'It just feels different': Fewer return to in-person learning at Barrington High
Barrington High School junior Austin Molinaro knew that going back to in-person learning was going to be different, what with face masks, social distancing and all the rest. He didn't expect it to be so disheartening.
"I'm not going to lie -- it wasn't fun at all ... " Austin said. "It just felt like a ghost town when you were walking through the hallways."
Students in Barrington Area Unit District 220 had the option of starting hybrid learning last week -- meaning alternately going to school and learning from home -- or sticking with all-virtual learning. Austin is among a minority who returned to Barrington High.
The district has had all-virutal learning this year with the exception of a few days in October. High school Principal Steve McWilliams said families who said they preferred in-person learning dropped from 75% last summer, to just over 60% in October, to 46% in December. For seniors, it's about 40%, he said.
Because so many are staying home, the district announced Friday that seniors at Barrington High now have the option to go full-day, five days a week. Juniors can expect to have the same option soon, McWilliams said.
So why are so many students, especially seniors, choosing to stay home? A variety of reasons, McWilliams said, adding the same is happening at other suburban high schools.
Some students have become comfortable with remote learning and their new routine. Some have to watch younger siblings. Some just want to be cautious about COVID-19. Plus, nothing is normal, McWilliams said.
"It just feels different, naturally. It's not students gathering around a table in the commons room, going to the library or having a conversation in a small group," he said.
In an effort to make the environment less sterile, the school is doing things like introducing single-seat lunch tables so students can arrange them into "pods," he said.
Senior Carter Andreae said he was so dejected last week that he considered going back to all-virtual learning.
Teachers just aren't good at juggling students in the classroom and on Zoom at the same time, Carter said. There are also very few students in the classroom. "It feels really weird," he said.
But he likes his woodworking class, and face-to-face interaction is best for learning, so he's going to stick with in-person, although he'd rather do it in hybrid mode, he said.
McWilliams said some teachers are very effective at concurrent learning, but many "are getting their sea legs under them." The district is offering more professional development for that, he said.
"Teaching is a lot of science and a lot of art combined," McWilliams said. "The more students we get back, the better environment it becomes in the classroom."
Substitute teacher Sue Elliott Murdy said the district has done "a fabulous job" in implementing COVID-19 safeguards and most students seem glad to be back. But the classroom experience, no matter how hard teachers try, is "irregular to say the least," she said.
"I don't know what else they can do at this point except just keep doing this," she added.
Parent Marsha McClary said her son, a sophomore, had mixed feelings about being back last week, but it's good for him to be in school. "I know it's really easy as a parent to cave to your child wanting to stay at home, but at some point, it's just not super good for their mental health."
McClary said she's glad seniors can be in school full-time. She also said some families are concerned that at-home students can have an unfair advantage because they could cheat on tests while their peers are closely monitored in the classroom.
Carter, the senior, agreed. "That's probably not the best thing to say, but that's where the students are coming from."
Teachers are addressing that with methods like assignments that require personal creativity or step-by-step explanation, McWilliams said. "We just had a conversation (about cheating) with the leadership team yesterday," he said.
Parent Doreen Colletti Muhs, who works in the remote learning industry, said she doesn't fault the district for its struggles. Her son Quentin, a freshman, went back to school last week. Quentin said that, with the exception of his video production class, he was bored because his teachers were mostly preoccupied with their Zoom students.
Plus, the school has strict rules for everything, Quentin said.
"You can't really have or do anything you really want," he said.
That's just the way it has to be, because safety is paramount, McWilliams said.
Austin, the junior, said that if it weren't for his mother insisting it's good for him to be in school, he'd stay home.
"It's much easier waking up at 8:20 a.m., showering and logging into my iPad," he said, "rather than wake up at 7 a.m. and drive my siblings to their other schools and be in person."