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Deana Chefchis

Crossfire: Should We Have In-Person School Right Now?

January 21, 2022

School Should Go Online

COVID-19 at the Academy is already out of hand. Omicron has caused upwards of 30 positive cases in less than two weeks of school and many more absences for reasons such as waiting for a COVID test or testing positive over the break. Currently, cases are skyrocketing in our state and projections say that we have not even reached the peak of this variant. While I think it would have been more beneficial to start school online to situate students that traveled over break, it is too late for that. Remote learning worked last year in order to combat the risk of the virus and it is the right option for our school now. The extreme transmissibility of Omicron, the unreliability of hybrid classes, and the influx of both student and teacher absences are huge problems within the Academy community and the only solution is to move school online. 

Right now, the school has the online sphere available for those that are sick, but that warrants the thinking that they are just waiting for everyone to get infected. No one is immune from this variant and sitting in classrooms for 75 minute periods, eating lunch unmasked everyday in the dining hall, and proceeding as we did before Omicron simply does not make sense. The Academy has explicitly stated that students that test positive for COVID that are online are allowed to sit in on classes, but the integrated hybrid option is not available as it was in the Spring of 2021. Students coming back from Zoom quarantine periods end up really behind in all of their classes and this format incentivizes hard-working Academy students to go to school sick, so as not to miss anything. Everyone knows that missing one or two days of school at the Academy can be detrimental. Teachers that test positive most commonly have students at school all log onto Zoom individually, which provides a hybrid environment that is not much different from being at home on Zoom, but being at home is undoubtedly safer. 

Our school, unlike the majority of APS, has the resources to go online. Students in the upper divisions are required to have a laptop and we have gone remote before. The state is not shutting the public school system down because of the toll it takes on people with elementary aged children and the technological resource disparity within New Mexico. But the Academy has neither of these handicaps. The responsible decision is to move online before more teachers catch the virus and frantic decisions have to be made about the future of classes. 

Communication from the Academy has emphasized the mildness of the new strain as the reason to stay in person, as well as the negative impacts of being on Zoom for school full time. While I agree with their stance on the mental health detriments of social isolation, this strain does take a toll on people, giving them mild to severe cold-like symptoms, not to mention the potential effects of “long Covid.” Students who are weary of the virus do not have a choice and are forced to either attend school, which they may or may not feel comfortable with, or stay home and miss classes. 

COVID testing is really hard to come by right now and it is often inaccurate with the new variant. It would be best to move classes online to provide cohesion until the end of the Omicron peak, which is predicted to be late January or early February. This would let the virus settle out and it would allow for more studies to come out regarding this new strain. The issue right now is that it is so new and unfamiliar that no one quite knows how to proceed. Within the scope of New Mexico, Santa Fe has opted for remote learning in the past week and Taos Municipal Schools went remote after Winter Break. Many schools across the country have been forced to close because of teachers testing positive, and a shortage of teachers is what the Academy is heading toward. A move online is guaranteed to upset some, but it is impossible to please everyone. As for the mental health side, students will feel more comfortable knowing that the online period will come to an end within a few weeks. The biggest issue with 2020 was the never-ending feel of online school. I am not suggesting an indefinite move online that shuts down athletics and other extracurricular activities; I am merely suggesting that we go online during the peak of the virus to protect the academic section of school. Students should be able to decide whether or not they feel safe and would like to continue their extracurriculars. Right now the move is a matter of student and teacher safety. The Academy needs to take accountability for the health of its community.

 

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School Should Stay In-Person

Students at the Academy should not pay 25,390 dollars a year for online lessons where teachers spend the first 15 minutes of class trying to help students to unmute, share their screen, and turn on their videos. Students at the Academy should not spend their education typing their responses to questions in the chat because their internet connection is too unstable to share with their classmates. Students at the Academy should not have their only interaction with friends and teachers be staring at a screen for two hours at a time. Online learning goes against everything that the Academy represents, everything that makes the Academy experience special and unique for both students and teachers. It eliminates the magical atmosphere of our school. Going remote didn’t work when we tried it last year, and one simply cannot expect it to work again. Staying in-person – while ensuring that proper precautions are taken – is the only reasonable option that shows bravery and determination.

Now, the school is obviously not COVID-free right now and the Omicron variant poses a threat to the safety of our community. Something certainly needs to be done about this surge in cases, but going online should be the last resort. The Academy, unlike most schools around the state, possesses the facilities to sustain safe in-person classes. One of the main ways that the Academy has attracted students – including me – is showcasing its numerous large classrooms and its sprawling, state-of-the-art facilities. But now, the school ought to utilize these new resources to address the challenge posed by Omicron. It’s tough, but we can do this. The school could take many novel, innovative precautions such as figuring out a way to reestablish distance between students in classes, limiting foot traffic in the buildings, ending the indoor lunch option in the dining hall, and requiring the wearing of masks outside (except during lunch). We could even consider the extreme measures of mandating vaccines or making unvaccinated students stay online, as they are more likely to contract the virus. Any steps that need to be taken should be taken, but, as Ms. Short, the 8 – 9 dean, and Mr. Kim, the 8 – 9 division head, have stated, going online is a desperate choice, a choice that should be avoided at all costs, a choice that essentially amounts to giving up. 

If the Academy shuts its gates for the second time in the last two years, both students and teachers will be disappointed. This school is about interacting with your peers in between classes, fostering creativity through hands-on activities, and enhancing collaboration through group projects, all of which become impossible during remote learning. 

Studies have found that going remote will also reduce both the productivity of students – an effect with long-term implications. As Hanushek and Woessman of the OECD assert, “learning is a dynamic process that builds on prior learning,” so “[c]losed schools … impart less new knowledge” to students. They “also mean loss of already acquired skills on which further learning could build.” In other words, going online results in students forgetting what they already learned in the previous school year while also not learning many new concepts. The authors go on to argue that this loss of learning is predicted to have catastrophic impacts on students’ lives: every third of a school year that we spend remotely “[reduces] the subsequent earned income of the pupils concerned by about 3%.” The income loss is predicted to result in “a less skilled workforce,” which, in turn, causes lower overall economic growth and a decline in GDP. If students would like to lead successful, productive careers, then in-person learning is the best route for them and the well-being of the entire country.

Furthermore, going online will also have an emotional toll. Students will no longer be able to communicate with their friends and many will struggle to focus during online classes, developing Zoom fatigue. Constant distractions in the house, isolation from peers, interruptions caused by internet problems, loneliness – all of these are consequences of the online learning environment that will simply put more pressure on students. However, scientists have conclusively proven that happier students will receive better grades and higher GPAs throughout their education; thus, when students are unhappy and constantly stressed due to online learning, their grades will inevitably decrease and they will only become more miserable as a result. Much of the happiness of students at the Academy will be eroded.

I’ll admit that online learning is certainly the easy option. All the school has to do is send students home and they can stop spending so much money and effort on cleaning systems, mask policies, distancing in classrooms, and more. Remaining in-person is certainly the tougher approach: it requires lots of thought, planning, money, and resources. But the Academy has always been a school that takes the tough, bumpy route – that is beneficial in the long-term – instead of the simple escape, which appears to bring short-term success. If the school makes its decision with “wisdom, conviction, and compassion,” as it always has, then there is no reason to take the easy way out and go online.

 

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