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'School This Year Just Feels Wrong': Two Nauset High School Seniors Reflect on Their Last Year of School

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Educators have been in the news a lot this school year as they've worked to provide safe, and sustainable, learning environments for themselves and their students amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nauset Regional High School is operating with a hybrid model this year, with students in two cohorts in school two days a week. Wednesdays are a fully remote day so the school building can be cleaned.

This model hasn't worked for all students. High school seniors Joy McCarthy and Elizabeth Baird each asked for a plan that would suit their individual needs in this unusual year. McCarthy opted to be in school as much as possible, which is four days per week, while Baird, due to family concerns, has opted to go fully remote.

Just last year, my teachers often struggled to get us to stop talking and pay attention. Now, they're sometimes pleading for a response, or even just a nod or thumbs up from the virtual kids.
Joy McCarthy

We asked both women to describe their experiences, then we asked teacher Susan Tortorella to take a listen and react.

Here’s some of what the three women had to say.

McCarthy made the decision to attend school four days per week because she said knew it would be better for her academically. But her classes were nothing like what she experienced before the pandemic.

“Being on campus is better for me socially and academically, but it's still not great,” she said. “At least it's not how I imagined my senior year.”

Due to her family circumstances, Baird made the opposite choice, deciding to attend school five days a week fully remote, from home.

“School is already hard enough for some people, but going to school during a pandemic feels absurd,” Baird said. “I personally love learning and I quite enjoy school, but not this year. Online schooling feels wrong.”

While their learning choices are vastly different, some of their experiences are the same. For one thing, school is no longer a place to meet and chat with friends, or participate in a lively and challenging discussion in the classroom.

Instead, the school day is quiet.

“Just last year, my teachers often struggled to get us to stop talking and pay attention,” McCarthy said. “Now, they're sometimes pleading for a response, or even just a nod or thumbs up from the virtual kids.”

All students, whether they’re in school, or learning remotely, have to be on their computer when in class, and the hours of screen time are taking a toll on students’ mental and emotional health.

“We have to stare at our screen during school hours, do our homework, and most of our studying online as well,” Baird said. “And at the end of the day, my eyes are strained, my back hurts, and my brain feels like it's on fire.”

At the end of the day, my eyes are strained, my back hurts, and my brain feels like it's on fire.
Elizabeth Baird

Nauset Regional High School psychology and sociology teacher Susan Tortorella said Baird’s and McCarthy’s experiences are common.

“This is like the Twilight Zone, and everything that they've ever known or experienced about learning is different,” she said.

Tortorella said that even for those who are in her classroom with her, they are still isolated, spaced up to six feet apart, with masks on and their computer screen open. Tortorella herself must stay inside a cordoned-off area; long gone are the days of walking between desks, chatting with students and handing back assignments.

“It just goes against everything that you've ever experienced in how to build relationships with people, how to read body language and facial expressions,” she said. “All those tools have been removed, and it has taken such a long time to get to know people and to build trust with students.”

The students aren’t retaining as much as they might in a traditional school year, Tortorella said, because of the stress of the ongoing pandemic, the physical isolation, and the radically different learning environment.

“Trauma really has an amazingly negative impact on our ability to understand information, to encode information, and retrieve information from our memories,” she said. “And the amount of material that I've been able to cover has been a third of what I would normally cover.”

Both McCarthy and Baird said they are struggling more academically this year than they have in the past. And, it makes them look forward to graduating—being done with school.

“I'll be taking a break until I can continue my education in a way that works best for me," McCarthy said. "Right now. I'm just counting the days.”

Tortorella worries the Class of 2021 won’t have the kind of closure other senior classes had, with weeks filled with parties, sporting events and special events to mark this important milestone and help students say goodbye.

Separation amid the pandemic is part of keeping everyone safe, Tortorella said, but she looks forward to a day when the high school halls will be buzzing again, and students can experience the important hallmarks of their American education together.

“I really look forward to lots of noise,” she said. “Lots and lots of noise.”