At Pottsgrove High School (PGHS) in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, students started their year virtually. In August, the local school board decided all learning would take place online.
Principal Dr. William Ziegler has been pleased with the students’ ability to adapt.
“Through their resilience, hard work, and dedication, we have seen our students succeed in the midst of this pandemic,” he said.
Students have had to alter their expectations for school and get used to a new kind of school-life balance, adapting to new technologies and a less social experience, while also trying to keep a positive outlook.
Kevin Michuki is a senior at Pottsgrove and a member of the boy’s soccer team.
“For me, I’d say that the biggest adjustment is trying to collaborate on projects and assignments over Zoom,” he said. “Having been in quarantine for so long and, in my case, starting my senior year online was a little bit discouraging.”
Though Michuki has had to spend time mastering Zoom and other technologies this semester, he has been impressed by his teachers’ ability to adapt.
“Staff and teachers at our school have done an excellent job making all assignments available digitally in a seamless manner,” Michuki said. “That is a credit to their dedication and passion for teaching.”
“Yes, this has forced teachers and education to change by using and leveraging technology to support student learning,” he said. “This push to use technology has been instrumental in identifying creative, practical, and relevant ways to engage our students.”
Distractions are a major obstacle to any learning, and it is sometimes difficult to resist the temptation to check the phone during class Max Neeson, a junior and starting fullback on the Pottsgrove football team, said. With classes running 48 minutes long, one of his biggest struggles has been remaining focused during class time.
“The biggest adjustment would be finding a comfortable learning space where you can stay engaged in the lesson,” Neeson said.
Riley Simon, a senior and starting point guard for the Pottsgrove girl’s basketball team, said learning in a less social and interactive environment has been her biggest adjustment.
“I am a very social, and outgoing person who really enjoys the company of other people, whether it’s my friends, teachers, or other peers,” she said. “So, not being in school has definitely been sad and weird.”
Simon’s school day ends earlier than other students’, around 11 a.m. She spends her afternoons taking classes at Montgomery County Community College. The split schedule makes spending time with her high school friends even more difficult.
Virtual school has offered students more flexibility, though.
“What do I like about this situation?” Michuki said. “The fact that my classes start at 7:30 a.m. and I have the ability to wake up at 7:20 a.m. and still be on a time for class is a major plus.”
PGHS holds asynchronous learning days each Wednesday to give students a much-needed break from online screen time.
“Asynchronous Wednesdays are very helpful and relaxing,” Neeson said. “I enjoy having more time to do my work.”
According to Zielger, all metrics point to a mostly successful school year so far.
“Our daily attendance percentage is high,” he said. “We completed an entire fall sports season, our marching band performed several times, and our faculty and staff have worked to design lessons that resonate and connect with our students.”
Michuki is currently taking an advanced placement class. When school is in-person, Michuki usually learns best in advanced classes when everyone is collaborating in groups. Group learning also helps Michuki maintain relationships with his peers.
“I miss just having conversations about general things in life, like sports and music, which is hard to do over Zoom when the class is so structured and leisure time is all but nonexistent,” he said.
Neeson also misses the casual social interactions that come from being in school.
“I’m making sure I’m being socially involved outside of school to make my life seem as normal as possible,” he said.
Despite being online, Neeson said it has been important to try and make sure he maintains a schedule similar to the one that he had back in March, when in-person schooling ended so suddenly.
Michuki tries to interact with people face-to-face as often as possible.
“Stay active,” Michuki said. “Also try to join a club or delve into a passion you’ve always had but never explored.”
Michuki has also found cherishing time with his family to be more important than ever before.
“This pandemic has shown us that anyone can be taken at any time,” he said.
Simon agrees and has tried to find joy in life outside of school and value the people close to her.
“This pandemic over the past eight months has taught me to never take anything for granted and appreciate every moment because you never know when it may be your last,” she said.
Sports have continued at the high school and are seen as important social and stress-relieving outlets for students.
“For me personally, I’ve been very blessed to be on the school’s soccer team and for sports to be continued this season,” Michuki said. “That daily interaction with my peers and competing with my friends from other schools has really helped me cope.”
Time spent on the soccer field is the highlight of Michuki’s week.
“Without sports, I think it would’ve been really tough for me,” he said. “Nothing can really replace daily face-to-face interaction.”
But not everyone has sports as an outlet. Simon remains concerned about the mental health of her fellow students, as well as her teachers, as the pandemic continues on.
“This is such a different and stressful time then we are used to, so everyone’s emotions are all over the place,” she said. “I think sometimes people are afraid to ask for help because it makes them feel weak. But it’s OK to reach out.”
The pandemic has also shown Simon how resilient her friends, teachers, and community can be.
“I think it is good to be able to adapt to new things around you, which we have done over the past eight months,” she said.
Still, everyone looks forward to a return to normalcy.
“I can’t wait for the day to see our kids back in school,” Ziegler said. “All kids, every day!”
Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.
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