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How will the shift to online learning impact students long term? Students, teachers, others share their stories

  • 9 min to read

What makes a well-rounded school year?

Cramming for an exam. Proms and sporting events. Hanging out with friends after school.

As the 2020-21 school year progressed, more students and educators returned to a version of that reality across Lancaster County. Others, though, stayed virtual.

The legacy of online learning during COVID-19 in Lancaster County is a complicated one that students are carrying into a “more normal” in-person 2021-22 school year. (Full "normalcy" has yet to be restored, as the debate rages on surrounding masking in schools.) While some students found flexibility and growth in virtual schooling, others struggled with pressure, confusion and lack of connection.

For Sarah Mendizabal, now 18, returning to a physical classroom wasn’t an option.

A 2021 McCaskey graduate, Mendizabal says she completed the entirety of her senior year virtually. Her twin sister went to McCaskey in-person, as required by a program she was in, but Mendizabal stayed at home because there was no one else available to watch her younger siblings, 11 and 10, as they learned virtually.

“It was really emotionally draining, and schoolwork was overwhelming,” she says. “I couldn’t get organized or I couldn’t submit my work on time because of how much pressure I was on.”

She says she did not get the chance to make the most out of her final year in high school. The courseload of the higher-level classes she was taking were overwhelming. Her grades slipped from As and Bs to Cs and Ds.

“My first semester, my grades were super low because of that,” Mendizabal says.

The desire to graduate high school and go to college motivated her to push through the challenges. As the year went on, she started to get organized and manage her time, and her grades went back up to As.

Mendizabal was able to connect with a college adviser at McCaskey through Zoom for help with completing FAFSA, college applications and scholarships.

“It was pretty smooth. If I didn’t have that help, I would definitely be struggling,” she says.

She is attending York College this fall – for an in-person education – to study nursing. She believes she is prepared, and even excited, to be back in-person.

“I can get more help from my teachers in-person,” she says, “and I can get more access to things than I did during this past year.”

She says she’s learned from the mistakes made while being virtual, and she’ll transfer those solutions while in college.

“If there’s another serious situation where everyone were to go online, I think I know how to prepare for that now,” she says.

Life after high school

The adjustment from high school to college is already difficult, but even more so for students who spent their senior years virtual. Students having a support system, Mendizabal says, is key when facing difficult situations in their academic career.

“Don’t feel down, and try to uplift yourself more,” she says. “You will always have support everywhere you go. Even at home, I saw support from my family.”

Encouraging post-secondary education and careers post-high school were tall tasks for high school staff across the country.

“A lot of it is just trying to make that connection with them, reaching out via email, text, phone, finding someone still in contact with a student and reaching out and just offering support,” Jeremy Raff, college and career services coordinator at the School District of Lancaster, says. Raff’s team focuses on the “summer melt,” where students plan on going to college after they graduate but don’t follow through.

According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, spring undergraduate 2021 enrollment is down 5.9% compared to the same time last year – the steepest decline in undergraduate enrollment since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“We get a lot of students who were kind of turned off to school. They'd say like, ‘I didn't do well in virtual learning, so I'm not going to go do virtual classes,’ ” Raff says.

While some students may not be drawn to virtual learning, Raff says it proved a useful tool for connecting with parents. The parent-and-student workshops were better attended than the in-person ones, Raff says, because the parents and students could just jump on the Zoom call after a busy day of work and school. Raff and his team plan to use technology as much as possible to connect with students and their families after the pandemic.

“That is something we definitely plan to do moving forward, and it's a way we can engage students all throughout the community in a really effective way,” he says.

Natalie Raff

Natalie Raff sits with her laptop in a wondow seat at her family's Upper Leacock Township home Tuesday, July 27, 2021. This window seat is one of the places Natalie has done her online learning.

For some, virtual environment brings flexibility

While virtual learning brought challenges for some, other students were able to thrive in the environment. Going into eighth grade at Conestoga Valley this fall, Natalie Raff, 13, – Jeremy’s sister – was able to balance her schoolwork at Conestoga Valley Virtual Academy while finding national success in Irish dancing.

As schooling appears to go back to traditional in-person, Natalie is going to stay at CV’s Virtual Academy for at least the first trimester of the school year.

