by Ellyssa Jeong and Anya Lefkowitz, Centerfold Editors
photo illustration by Hedi Skali and Emily Zhang

Every Thursday at 10 a.m., junior Maya Zeldin rolls out of bed to log on to her AP Spanish class on Zoom. This is her first “expected” class of the week, as South’s online schedule doesn’t require synchronous learning on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

Meanwhile, a few miles away in Brookline, by Thursday, junior Theodore Stoll has already participated in multiple online meetings for each one of his classes this week. He attends Belmont Hill School, an independent, all-boys school, which he said implemented a rigorous online learning schedule with 45-minute classes. 

When the Newton Public Schools (NPS), like many other districts across the state and country, initially closed on March 13, NPS quickly exhausted four remaining “snow days” and began “Phase I” of the learning plan, which was implemented by Superintendent David Fleishman. This plan consisted of optional enrichment activities that teachers shared at the beginning of each of the next two weeks with no face-to-face learning.

South prioritized connecting students to teachers while finding the best forms of engagement rather than keeping students on track with the planned curriculum, Principal Joel Stembridge said. 

“We started by just offering enrichment opportunities, and we tried to have the staff focused on reaching out and communicating with students. I would like our focus to still be that: connecting and engaging. I think the learning plans are important, but not as important as the human interaction piece,” he said. 

Stembridge said it was initially unclear whether or not students would be returning to the school building after those three weeks, causing the administration to hold back from implementing a more permanent plan. Additionally, the three-week hiatus allowed students and teachers to begin to adjust to these unprecedented circumstances. 

“I really appreciate the time that we put in to best understand our environment. It was also respectful [to] our teachers, who themselves were transitioning to a new environment. Many of them have young kids at home, and they’ve been trying to figure out how to both parent and teach at the same time,” he said. “Other districts have done it differently and have ended up regretting it.”

South slowly transitioned into a more structured form of distance learning, known as “Phase II,” on April 6. Teachers sent out weekly, non-graded assignments, and the administration set the expectation that  students attend one 20-minute Zoom meeting per class every week in addition to optional office hours. Phase II was implemented following negotiations between the NPS and the Newton Teachers Association (NTA) regarding the boundaries of virtual learning.

Senior Huilin Wu said that contrary to popular belief in the South community, distance learning serves more than just educational purposes. 

“To be honest, I don’t think Zoom classes help me academically as much as [they] do for personal support,” she said. “Zoom meetings are important because they let you have conversations with your teachers and classmates.”

Stembridge said that Phase II is still a work in progress, as staff members and the administration continue to refine the process. 

“It’s messy because we didn’t have a lot of time to plan this beforehand. People are still interpreting things a little differently,” he said. “I’m sure students will notice that different teachers have different understandings of how to run things.” 

Phase III will be implemented Monday, May 11. The basic weekly schedule remains unchanged, with Thursday and Friday class meetings extended to 30 minutes. 

District Differences

At 12 p.m. every weekday, Eunice Lee logs on to Zoom to sit through four consecutive 30-minute classes. Lee, a sophomore at Weston High School, said that there are negatives to having a remote, yet academically rigorous schedule. 

“It can be really overwhelming to wake up every morning and just check your inbox when you’re flooded with new assignments and class meetings everyday,” she said.

After school closed on March 12, students at Weston High School waited only one week before teachers began assigning credited homework through Google Classroom. Once Governor Charlie Baker canceled schools for the remainder of the school year on April 21, Weston students started a new schedule that required them to attend about four daily mandatory Zoom calls that last 30 minutes each afternoon. 

Natick High took a similar approach to that of Weston and started school promptly after Baker initially called off schools until April 17. Enrichment activities, which later became required, consisted of four classes every other day, each lasting 40 minutes, with a 15-minute break between them. Students at Natick High are required to complete homework assignments by their next class.

Natick sophomore Melica Zekavat said that despite having shorter classes than usual during online school — regular classes are 80 minutes each — she often feels overwhelmed by the amount of assigned work she currently receives.

“On top of the four hours of school that we have every other day, there’s also all of the other work that we have to get done, and teachers are definitely taking advantage of the fact that we have a lot of free time by making sure that we have a lot of work,” she said.

Freshman Lia Merkowitz said that South’s system, which varies drastically from those that other schools have adopted, has been beneficial. 

“I think that it’s good because there’s a lot of pressure right now because of the coronavirus, so they shouldn’t be assigning too much work,” she said.

Pros and Flaws with the P/F System

Though schools have vastly different learning schedules and rigors, one similarity across Massachusetts public schools is the adoption of a pass/fail grading system that the state advised.

