Almost a year ago, the world shut down. The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the country to find ways of learning from home to prevent the spread of the virus. Recently the Merrillville Community School Corporation opened their school buildings back up for students to return to in-person classes.
In order to accommodate everyone’s needs, students have the choice to continue to learn from home, attend in-person classes, or even do a little of both with blended learning. Assistant Principal Tim James understands the challenges this past year has presented and wants to aid students as much as possible.
“It's important to offer multiple learning opportunities to our students to meet their individual needs and address their concerns, especially at this time,” James said. “I estimate about 45 percent are attending blended and in-person, and the rest of our students are attending virtually.”
Many precautions have been put in place in order to follow proper safety and social distancing guidelines. Masks are worn by everyone in the building, sanitation stations are located throughout the hallways, plexiglass barriers are set up in the cafeterias, and desks are spread out six or more feet apart and are disinfected during passing periods.
Junior Leah Peloza feels safe being back in-person and appreciates everyone's efforts in maintaining a healthy environment.
“I feel the school has done a great job of making coming back feel comfortable,” Peloza said. “All around the school there are reminders to social distance and wash your hands regularly to keep everyone safe. In the cafeteria, there are markings on where to sit, and even QR codes for where each person sat for contact tracing situations.”
While some students enjoy being able to do their work from home, many have been struggling in their virtual courses and need to be in-person, free from distractions and able to work hands-on in the classroom.
“The number one reason I chose to come back was for the actual interaction with teachers in classes like orchestra and AP Chemistry where we do a lot of interactive labs,” Peloza said. “It was harder to do orchestra virtually because there was no way for a class our size to be able to play together online. There were lots of connection problems and it wasn’t the same energy as playing together in person.”
Though in-person learning has brought many benefits to some, not all students were ready to come back into the building. Junior Taylor Jackson has been completely virtual since the beginning of the quarantine last March.
“Ultimately I chose to remain virtual because I was not quite ready for the in-person switch,” Jackson said. “I felt it would be such a hassle to adapt so quickly to the in-person environment. I have grown to enjoy school while being in the comfort of my own home, which sounds totally bizarre because we’ve had in-person instruction our entire lives!”
Jackson feels learning from home is ultimately the best choice for her, but she has also faced some negative side effects that come with not being one-on-one in the classroom.
“The biggest challenge of virtual learning is definitely finding a source of motivation and to actually have self discipline," Jackson said. "Being a virtual learner, it’s much easier to lose focus and to not be as attentive as you would be actually attending in person school. If you’re in a class where the teachers don’t require cameras, you essentially have no one over your shoulder telling you what to do.”
For teachers accommodating both students learning in person and virtually at the same time, it is evident that the face-to-face connection and educational experience is often beneficial. Chemistry teacher Michelle Ruane teaches complex courses that require much more than just reading from a textbook, and is glad to be able to aid her students as much as possible.
“We are at the point in honors and AP chemistry where most students find the material very challenging,” Ruane said. “I had a student ask why learning chemistry was easier in person, and I explained that with one simple answer: I can get the students back on track. In person, I see what they are struggling with immediately as I work with them and then I can get them back on the right path. If I feel all students may have the same misconception, I can reteach this portion of the material to everyone in class. With my help, students can improve their understanding of the work and score better on their assessments.”
According to Ruane, one of the most important parts of education in any course is learning from others. This is something classes have struggled to accomplish virtually, but Ruane and many other teachers hope that students will be given more opportunities to grow together with in-person learning.
“When a student asks questions in a live classroom setting, it changes another student's perspective and understanding in a way that is not always realized,” Ruane said. “Every student processes information based on their own experiences and framework of understanding...this framework is shaped not only by their own learning, but also from others who may be at a higher level of understanding.”
Over the last 11 months, the Merrillville Community School Corporation has risen to the challenges of the unprecedented times brought forth by the virus. As the weeks of flattening the curve have evolved into months of restrictions and preventative measures, the loss of memories made and the uncertainty of the future continues to affect many students.
“When we’re all grown up reflecting back on our high school career, it’ll be different from many others," Jackson said. "We were stripped of so many memories, and students missed out on sports seasons, class plays, academic competitions, and even graduations. Those memories stay with you for a lifetime and to not know if I will even have a graduation, homecoming, or prom when I become a senior crushes my heart.”
The offering of in-person learning is one step closer to a sense of hope and optimism for the future.
“I feel like this first week has gone great,” James said. “There is a positive feeling that things are getting better and back to normal, and together we can continue in that direction.”