Natalie earned a national title at an Irish dance competition earlier this year. Having that time to complete schoolwork at her own pace, while maintaining an intense dance regimen.

“Kids in school, they’re at school all day; they come home and do homework, rush off to activities. With the virtual all lumped in together, your lessons, your homework are all part of their school day, and she’s always done earlier than what they would have been doing,” Jennifer Raff, Natalie’s mom, says.

Conestoga Valley’s Virtual Academy was a traditional cyberschool, where students could work at their own pace, so Natalie never had to log onto Zoom to join class with her peers.

“We wanted to have flexibility,” Jennifer Raff says. “Conestoga Valley’s Virtual Academy was more of a self-directed online program … it was a more traditional cyber school.”

Being strictly virtual worked for Natalie.

“You can work ahead, or if you don’t get the topic, you can stay on it longer before you have to move on instead of having to work with the class,” Natalie says.

Natalie had the advantage of starting her classes earlier. Without the disruption of contact tracing and quarantining, she was able to complete some of her coursework three weeks earlier than her hybrid and in-person classmates.

While the virtual, work-at-your-own-pace setting was a good fit for Natalie, it certainly could not work for every child, Jennifer says. The switch from in-person education to virtual was an adjustment at first, but once Natalie got into a routine, they say it was a decent year.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom, so I was always here, and my husband’s a physician who was doing a lot of stuff from home, too. So she had her parents’ support,” Jennifer Raff says. “I think it would be a lot harder if your kids are home alone, trying to do cyber school.”

Natalie Raff

Natalie Raff practices her dancing in the basement of her family's Upper Leacock Township home Tuesday, July 27, 2021.

Not for everyone

And that’s what it was like across the county in Columbia for Jessica Torres and her son, Fernando Oliveras. Fernando, 14, who will be going into ninth grade at Columbia High School, said learning virtually was “terrible.”

When the pandemic first hit, Torres had to quit her job and stay home to help monitor him during school.

He wasn’t logging in for class.

“I feel like I couldn’t do anything online,” Fernando says. “I fell asleep a lot because I was so used to being in my house.”

Torres, a single mother, quit her job to help him with his schoolwork. She feared for her son’s mental health, aware of the social and emotional toll virtual learning and isolation had on students nationwide.

“Kids get frustrated when they get behind,” she says.

Despite these challenges and fears, a strong, open line of communication between Torres, Fernando and teachers at Columbia helped get them through the school year. She connected Fernando with a tutoring program in Lancaster County, helping him improve his academics.

Fernando has ADHD, which made virtual learning more challenging for him. Torres suggested parents in similar situations acknowledge their child’s mental health and get the care they need, and also to enroll in tutoring.

“She had to call a lot of people to get help for me,” Fernando says. “It was rough for her; I didn’t really think about it until now. She did all this stuff for me and I didn’t care, so that’s when I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to try to do my best this year.’ ”

Fernando was able to pass eighth grade. But his mom fears he is not completely academically ready for ninth grade. They know ninth grade is a big year, when grades start to appear on transcripts in college applications.

“I’m not letting him slip through the cracks,” Torres says. “He needs to take ninth grade seriously.”

Fernando Oliveras

14 year old Fernando Oliveras plays video game his bedroom Thursday, July 29, 2021.

Tips for virtual learning

Elizabeth Clippinger, regional director for Sylvan Learning Center in Lancaster, York, Palmyra and Mechanicsburg, says there was an uptick in referrals to use their services in response to the pandemic and virtual learning. Through the school year, Sylvan’s enrollment had some ups and downs, but Clippinger says that enrollment began to increase in the summer of 2021.

“We had a lot of families who came to us and just said, ‘OK, we tried to just get through the year, but now we're ready to make some moves and support our children,’ ” Clippinger says

When students learn virtually, they begin to lack the drive and motivation to get their schoolwork done on time, she says.

“That expectation of being so self-motivated and sufficient is something that a lot of students weren't prepared for,” she says.

Students were missing a lot of the positive reinforcement and the positive outcomes of doing all that, she says. Increasing their confidence and feeling positive about school again is something Clippinger hopes Sylvan does.

