Feature

Jonah Traub, Co Editor-in-Chief

On Friday, March 13, 2020, with COVID-19 cases in New Jersey and around the world rising at a rapid rate, South Orange and Maplewood School District (SOMSD) Superintendent Dr. Ronald G. Taylor announced that SOMSD would be ceasing all in-person learning. Some in the community expected the district-mandated distanced learning to last longer than the two weeks it was originally planned to be, like Tommy Coutinho, ‘21, who “knew that [school] would be [online] for at least a couple months.” However, Coutinho, like others in the community, did not expect in-person schooling to be put off for as long as it has: “when [the district’s plan changed] into the full calendar year being cancelled, it was crazy.”

This shift to distanced learning and the onset of the pandemic have forced limitations upon physical interaction and resulted in the cancelation, postponement or significant modification of many staples of the Maplewood-South Orange (MAPSO) community and its schooling – graduation and prom, performing arts and athletics, SATs, road tests, and more. 

Change of any kind can pose a challenge, especially when it comes to adapting to and dealing with a global pandemic and its consequences. In some instances, that change can take a significant toll on an individual’s or community’s mental health. COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on members of the Columbia High School (CHS) and MAPSO communities, but to what extent has it affected the mental health of the students and faculty of CHS as they pursue an education? 

So CHS, in the immortal words of Joey Tribbiani, “How you doin’?”

The Schedule

After the completion of the 2019-2020 school year, all CHS students, along with the other students in the district, were asked to adjust to a new type of schooling once again, with the district making the switch to the Canvas Learning Management System, an application designed to handle the unique challenges that online learning poses. Canvas brought along new opportunities for the school district, but also required students and teachers to adjust to even more change in a time that was already lacking stability and normalcy. While students and teachers have now had four months to get acclimated to the program, the challenges it poses remain fresh.

One change that the switch to Canvas has brought about is a new schedule at CHS. CHS operates on a split schedule of A days and B days, which makes sure that students are going through a maximum of five classes per day. This schedule, regardless of its benefits and drawbacks, means the end of official instruction for teachers and students at 11:55 a.m. on A days and B days, unless someone were to have a ninth period, in which case their schedule ends at 1:55 p.m. on B days. This has resulted in a shorter school day for many students, along with a maximum of three class meetings a week, significantly reducing the amount of time that teachers and students have together. 

Margot Rosenband, ‘24, welcomed the schedule change and its impact on her emotional health. “After 12 [p.m.], I pretty much have a free day except for my homework,” said Rosenband in regards to how the new schedule has affected her personal timetable. She appreciates the extra time that the new schedule has opened up in her day, and feels “less stressed because I have more time to do my work.” Along with having more time to complete work, Rosenband has been given ample opportunity to pursue her passions and engage in many self care oriented activities “like baking or doing art projects.” 

However, the split schedule, while having ups to go along with downs, has been less favorable to Coutinho. “While ending classes early is great, teachers expect us to keep track of a multitude of assignments due days [ahead] for different classes on different days. This along with having to reteach [my]self topics between A [and] B days leaves me as a student feeling really stressed.”

Art by: C. Baker

The schedule that CHS is currently using, while providing teachers and students with more flexible afternoons, has also worked to significantly limit the amount of time spent together in class, pushing many teachers to use a minimized or more efficient course curriculum, a faster lecture pace or both. 

One teacher who has felt demands from the schedule is Joseph Lombardo, an English teacher at CHS who has had to significantly limit the material that is covered in his course due to the time crunch. “I can’t give the kids more work than I can do with them, and I can only do so much work with them,” commented Lombardo. “We definitely cannot cover remotely anywhere close to what we can cover when it is not remote.” Because of the limits on his class time, Lombardo has been forced to cut down the curriculum he has gotten accustomed to, like in his Sports Literature class, where “normally the class would read six to eight full-length texts over the course of the year, and this year… I am not even sure if we are going to be able to do the four full-length texts [that were planned],” which “definitely gives me concern.” While Lombardo is not necessarily feeling overly stressed out by the extra preparatory work he has had to do, he has needed to plan an extremely condensed version of the curriculum that highlights the most important parts of the course. Lombardo also has to consider the ways he can provide students with a quality understanding of the curriculum in a time where they meet at most three times a week.

