Virtual learning harbors its own gifts

By Tamar Coon

Urban Health Media Project

Before March of 2020, everything was normal: I was in 8th grade at Columbia Heights Educational Campus. We were reading a book that I loved. Then, my homeroom teacher started talking about a plague, and I heard about a virus and lockdowns happening in China. All of a sudden we were out of school and learning from home.

Tamar Coon

At first I was stressed because I was totally confused about how to navigate the new technology and platforms like Zoom and Canvas that we used for remote learning. My school provided a computer, but it wasn’t working and we had to get a new one.. 

During school my little sister would sit next to me with her Zoom class playing loudly next to mine while I struggled to hear what my teacher was saying, sending my stress levels through the roof. 

Eventually, though, we found a way to make it work. My mother helped me through my worries, talking with me about my feelings, and eventually created study stations around the house so that my sister and I rotated through different rooms as the day went on, just like our school transitions. 

So when I heard that my freshman year of high school would begin virtually, I wasn’t sad about it. I had learned how to navigate the systems and started to like remote learning. I set high standards for myself so I could achieve my dream of going to college. I felt more content. 

While much research has focused on negative impacts of virtual learning on students' mental health and success, some students like myself have actually thrived. We’ve had more time to relax, spend time with family, sleep more, and experienced less pressure to do a million extracurricular activities. 

Research published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology this October shows that other adolescent girls had a similar experience during the pandemic:  70 percent of girls reported more time to relax; more than half spent more time with family; and 42 percent reported more free time for creative pursuits. 

As I found myself spending more time with my family, I felt more serene. The research supports this connection, as well as a decrease in negative emotions such as depression and anxiety. 

Time management was also easier while working from home, in part because I got more sleep. Not getting enough sleep is a big problem for any teenager, and it’s associated with decreased immunity, poor eating habits, and can negatively affect learning, among other outcomes.  The research shows how crucial it is for students to sleep, relax, grow, and reflect. 

More sleep gave me a chance to become aware of what is happening around me. Watching the news after school every day, seeing the increasing death toll from the virus, the civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd, and a divisive presidential election was overwhelming. So, I stopped watching for a while. 

I started to focus on organization. Before, I wasn’t really organized with my school work, but virtual learning made it easier. Everything I needed was in my house! Nothing got left behind at school or in a class. 

Roosevelt High School AP World History teacher Brandon Thompson said he felt the same way. “For me, it forced me to be more organized and I found myself being more productive, especially in semester two of the 2020 school year,” Thompson said. 

But, like many students and educators, Thompson prefers in-person learning because he thinks it is more beneficial for adolescent development, and because it gives him the chance to “build relationships with coworkers and students that can’t be built online,” he said.

For students like me, though, virtual learning was a blessing: I was acing my classes and after the end of every term I was invited to the honors assembly earning Principal’s List. I was thriving and felt nothing could stop me. I hoped things would stay the same forever.

So I was more than a little disappointed when I found out that we were going back to in-person learning this year.. The first day of 10th grade was overwhelming and chaotic because I was not used to seeing and being around so many people. The contrast  of super hyper, big tall kids in the hallway was a jarring change from the peaceful atmosphere of my home.. 

Other students report higher stress too. In a student newspaper survey of 376 students at Wilson High School, also in D.C., 53 percent reported that their stress level increased with the return of in-person learning, while 30 percent said it decreased. 

Once again, I'm not getting nearly enough sleep: During virtual learning I would get up at 9:35 for my first class, and now, I get up at 5 a.m. so I can get to school by 9 a.m. via public transportation. 

I can’t imagine getting used to the in-person learning environment ever again. I just feel out of place at school and belong at home with my family.

Tamar Coon is a 10th grade student at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington D.C. She is a 15-year-old science nerd who  hopes to pursue a career in forensic science.  Urban Health Media Project is a nonprofit that trains high school students from under-resourced communities to report, write, and broadcast stories about health and social issues and solutions that affect their neighborhoods and cities.