt shift to remote learning has been difficult and challenging for students and teachers.
“In some areas there’s been some high engagement and in other areas students are just getting used to it, are just engaging teachers for the first time in an eLearning, remote format,” Freytas said. “There are things we can’t control. What’s their situation at home like?”
RBHS students are required to sign in on their school-provided Chromebooks by noon each school day. Teachers send them assignments electronically and students meet with their teachers and classmates every few days on Zoom or in another video conferencing format.
Some teachers record lectures or demonstrations. Students say they are learning, but many say that they don’t learn as much as they would if they were still attending classes in person.
“The actual assignments that we get are probably shorter in length and easier to figure out by ourselves than if we were doing it in class, but it’s harder to stay focused and stay on track with all the stuff you’re doing,” said junior Ethan Miller. “It’s a lot of harder because you don’t have any teachers there.”
Chemistry teacher and science department instructional coach Christy Hughes said teachers have been developing virtual lessons using whatever resources they can find.
“There are so many tools out there,” Hughes said. “This is not ideal, this is not anything that anybody has even expected that we would have to do, I don’t think, but every day it seems like I find some other resource that makes eLearning easier.”
Science can be particularly challenging to teach virtually. Instead of doing experiments, students watch a video of someone doing the experiment.
“I think there is something that’s going to be lost there, but this is the best we can do right now,” Hughes said.
Students say that some of the work they are assigned can seem like busywork, but other assignments are challenging. For her French class, O’Donnell records herself speaking French and sends in an audio file to her teacher in addition to video conferencing.
Many students appreciate the video chats and the chance to connect with teachers and classmates.
“I think the teachers are doing an amazing, phenomenal job about eLearning, because this is a huge adjustment for them too,” Howorth said. “I’m really grateful for the amount of support that they’re giving us in terms of trying to schedule video conferences or emailing us and asking how things are going.”
Remote learning a challenge at LTHS
Lyons Township High School, which serves the south half of Brookfield, does not provide devices to its students, so the shift to remote learning has been even more difficult there.
After school shut down LTHS gave out more than 300 laptop computers to students who needed the devices. But since 3 to 4 percent of LTHS families lack reliable internet access at home, those students have the option to pick up weekly written packets of assignments at the school as well as accessing them on the internet. Teachers post assignments online by 9 a.m. on school days.
Remote learning at LTHS cannot match the rigor students get attending school in person, said Scott Eggerding, the director of curriculum and instruction at LTHS.
“Because we’re not one-to-one it’s not remote learning in the sense of like an online course,” Eggerding said. “One of our tech coaches said, ‘It’s not remote learning, it’s pandemic learning.'”
LTHS is following the state guideline that performance during remote learning can only help, not hurt, a student’s grade. A student’s grade cannot fall below the grade the student earned in the third quarter.
Specific guidance about semester grades won’t be issued until administrators know whether schools will reopen on May.
Freytas said that he doesn’t know what final exams would look like, or if there will even be any final exams, if school buildings remain closed for the rest of school year.
“We may not have a normal, traditional final exam experience,” Freytas said. “I trust in my teachers that there might be some kind of final assessment or final project for the students.”
While students have enjoyed the opportunity to sleep in, many are now missing their friends and the social aspect of school. Some still hope to return to school before the school year ends in May.
“I’m very bored without going to school, and I definitely miss some of my classmates, for sure,” O’Donnell said. “I definitely would be disappointed if it didn’t [resume this year].”