By Saliha Bayrak
Having a conversation over the lunch table, waving to your friends between classes, sharing excitement over college admission letters — these are some of the things that Malden High School teenagers yearned for as they attended their classes virtually.
As Malden High School (MHS) transitions to hybrid learning with a phased process that started the week of March 15, nearly one year after schools switched to fully remote, students look back on all the ways that online learning has impacted their life. Remote learning uprooted the life of teens around the city and forced them to reimagine what their high school experience will look like. Now they ponder on how they will move forward.
Sheilly Patel, a senior at MHS, worries that she may miss some of the big milestones of high school such as senior prom and graduation. But she also misses the small activities that accompanied going to school in-person.
Patel says that she often finds herself “missing that kind of little social things that happen in between classes,” and notices the disconnect that is present among students who take online classes together.
“I don’t even know like half my classmates even though the school year is almost over,” said Patel. “Because sometimes people have things going on and they can’t really, I guess, participate as much…it’s kind of hard to make connections in that way.”
Juliana Davidson, a junior at MHS, also reflects on the impact the pandemic and remote learning has had on her social life.
“I came into quarantine with a good amount of friends. And we were like, hanging out after school, the normal high school thing. And right now, I think I have two friends that I see,” said Davidson.
Davidson encapsulates the feelings of frustration she has felt throughout the year.
“I only get four years of high school and this is it. I can’t retake it. I can’t relearn the material. And everything I’m learning is brand new. So it’s something that’s unfamiliar in an unfamiliar setting,” said Davidson.
Billy Zeng, a senior at MHS, believes that the biggest adjustments that he has had to make throughout his remote learning experience was keeping himself “accountable in terms of time management and productivity…when you’re not in school, it’s so easy to kind of just lose focus, because obviously you’re not in an environment that kind of stimulates, you know, your productivity.”
Davidson also describes her gradual loss of motivation and the shift in her daily schedule as the pandemic persisted throughout the school year.
“The first quarter, maybe I would wake up at 7:30, take a shower, go to class at 8:15. And then just sit at my desk, back straight, camera on and just do it. And it wasn’t fun, but I would get it done,” said Davidson “Then it kind of slowly switched to me just staying in bed for one class, and then the next class and then the next one. So now I try to wake up at 8:13 for my 8:15 class.”
When Zeng reflects on his past year of remote learning, he also considers the positive changes that occurred in his life.
“With remote learning, I found myself having a lot of more free time…it’s given me a lot of time to reflect on what’s important, what’s really not important,” said Zeng. “I felt like I could truly spend a lot more time on things that I’d normally wanted…that definitely helped my mental health.”
Zeng believes that the increased amount of free time that remote learning provided allowed him to explore his passions and focus on endeavors outside of school, like finding new ways to become involved with his community.
“I’ve been able to really create new relationships with my community and I think that’s definitely something I wouldn’t have gotten if we didn’t enter remote learning,” said Zeng.
He also notes that it has been a period of reflection and self-realization, realizing that “it’s OK to like to not get perfect grades, but kind of like the world will still go on.”
Ava Pizziferri is a senior at Malden High who opted to do “early college,” a program that allows students to earn college credits while still in high school. She often does school work during the day and goes to work at night. She echoes that sentiment of many seniors who feel as though they have missed the grand finale of their high school experience.
“Socially, it’s definitely kind of like upsetting… I feel like to a certain extent, because of remote learning, I’m missing out on my senior year,” said Pizziferri.
However, she said that the switch to remote learning and the changes in her daily schedule has immensely improved her mental health.
“I feel like mentally it’s been the best thing ever…I’ve struggled a little bit before, like being in a classroom setting with so many people and getting overwhelmed and anxious really fast,” said Pizziferri. “And I think because I was in such a dark place. I have such a better appreciation for life now.”
While some students have seen improvement to their mental health following the switch to remote learning, many still struggle.
Finn Sedan, a sophomore at Malden High, says that he has seen improvement in some aspects of his life since the switch to remote learning.
“I feel like I’ve matured a lot,” said Sedan.
However, he notes that it has been detrimental to his mental health.
“I felt much more depressed probably the past few months, because of school because for me, I just feel like every day feels like the same, like nothing much is happening.” said Sedan.
Throughout the last year, students have turned to the school to provide them with resources to aid in their online learning experience through an incredibly stressful time period.
One of the ways that administration could be of support to students, Sedan believes, is by helping “teachers come up with more methods on how to spend class time off of the computer.”
Administration has acknowledged the impact that remote learning and stressors related to the pandemic could have on mental health, especially for adolescents with an already higher level of susceptibility to mental health issues.
In a letter to parents and caregivers in December of 2020, John Oteri, the superintendent of Malden Public Schools, wrote: “It can be easy to misread mental health issues as typical adolescent turmoil…Due to the current global pandemic and our remote learning status, there may be an increase in mental health struggles among students.”
Patel believes that giving students the option to do online learning or hybrid learning was a considerate decision on the part of the administration.
‘I feel like MHS has been very supportive and kind of acknowledging that not everyone can keep up with this remote learning” said Patel. “That’s kind of been the idea behind launching the hybrid schedule, like not everyone can learn as efficiently online as they may be learning face to face. So I think that it’s good that they kind of are giving this opportunity to those who want to take it and kind of have been struggling.”
One of the ways that Zeng believes that Malden High is being supportive to students while they transition into hybrid learning is creating a “mindfulness period.” This period is between classes on Wednesdays, the day of the week that everyone will be doing full remote learning.
Since March 15, Malden High is following a hybrid model in which students will be separated into two cohorts. One cohort will attend in-person classes on Monday and Tuesday, while the second cohort will attend in-person classes on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday will be a fully remote day for everyone.
The FAQ site of Malden Public Schools reads: “It is our goal to have schedules resemble a “normal” school day as much as possible.”
Many students will be getting up early to sit in classrooms again — the sound of a bell separating class periods rather than the ding of an email notification. No longer digitally divided from their classmates.
While remote learning will still remain a large part of MHS, this past year has prepared students for whatever is to come in the next few months. Students, now equipped with experience, offer advice to other teenagers who continue to attend school during the pandemic.
“Carve out time where you’re like, you’re not doing work or you’re not sitting in front of a screen,” said Zeng.
“One piece of advice I would give is kind of just having a designated place where you kind of do school in your house and kind of just isolating yourself from any distractions” said Patel.
While student’s return to sharing the same physical space as vaccinations roll out across the nation, they also plan for the future.
Looking ahead, Zeng says that he wants to spend his “famous summer before college,” finding time for activities that bring him joy, instead of cramming it with work, as he says has done in the past.
“What I’ve been really wanting to do is… have this period of relaxation… not really doing that much over the summer and kind of doing activities that I find joyous,” said Zeng.
Saliha Bayrak is a journalism major at UMass Amherst, currently interning at UMA (Urban Media Arts) in Malden.