“There's a lot of doubt in the unknown and that was hard for a lot of students who were having a hard time processing that based on age, and so forth and so on,” she says.

One of the biggest things for parents to foster education at home is reading with your child, and have conversations about what you are reading. Math can be a little trickier, but one technique Clippinger suggests is to play card games and incorporate math skills into it.

A December 2020 study from McKinsey & Company suggests that between COVID-19 related educational setbacks, students are 4-12 months behind where they should be in school.

Young students

Like the Raffs, Leola parents Jeff Hostetter and Mariela Millet-Hostetter elected to send their daughter, Victoria Hostetter, to Conestoga Valley’s Virtual Academy for kindergarten.

“We just thought with everything going on, they were probably going to close for two weeks, every time somebody got sick, and all that back and forth we were like, ‘We'll just keep her home this year and see if we are any good at homeschooling,’” Millet-Hostetter says.

But that decision was hard to make, Millet-Hostetter says. But Victoria, 6, understood the decision.

“It was a good decision. I wanted to go to my school,” Victoria says. “And Mommy said someday I could do that.”

A normal day of school in the Hostetter family consisted of balancing Victoria’s schoolwork with caring for her 2-year-old sister, Valerie.

“The first week, it was really crazy, until they figured some stuff out and we figured some stuff out,” Millet-Hostetter says. “We would be doing school from like, 9 to 5, and she still would not be done. It did get better, but I still felt like it was a lot of stuff for such an early grade.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Victoria wasn’t able to interact with her peers face-to-face, she found an online following with her Miss Victoria videos that featured inspirational messages, show-and-tell-style presentations and more. The videos were born from craving interaction with her classmates.

Victoria’s mom believes academically, her daughter is ready for in-person learning. But she is a little bit concerned with the emotional and social learning Victoria may have missed while learning from home.

“She's very friendly, extremely super friendly,” Millet-Hostetter says. “I don't know how that's going to go with other kids that have been away from people for so long. I don't know how they're going to interact; I don't know how she's going to do with that. And, she's been a little bit more sensitive about being alone since the whole lockdown.”

Victoria began first grade in person.

“I want it to be like a good experience for her; this is going to be her first time in school,” Millet-Hostetter says. “So I want her to have a good year and it be as normal as possible.”

Miss VIctoria

Victoria Hostetter, a Leola 4-year-old, is the star of her own web series, "Miss Victoria."

What’s lost in virtual learning

The social etiquette of school – hand-raising, manners and working together – is a big part of Emily Smucker-Beidler’s art classroom in the Hempfield School District.

Although the 2020-21 school year was Smucker-Beidler’s 29th year of teaching, she says the year was harder than her first year of teaching because of the pandemic. Students who were at home got an “art kit” from Smucker-Beidler with a watercolor set, a sketchbook and crayons.

While the art kits kept both the students on Zoom and in-person working on the same material, it also restricted Smucker-Beidler from doing lessons she would normally teach, like clay.

“So much of art is the environment of the classroom, and creating art together,” she says. “There’s no replacement for being in the classroom.”

As last school year advanced, more of the virtual learners began to come back into the classroom, and she figures 75% of her virtual students’ motor skills won’t be as different as those who were always in the classroom.

“We grew in different ways,” she says. “We developed in other ways you usually don’t do.”

Being forced to try new things in the classroom is a good thing, according to Millersville University education professor Tim Mahoney. The adversities virtual learning brought to students, teachers and families might have affected the product of their education, but the process of their education really benefited.

“That suggests that the teachers had just phoned it in for the duration of the school year – and that is certainly not true,” Mahoney says. “A lot of teachers went way beyond what they would normally have done to try to just get kids involved and engaged when they had all these distractions at home.”

While some learning was lost during COVID, Mahoney encourages parents and educators to take advantage of the learning that did occur – like using technology in the classroom. Reports that suggest massive amounts of learning loss due to the pandemic mischaracterize the work schools and teachers put in to educate students virtually, he says.

“I think you have to look a little more holistically than some assessment on math and reading,” Mahoney says. “There's more to the picture. I think if we go into September with a kind of deficit mindset where we think that we have to remediate from all the things that the students lost, we really missed the boat.”

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