New School

S pring break took on an unwelcome meaning this year. Instead of a respite from studying, New Haven’s college students got a literal break that split the school year in two, leaving behind days on campus together and ushering in online instruction with little warning. Now all of the city’s students, from kindergarteners to college seniors, are left wondering when they’ll see each other at school again.

For seniors at the University of New Haven, the answer is they won’t. The class of 2020—which also happens to be the school’s centennial class—had 24 hours’ notice to leave campus on March 10, with a plan to return after an extended spring break. But before break was over, word came that UNH, like its local counterparts, would not be reopening this year. There would be no chance for seniors to be together again or even to properly say goodbye. Commencement has been postponed to a later, unspecified date, and it may not look like the usual ceremony.

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Still, the school year isn’t over. Ian Maloney, president of UNH’s Undergraduate Student Government Association, says many of his fellow students report they’re doing fine with classes on the platforms Zoom and Blackboard. But others are now facing disruptions such as virtual, hands-off labs—with professors sending out data so students can, at least, run their own analyses—and clinical experiences that have been postponed. To soften the blow, UNH has moved to optional pass/fail grading, pushed back its spring withdrawal and fall registration deadlines and allowed professors to teach “asynchronously” by pre-recording video lectures students can watch on their own time. Students who are now living in different time zones or working new jobs in order to make ends meet need that flexibility, Maloney says, adding, “It’s a trying time, but everybody’s in the same boat, so there’s some comfort in that.”

Maloney was already taking one virtual class this semester called Understanding Media and Technology. “If you signed up for an online class, then you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into,” he says. But online courses—especially those that weren’t designed as such—present a host of challenges. “For some of us, it’s hard to pay attention when we’re four feet away from the teacher,” Maloney says, never mind the distractions that abound when you’re home with your whole family and trying to work. And speaking up in class can be “tricky” and “uncomfortable,” Maloney says, when you’re unable to interact directly with your classmates the way you can in a shared space. In addition, not everyone has a good laptop or other device and an adequate Internet connection.

While UNH and other local colleges have had to do some tech troubleshooting, that problem is deeper for New Haven Public Schools. Following a survey of the district’s 14,000 households, administrators and teachers rallied to put devices into the hands of students who needed them and connect families with local cable providers willing to hook up free wifi. Sabrina Breland, principal of East Rock Community Magnet School, says she and a group of teachers collected and logged all of their school’s existing Chromebooks and iPads, then loaned them out to families in need. But as many as 30 East Rock families missed the call or were unable to pick up the devices. Others are still struggling to get their Internet connected. Those with limited English are hit especially hard by the disruption.

Students are also dealing with the social loss. “There’s a mixed bag of emotions,” Breland says. Children have questions, concerns and anxiety about their new situation. “Everything has them in unfamiliar territory, and so it’s concerning to some,” she says. “Most students want to be in class with their teachers and their friends.”

For some, the transition is working as smoothly as could be expected. Wilbur Cross High School sophomore Sylvia Jessen-Cohn says her first few virtual classes have gone well, especially in comparison to the paper packets of homework students originally received to tide them over when it seemed school would reopen in a week or two. A day full of interactive online classes “makes it feel a lot more like actual school,” she says.

Teachers, too, have faced challenges in the shift to online instruction. “There’s a lot of time that goes into it for sure,” says Jenna Sheffield, director of UNH’s writing center and assistant provost for curriculum innovation. Figuring out how to deliver content in a way that students will “really resonate with online” requires flexibility and creativity. “And then faculty have challenges in their personal lives,” she adds. “I’ve had my daughter walk in on a call with a group of students, and rather than just trying to shoo her away, I bring her in and let her say hi… There’s some weird way [in which] people are getting closer in all this.”

Breland is proud of how readily East Rock faculty have shifted to virtual teaching. Younger, more tech-fluent teachers helped veterans get up to speed. “We also had them watch a lot of videos to help them bring their classrooms to the homes of their students,” Breland says. “Last week was a little rocky, the first week was very rocky… [But] I think because we were able to work as a team, we were able to get everyone going.” Teachers are using three platforms—Google Classroom, ClassDojo and Remind—and making themselves available to students daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. so some learning can move forward.

Among all the smaller questions, a big one looms: When schools are finally able to reopen, will online learning be a new normal? Jessen-Cohn hopes physical classrooms will never go away. “If this experience has taught me anything, it’s taught me the importance of the people around you,” she says. “You continue the learning [online], but it takes away the fun and really super enjoyable aspects of being at school.”

Administrators like Sheffield and Breland see a silver lining that may continue to shine when this pandemic fades. “I think it’s important to have the face-to-face environment for many classes, but I also think this will open up some people’s eyes to more opportunities,” Sheffield says. “I think some faculty may become more willing to teach online once they become more adept at the tools.”

Breland agrees. She cites a colleague who “thinks it’s going to make us all better educators, and it’s going to change the way we interact with our students.” But, like Sheffield and Jessen-Cohn, Breland doesn’t expect the brick-and-mortar classroom to disappear. “I think coming back to the classroom is going to be much needed for everyone involved,” she says, “and we’ll be able to touch many more students.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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