Maya Mitchell and Lindsay Gross, Opinions Editors

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has created a number of issues worldwide, but in the South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD), a main concern of the virus is when in-person learning will resume. Since March 13, 2020, when SOMSD schools shifted into virtual learning that was supposed to only elapse for two weeks, most students, teachers, parents and faculty have asked the essential question: “When are we going back?”

Until the last few weeks, the answer has been, “I don’t know.” In the 2020-21 school year alone, the start date for hybrid learning has been postponed at least three times, causing confusion towards the district from parents, staff and students. 

The district’s plan to reopen schools involves phases: Phases 1 and 2 include having school administration and teachers go back into the building and resume their activities from there, and Phases 3 and 4 consist of letting students go back into the building with a gradual increase in capacity. At Columbia High School (CHS), Phase 3 entailed that only ninth graders could resume in-person learning on a cohort schedule. Phase 4 permitted the same concept for the remaining students at CHS. However, the district has yet to integrate 10-12th graders due to a rocky experience with freshmen in-person learning, as well as COVID-19 worsening.

Cases Are Decreasing

Students, teachers, parents and faculty have changed their essential question as 2021 began to “Should we even go back?” According to the New York Times’ coronavirus risk map, the average seven-day COVID-19 infection rate in the United States has gone from 42,295 cases per week around Sept. 1, to 163,182 cases per week around Jan. 27. Essex County has gone from being considered high risk to extremely high risk in the same period of time. However, the average case amount per week has dropped to 66,393 as of Feb. 22. After 10 months of all-virtual classes, the doors of 17 Parker Ave. were opened up to ninth-graders on Jan. 27 for optional hybrid learning. 

What About the Subs?

The shift to virtual learning does not equate to students and faculty having no absences. When students are absent, there is no one to take their spot. Teachers, on the other hand, are commonly known to be replaced with a substitute teacher when absent.

Protocols have changed amidst the many other shifts in learning due to the limitations of COVID-19. Currently, there are four subs at CHS, three subs in the middle schools and two subs at each elementary school. The substitutes are paid per diem, meaning they are not paid if they do not work. All substitutes working in SOMSD are being compensated.  

According to Wahkeelah Ellis, the secretary at CHS, the protocol for a teacher’s absence entails reporting their absence to the CHS substitute service and indicating whether or not a substitute is required for their class(es). When a substitute is assigned, the teacher will typically provide substitute plans for the students. According to CHS Principal Frank Sanchez, when teachers are out sick for multiple days, they are required to post asynchronous lessons on Canvas. If there are hybrid students in the building, they will be moved to work in the library. If a teacher is absent due to a mandated quarantine period or is infected with COVID-19, they teach from home and a substitute monitors the hybrid students in the building who watch the teacher stream class online, while the virtual students watch from home. 

When CHS psychology teacher Gopika Sharma went on maternity leave this past Fall, substitute Kevin Seavers replaced her for the rest of the year. Lila Price, ‘21, is a student in Seaver’s class, and does not feel that the switch to a substitute teacher has hindered her learning. Price stated, “I don’t think it’s been harder to learn with a sub because he did a good job of modeling his teaching style to Ms. Sharma.” She added, “The switch happened so early in the year that it barely made a difference, because I didn’t really know Ms. Sharma that well when she left.”

In contrast to Price, Makenna Davis, ‘22, struggled with adapting to a substitute math teacher. Davis had Jorge Perez for Calculus 3, who was out of class for a few days on paternity leave. On days when he was absent, the class did not meet and students were assigned asynchronous work posted on Canvas. Davis said, “I would rather have no class so I can focus on the homework that is given for the week [instead of having a substitute teach the class]. With the type of work teachers give, it’s hard for a sub to come in and help students, especially online.” Fiona Bristol, ‘21, agreed with Davis, explaining, “I kind of enjoy having ‘free’ periods, even if there’s an assignment to do. I think it’s nice to get a break from staring at a screen and [lets me] work by myself.”

Pros and Cons

Although SOMSD is slowly reopening for in-person learning, students have the choice of continuing all-virtual learning or going into hybrid learning on a cohort-based schedule. In a recent poll done by The Columbian, the virtual-versus-hybrid decision is split almost evenly amongst the CHS student body, with 53% of polled students choosing to stay virtual and 47% choosing to go into hybrid learning. However, when asked if SOMSD made the right choice to let teachers and freshmen inside classrooms, more than half of the respondents said “no” or were “unsure.” Many survey responses included students saying they should have gone back originally in September, or that seniors should have been included in Phase 3 instead of freshmen. 

Both virtual and in-person learning come with their own set of pros and cons. Students and their families have to weigh health, physical and mental concerns. “I was pretty hesitant [to choose hybrid learning] because cases were high,” said Miki Sakai, ‘21. “I didn’t want to put my dad at risk. I think a lot of other people had that mentality too.”

With vaccinations slowly progressing throughout New Jersey, some students said they would not be okay going back to school unless themselves or their teachers were vaccinated. For others, friends being split up through the alphabetically designed cohorts, the senior parking lot no longer being available to students because of the school’s increased need for buses to help with social distancing, or simply not wanting to leave the comfort of their homes was enough for them to stay virtual.

On the other hand, hybrid learning provides more academic opportunities for students. “In person learn[ing] means in person conference periods,” stated Molly Sandler, ‘21. “School isn’t meant to be online.”

The switch to online school has created many changes in CHS for both students and staff, and the same is the case for the switch from fully virtual to hybrid learning. However, Bristol added, “Nothing can truly replace having your physical teacher there… I don’t really feel like I’m learning when teachers miss class and there’s no sub.”

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