In the SOMSD Return to School Virtual Town Hall Meeting on Dec. 17, the district gave a presentation that outlined, among other things, what they had in mind for the new CHS schedule, if all CHS students that opt-in to hybrid learning are able to return to in-person school in some capacity by Jan. 27, like it is currently planned. The schedule would operate on a cohort system, which would send different groups of students into school on different days while the remaining students – including those who opt to continue online learning – participate in virtual instruction. The new schedule will operate on the familiar AB format and use a similar timeline, with the school day spanning from 8 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. on A days as well as B days – except for those with a ninth period, who will end B day instruction at 1:50 p.m. However, the new schedule will alter which periods take place on which days, with periods one, two, three and five being paired together on A days and periods six, four, eight and seven – and for some, period nine – taking place on B days. The new schedule will also have C, or asynchronous, days every Friday. The new schedule does not heavily alter the amount of time each student is spending in class – whether synchronous or otherwise – allowing for students’ daily schedules to operate relatively unchanged, but it does cut down even more on the amount of times each class will meet face-to-face per school week, with classes now capped at a maximum of two meetings a week. Students that choose to remain fully online will see a change in which periods they go to on which days, as well as how many times per week they meet with each class – thanks in part to the weekly C day on Fridays – but apart from that, there appears to be relatively few modifications coming their way. CHS’s students and teachers will have to wait until the switch to hybrid happens to see what effect the new schedule truly has on their mental health.

A Healthy Workload

Regardless of the type of schooling someone participates in, dealing with heavier workloads can have a tremendous impact on a person’s mental health. Due to the various courses that are available at CHS and the numerous ways that teachers are choosing to deal with the time crunch that the virtual experience and its new schedule create, different students have different amounts of work, with some getting more or less than they had grown accustomed to.

Rosenband has witnessed many positives when it comes to the workload she is receiving from CHS. Echoing what Lombardo discussed, she feels that the workload of her and her peers “has not increased by much, and we are not learning as much as we would in [person].” She also said that her current volume of work “is less strenuous” than what she has received in the past. Rosenband also has access to “makeup work days,” or is required to complete “little reflection assignments that do not take a long time,” on the occasional C day. This allows her to work through her stack of assignments before they start to pile up or complete simple assignments in a rapid fashion, avoiding additional anxiety. The large amount of time she has to complete the work, coupled with a load that is less challenging than in the past, has worked to lessen Rosenband’s burden and decrease the overall stress she is feeling. 

However, while workload is generally posing less of a challenge to her, Rosenband does start to feel pressure at some moments thanks to the complicated psychology of motivation during online school. While she may be faced with less work, Rosenband has observed a definite drop-off in her motivation to complete assignments, even if there are fewer of them. 

Ty Budd, ‘21, is experiencing a drastically different course load than Rosenband. “I’ve been getting so much more [homework] than [I have through] all of high school.” Budd also feels that his workload has been “more strenuous,” and that he has “more things to do on [his] own without the aid of teachers or classmates in school.” Despite the differences in their stress from work, both Rosenband and Budd have struggled with motivating themselves. “Personally, I’ve struggled to find motivation to start doing work and I have been procrastinating more than I have my whole school career,” Budd stated when asked about the effects that online learning and its structure have had on him. He has had a difficult time finding the strength to get through his assignments. Budd believes that this lack of motivation stems from the intense workload he is facing, concluding that the large amount of school work he receives, in combination with the diminished academic support he is getting from his teachers, acts as an intimidating deterrent. This combination discourages him, pushing procrastination of starting work and creating more stress at a later date, even if it provides initial relief.

The idea of a stressful workload is definitely not lost on CHS’s teachers, including one of the lead teachers in the Physical Education (Phys Ed) department, Robert Shannon. Because of the difficulties in implementing a class online that solely consists of physical activity, the Phys Ed department decided to create a curriculum that is based in both exercise and short writing assignments, attempting to engage students physiologically and mentally. As a result, students have been pressed to use skills that physical education courses do not traditionally ask of them. “This is the [largest amount of] written assignments that we’ve had students do,” said Shannon. When constructing the new curriculum for Phys Ed classes taking place online, Shannon, other members of his department and administration members did so with the thought in mind that they “didn’t want to overburden kids with an additional assignment to do outside our classroom.” “We know that other teachers are giving [students] tons and tons of assignments,” Shannon continued. “We heard the feedback from the students and we didn’t want to be a part of it.”

Like Lombardo, Shannon has had to work with his department to “reinvent physical education” so it fits with the online format. Online schooling has also pushed Shannon to help coworkers adapt to and effectively use new technology. “Every day, I am on the phone with one of my colleagues trying to help them with a piece of technology,” Shannon said. “There are many days [where] I’ll be on the phone working with my colleagues at 5:30 in the morning and [remaining on calls] till 7-8 o’clock at night.”

Engagement in Learning

Distanced learning has forced teachers and students to reimagine what it means to be in a classroom, as well as how to actively take part in classes. 

