Most N.L. teens haven't been inside a classroom for weeks. These students are eager for change
It's been nearly two months since an outbreak of COVID-19 in the St. John's area sent students across Newfoundland and Labrador into online learning mode.
Most high school students haven't set foot in a classroom since.
On Wednesday, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District said it would change that. The system is moving to a blended learning model that will see students divided into two groups who rotate between in-class and virtual attendance, keeping high schools at half-capacity.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday that plan strikes a balance between two real threats: variant transmission in a close classroom environment and students' mental wellbeing.
CBC News spoke with four high school students earlier this week about the effects of studying alone, and asked for their thoughts about the best way to tackle high school education in a pandemic.
Here's what they said.
'There's no reason we shouldn't go back'
Skye Moyles, a Grade 10 student at Lewisporte Collegiate, said pivoting from the classroom to working in isolation hasn't been an easy transition to grasp.
"I'm a really slow typer, so it takes me a lot longer than an hour to complete an assignment that I need to have done that class," Moyles explained.
While she's racing against the clock, she's also contending with messages from her classmates asking for that day's answers. "So many people are not doing the work," Moyles said. "And then it makes you feel like you're doing it all, and other people just aren't doing the work they should be."
Others in her area can't even make it to virtual class when internet signals sputter.
"I really think we should be going back to school," she said on Monday, before the province announced its new model. She pointed to a perceived disparity in rules that allow younger students in the classroom, but not more mature students.
"We're responsible, we wear masks. We don't have to be around each other. We can stay six feet apart."
Moyles described her virtual schedule as burdensome, but rotating in-class learning — which was implemented last year — was worse, defined by stretches of time at home without any instruction at all. (The blended model, in contrast, has students joining classes by video chat from home on the days they aren't in the class.)
WATCH: Kids chime in on the trials of distance learning
Staying home full-time, she said, feels more like a punishment than a useful plan. She'd rather see a total return to the classroom, five days a week.
"Just because one high school made a mistake doesn't mean that … every other high school in Newfoundland is going to make the same mistake," she said..
"We should be in school. There's no reason why we shouldn't be."
'There are no rules here'
Carys Jackson, in Grade 12 at Riverwood Academy in Wings Point, Gander Bay, said it's nearly impossible for students to apply themselves without their peers around.
"Students like me and many others get into that mentality of, 'I can do it tomorrow, it's only a Zoom class, there are no rules here,'" Jackson said. And without a teacher peering over her shoulder, nobody can tell whether she's on her phone, playing Xbox or actually paying attention.
"It's very easy for a student to log on to a Zoom call and sleep through it, you know? No one sees you. You put yourself on mute," she says.
"It's very easy to bend the rules of online learning."
Then there's the logistical barrier.
"We can't do gym class at home," Jackson said. "If we're in science class and we wanted to do a project, we can't do that at home … I personally feel like we aren't learning as much and I don't feel fully prepared for post-secondary."
Jackson leaves mandatory education behind in mere weeks. In September, she's off to college, but the months of missed or truncated classes have added up. Even with top grades, she said, the long days spent alone have left a mark.
Jackson thinks high school students could return to class safely with a full-time mask policy in place — a kind of modified "Scenario 1," she said, referring to the English school board's list of pandemic teaching modalities.
"We can limit interactions among the hallways and stuff like that," she said. "It would be a very different Scenario 1, but it could still potentially get us back into the classroom full-time, which is what we really need."
'It feels like we're being punished"
When high schools closed in February, Heidi Pike remembers thinking two weeks at home wouldn't be so bad.
The Grade 11 student at Glovertown Academy said that outlook, however, was fleeting.
"It just feels … completely pointless that we're home," Pike said, pointing to the province's bottomed-out caseload — as of Thursday, there were four active cases of COVID-19. Now, she added, they've got more assignments than last year, except they don't get to leave the house.
Starting April 14, Pike, who spoke to CBC on Monday, will get that chance.
At home, "it feels like we're learning way less and we're doing more work," she says, describing weeks on end of staring at names on a screen, with little social interaction to break the monotony. "You don't get to see your friends and you don't get to talk to anyone.
"It was just the one school [where this outbreak] happened, and it feels like we're being punished."
Pike said her peers are no longer on the same page: some are behind on the curriculum, others far ahead.
"As of right now, we don't even know about final exams, and we're here trying to learn all of the stuff we need to know for finals, because we're still preparing in case we have them.
"I think if we were in school, we'd be better prepared."
Classroom 'can't be matched'
When you walk into a school, said Aaron Norris, you're there to learn.
It's a lot harder to turn his bedroom — where he relaxes and sleeps — into the same type of stimulating environment.
"The social aspect isn't there," the Grade 12 student at Mount Pearl Senior High said. "The actual feel of being in the classroom, it just can't be matched."
He hasn't had an exam since Grade 10, leaving Norris feeling underprepared for university in September.
"It's a huge step," he says, one that requires full in-class learning, tests and all.
Norris said he's impressed with how virtual learning evolved, especially after the variant outbreak that hit his school community. Long-term, though, it simply doesn't do the trick.
"We need to be back in the classroom," he said.
"I think it's the only way that we can adequately move forward and everyone be prepared for next year."
With files from Peter Cowan