Zekavat said that a pass/fail system is the most equitable grading system.

“I know that there are students who don’t have desks or live in hectic homes, and with the pass/fail system, we put everyone on the same platform rather than letting those who have privileges get ahead,” she said. “There are people who might have better connections, better internet and better technology, but there are also people who maybe don’t have stable internet connection or who are responsible for family members.”

History teacher David Murdock said that the pass/fail system is practical for ensuring student participation. 

“It’s a good compromise so that we can still hold students accountable for work and learning during this time, but we’re also making sure we recognize that everybody’s coming to the situation with different kinds of access,” he said.

The Winsor School and the Belmont Hill School, both private schools in the greater Boston area, have continued to assign graded work thus far. Anne Joseph, a junior at Winsor, said that she’s glad to receive letter grades.

“This semester is the last chance I have the opportunity to improve my grades before sending them in to college, except for the first semester of senior year,” she said. “The general consensus is we don’t want to [go pass/fail].” 

Struggling to Connect

Although the South administration takes pride in their plan’s emphasis on interpersonal connections, English teacher Kelly Henderson said that it falls short of replicating the bonds found in classroom settings.

“It is highlighting what we already knew: human connection is at the heart of education, and approximating that online is challenging, actually impossible,” Henderson said. “I am glad that the district and the state, thus far, haven’t tried to say that ‘school will be as normal as possible,’ and they’ve acknowledged that this isn’t supposed to replace what we’d normally do.” 

Murdock said that there are objective ways in which virtual connection fails to meet the standards of in-person communication. 

“We’re losing the ability to really connect with our students the way we used to,” he said. “When a student would come into your room, you could pick up on lots of cues, like if they were having a bad day, by body language or facial expression or the way they answer a greeting.”

Fine and performing arts classes are susceptible to additional challenges through online learning. Ceramics teacher Molly Baring-Gould said artistic inspiration is sparked by others’ creativity, which is difficult to replicate through Zoom classes.

“One of the important parts of being in the classroom, and more specifically an art room, is being able to see what people around you are doing. You’re never just creating in a little cave, so we’ve been talking about it as a department to see what the best way to share artwork is,” she said.

The art department is working collaboratively to create a culminating event for the future, Baring-Gould said. 

“I’ve been collecting students’ works that they’ve submitted to me because I want to make a collective online gallery at the end of the year so that everyone can see what other students have been doing and not feel so isolated from each other,” she said.

Stembridge said that the administration’s goal to cater to the student body has not yet been met, and that they are brainstorming new systems. 

“We know that this isn’t working for all of our students and we’re trying to create a system that works for as many students as possible,” he said. “We’re going to keep making adjustments.”

Computer Principles

For many, turning off the camera during a Zoom meeting is just a way to avoid rocking messy hair or a baggy sweatshirt in front of peers, but some students who are occupied by vulnerable home situations may need the absence of their webcam to feel secure and protected.

Newton Public Schools teachers have expressed their concerns with the ethical implications of virtual face-to-face learning platforms, like Zoom, which is why they strive to conduct classes with flexibility, Henderson said.

Ruth Goldman, the chair of the Newton School Committee and Mike Zilles, president of the NTA, signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on April 2. The document was written in anticipation of the rest of the school year being canceled, prior to Baker’s official announcement on April 21. The MOA listed concerns regarding salaries for school staff during the absence of physical school and the regulations that teachers were recommended to follow. The MOA included rules that allowed students to turn off their cameras if they didn’t wish to show their faces. 

A student poll on The Roar’s instagram account showed that out of 94 students, 14.9% of students prefer to turn off their camera during Zoom meetings. 

Henderson holds her class meetings on Google Docs to avoid the expectation of visual contact. Every week, she posts a question at the top of a shared class document, allowing students to respond by filling in a two column chart: on the left side they write their names and on the right, their responses. Students then read and respond to others’ responses, which mimics the flow of casual classroom discussions. 

This tactic comes with positives that Zoom classes may struggle to overcome, Henderson said.

“I do like that everyone gets a chance to talk — I am seeing a lot more equity in terms of participation, meaning there aren’t the ‘quiet’ and the ‘dominant’ students; everyone comments equally for the most part,” she said.

Henderson said that for now, she’s thankful for Newton’s tolerance towards the concerns that she and other teachers have expressed. 

“I was very proud of our district for [advocating a flexible system] because I think it protects vulnerable students and families,” she said. “Thus far, I have felt very supported by my colleagues at South, and the English Department in particular has been a source of strength and joy during these past few weeks.”