Academics / Community

Students’ learning experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic

This fall, Dana Hall students have had two different learning models, as laid out by Head of School Katherine Bradley in an August 19 email. Local students were given the option to choose between learning 100% remotely or in the hybrid model, which is 50% remote learning and 50% on-campus learning. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the boarding program is temporarily closed until at least January. As a result, boarding students are required to learn 100% remotely. All students take the same courses, with some on campus and some on Zoom. Due to these different learning models, different learning experiences are reflected in the student body. 

Hybrid students are in one of two cohorts, D and H, depending on their grade. Paige Young ’21 from Dedham, Massachusetts, is a part of Cohort D and describes her positive experiences learning in this model, saying that it has helped her adjust to living life during a pandemic, and she also enjoys seeing classmates she has not seen since last March.

Jaime Huang ’24, a local day student from Newton, Massachusetts, is also learning in the hybrid model, in Cohort H. Entering the Upper School during the pandemic has been “exciting because it is my first year of high school but also kind of scary because we don’t really know what to expect.” However, Jaime goes on to say that “teachers are learning with us and playing it by ear too, and understand that not all of us are in the most favorable circumstances.”

Boarders who would typically be living on campus in the fall are learning remotely. One of these students is Mikayla Darville ’21, a domestic boarder from Douglasville, Georgia. She has “been able to have a lot more time with my family,” and because she can drive now, she has many of the same freedoms she had on campus. She has also found it helpful having classes meet fewer times a week, so she has more time to complete assignments. She is also “surprised that teachers are being pretty reasonable when it comes to homework.” She says, “some of my classes are harder than others, but overall my teachers are being considerate of the other obligations we have.”

However, being a boarder amid this pandemic has also created many challenges. For many boarders, including Mikayla, it has been isolating being away from her peers who were allowed to return to campus. Reflecting on the biggest challenges of the hybrid model, especially being a senior, Mikayla says, “it is really frustrating to see other seniors get to enjoy at least part of their senior year, while I am forced to stay at home. It really makes me sad because I have been looking forward to this school year since I arrived at Dana, and it feels like I will never be able to go back. I left Dana in March with one suitcase of clothes and a book bag, and I haven’t been able to go back and get any of my stuff yet.” Mikayla wishes that “school started a little bit later [in the morning], so we don’t have to sit on Zoom for so long. I also wish there was a way for boarding students, both international and domestic, to be on campus safely.” One of Mikayla’s concerns is that “I think that there has already been a big divide between the boarding and day students, and this just made things worse.”

Molly Han ’21, a boarder from Beijing, China, is learning in the remote model as well. Molly experiences many of the positive aspects Mikayla mentioned, in that teachers are being flexible, supportive, and understanding of her situation.

However, Molly has had negative experiences as well. Being an international student with a twelve-hour time difference, Molly says it has been challenging to create a routine that is in sync with her family and friends. As a result, she has become very sleep-deprived. Another setback Molly has experienced is the inability to use certain apps without using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Using a VPN allows Molly to access apps and networks in the United States that are restricted in China. However, the VPN causes her Zoom to lag and sometimes even kicks her out of Zoom meetings. Because of these connection issues, it has been difficult for Molly to keep up with participation in classes and what is being said, and she hopes it becomes mandatory for teachers to record and post every meeting. 

Thinking about what Dana Hall could have done differently, Molly says, “it’s just so much easier to hear and follow what’s going on during class when everyone is remote… and it is much more organized. I wish it was all uniformly remote.” Beijing has made significant progress in suppressing the spread of COVID-19, so much so that the city has reopened completely, and there is no longer a need for people to wear masks. This has allowed Molly to be more social within her community and feel less isolated from her Dana Hall peers. 

Paige comments on learning in the hybrid format, saying that “as someone with a learning disability, it has been really great to physically be in the classroom.” Paige appreciates how structured the schedule is, and says that as a result of this schedule change, she has “been a lot more productive” with her classwork. On the flip side to this, Paige says that the online weeks have still been a struggle because her “learning disability makes it hard to do online school work.” However, Dana Hall has been adapting to these struggles expressed by students, and outlets for help are available to the entire student body, such as the Writing Lab, Math Lab, and Science Lab. Dana Hall also has an advisor system in place for every student, as well as two learning specialists, Ms. Jillian DeBusk, and Ms. Kim Stewart, who are available to students to help with their learning needs.

Even though Paige has had positive experiences in the hybrid model, there are still things she misses about being fully on campus. She hopes that all teachers and boarding students can return to campus soon, following safety protocols, to bridge the gap between remote learners and hybrid learners. Similarly, she wishes the entire senior class could be together for their final year and engage in their usual fall traditions, such as Senior-Sophomore, Harbor Cruise, ring taps, and black days. 

Similarly to Paige, the switch between in-person to online weeks has been hard for Jaime, who says that “the routine switch each week messes with my head.” However, she says it has been nice being able to sleep in every other week because she has no commute to campus.

During her in-person and remote weeks, Jaime is involved in the fall play at Dana Hall, which looks different this year than it has in previous years. To ensure everyone can get involved with theater, there are no in-person rehearsals, and the use of the physical theater is off-limits. Instead, theater is taking place virtually. There have been drawbacks to this, as Jaime comments that “now that we all have to stay home and can’t actually be in the theater, we have to work with what people have in their house, and we can no longer have control over a lot of things we used to, such as costumes, and lighting.”

Despite this, Jaime has remained positive throughout the whole experience and encourages students and faculty to take time for themselves away from the screen, indulging in activities such as reading. Similarly, Paige urges students to take care of themselves during this time of uncertainty by exercising, contacting friends virtually, and getting involved in the community. Mikayla makes time for self-care activities as well, such as watching Netflix, drinking boba, eating Chick-Fil-A, and doing face masks.

Although not all students have been able to return to campus this fall, safety is Dana Hall’s utmost priority, and there have not been any reported cases of COVID-19 amongst students or faculty. Ms. Jessica Keimowitz, Director of the Upper School, sends out weekly emails that include a survey where anonymous student feedback can be given. Dana Hall has made changes in response to student feedback. For example, desks have been provided in tents, most classes have moved indoors, and microphones have been placed in the center of every classroom.

Image: A map showing the locations of Dana Hall students for 2020-21.

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