For Budd, engaging in his classes has proven to be somewhat of a challenge. Budd has found his attention slipping away from class and towards the things around him, something that is most likely exacerbated by the at-home working environment. “Having the internet at my fingertips is very distracting, and since there’s no real way to be penalized for getting unfocused in class, I find it easier to do so.” Losing focus in class can pull students away from the lesson and interrupt their understanding of the material being taught. Combine this with limited class time and ability to interact with teachers, as well as a decrease in support for the material being learned, and getting distracted could lead to gaps in a student’s understanding of the course. 

Somewhat similarly to Budd, Coutinho feels like he is having difficulty getting engaged with and mastering the material he is being taught online. While participating in online school, he has observed that “teachers are constantly making us learn on our own or look up concepts they didn’t bother to teach as it would take up too much time. This really affects the long term absorption and application of the things we are taught.” In Coutinho’s eyes, students are left wanting more support for the content they are being lectured on, and are put in a situation where they need to reinforce the material outside of class if they want to truly understand it. In many cases, this leads to a similar outcome, one where “students are not really learning anything.” Students are more so reviewing information in a way that allows them to regurgitate it on an exam, rather than truly absorbing it, and Coutinho said, “Studying for weeks to apply topics that you should already [know] is just reciting from short term memory rather than actually learning anything.” With less class time to work with and fewer opportunities to engage with course subject matters in the presence – either physical or virtual – of teachers, students are left relying on themselves to learn much of the course content, which lessens the knowledge they are coming away with and adds to their own burden, while also defeating some of the purpose of virtually meeting for class.

Lombardo has experienced his fair share of challenges when it comes to student engagement. Many classes in the language arts department thrive on critical thinking and passionate discussion, and Lombardo has struggled with bringing those insightful conversations to life in an online format. “It’s really hard to get a free and genuine exchange of ideas going.” In conversations within Lombardo’s classes, “The back and forth and the free exchange [of thought] is just [extremely] hard to pull off,” making it so extra effort on his end, as well as on the end of his students’, is required if productive discussions are desired.

Lombardo also struggles with navigating the thin line between keeping students in accordance with district policy and alienating them to a point that jeopardizes the teacher-student relationship being built. “If you have to harass [students] to put their cameras on, that immediately creates a bar between the teacher and the student.” Lombardo added that “it’s hard to get around those bars [between teacher and student],” which pushes him to approach each interaction more thoughtfully as he attempts to prevent these bars from occurring while also making sure that the requirements of the district are satisfied.

Helpful Resources

Despite being in the midst of a pandemic and online learning, help is available from the community and the resources it provides. Even though we are separated, we are not alone, and anyone struggling with mental health issues does not need to face them on their own. 

There are a multitude of resources at CHS that work to promote positive mental health and provide students with opportunities to talk to others about these issues. One such resource is the CHS Mental Health Club, which, according to one of the club’s leaders, Vivian Stein, ‘21, allows for the destigmatization of “feelings that surround struggling with mental health issues.” In the past, the club has fundraised for The Jed Foundation, which, according to their website, “Help[s] schools evaluate and strengthen their mental health, substance misuse and suicide prevention programs and systems to safeguard individual and community health.” Despite the switch to distanced learning, the Mental Health Club still holds meetings, getting together “through zoom every Monday,” at either 12 or 1 pm “depending on whether it’s [an] A or B day.” Stein noted, “Current meetings are mostly just to [relieve stress],” which is usually accomplished by “play[ing] online video games to have a brief moment of relaxation in a stress-filled time.” The club tries to provide a positive environment that “allows for a lot of people to feel safe and at home when they come to meetings.” At meetings, Stein said, “you can talk or you can just listen, but it’s helpful [for] reliev[ing] stress [either way].”

Photo courtesy of: R. Shannon

The CHS Guidance department also offers multiple resources to students that are struggling or those who would like to take advantage of them. According to Falynn Balassone, Director of Guidance at CHS, CHS offers multiple weekly programs, including “Mondays’ SLAM Empower Hour, Teachable Tuesdays, Wellness Wednesdays, and Talk to me Thursdays.” In addition, “The first Friday of every month there is a MAC sponsored social hour.” Along with utilizing these resources, Balassone advised that students “take advantage of all the ways [CHS is] offering to connect virtually, [such as] counseling events [and] clubs.” Balassone recommended that students “step away from the screen and get some fresh air every day.”

Even in a time where society feels fractured and anxiety runs rampant, the MAPSO and CHS communities have continued to stick by each other and offer a helping hand to those who need it. We all experience hardships sometimes, and for some of us this may be the most difficult time yet, but the people of this community are not abandoning each other. Like Shannon has said, even though it may not seem like it, “a lot of people are in the same boat [as you].” “Remember that there’s always someone out there that can help you.”

Design by: Matt McBride