By Ada Perlman
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
When high school students in Pittsburgh look back to the second week of March, they realize they had no idea of the changes that were about to take place. Their education systems were about to transform in ways even their school administrations had not foreseen.
Pittsburgh students were about to grapple with immense uncertainty, but what has ultimately come clear is that even with schools closed, it was the teachers who made the difference, with engaged teachers making sure their students learned through the long months of the school closure.
Annika Ramani, a junior at the Ellis School, was in London on a two-week exchange trip when she started to hear about school closures. She was sitting in a cafe, watching British Prime Minister Boris Johnson give a speech on television, wondering what was going to happen with her school in Pittsburgh. Soon enough, she would be on a plane back home and then starting online classes to cap off her junior year of high school.
Meanwhile, Sage Arnold said he thought of the closure of his school, Taylor Allderdice, as just an extended snow day, though he did feel comfort knowing he wouldn’t have to sweat through the hotter months in school due to the lack of air-conditioning.
Adia Russell, a junior at Oakland Catholic, said it was hard to attend school in late March because she feared getting sick with coronavirus. Her school shut down much later than other schools so she said she felt a sense of relief knowing that coming to school wouldn’t jeopardize her health.
With no sense of structure, students started to question how they should be spending their days, which classes they should prioritize, and how to deal with this new reality.
“If I’m being completely honest,” said Dori Catz, a sophomore at Pittsburgh CAPA, “[The school] was trying to make sure the kids who get food from the school, got food — which is incredibly important. They completely lost the idea that people need an education and so they didn’t prioritize it for a long time.”
She said she was frustrated that it took her school (along with the entire Pittsburgh Public School system) almost five weeks to set up a system to produce work for their students. While some teachers, particularly the teachers in her Advanced Placement classes, sent out work before the school set up a learning platform, Catz said she felt disheartened knowing that she was missing out on part of her sophomore year education.
When her school finally started using Microsoft Teams, she had no live classes. At the beginning of the week, she would get work and was expected to turn it in by the end of the week. She motivated herself by making a schedule in order to turn assignments in on time, but it also made her appreciate learning more because the work was not being graded. She realized that she took the classroom setting for granted, and now she’s said that she has had to adapt to her at home workspace.
A senior at Obama Academy, Amanda Jones, said she felt similar to Catz.
She said she learned a fraction of what she would have normally been learning. While the school focused on giving out food stamps to students in need, Jones said she realized how grateful she was for her situation. However she wished that her classes would have resumed sooner. She felt that the district was extremely unorganized during this transition but it did not reflect on the efforts of her teachers.
Sam Bisno, a classmate of Jones at Obama Academy, said, “there was no lack of trying on their part.” Both Bisno and Jones felt for their teachers too; they had young kids at home as well as partners. As Bisno said all of the teachers were trying but the technology was inconsistent. For instance his history teacher made an effort to engage the class by starting an optional weekly current event discussion.
Jones responded feeling similarly supported by her teachers. Planning to be a chemistry major in college, she was concerned about missing some of her high school chemistry material. Her teacher happily sent her extra resources so that she would be prepared for her college courses.
Though the district’s decision to use Microsoft Teams was difficult to navigate, both Obama students said they felt supported by their teachers.
Arnold, who is a student in the district’s Center for Advanced Studies at Allderdice, pointed out that some of his teachers set up Zoom classes before the districtwide decision to use Microsoft Teams. These classes were quickly shut down and they met again on Microsoft Teams a few weeks later. He said that he found it was much easier to do the work when the teacher engaged the class.
Nola Friedman, a sophomore at Allderdice who is not in the advanced studies program, said even if her teachers were engaged, not all of her classmates were interested. At one point only four students in her class had done the daily assignment. She said she felt that it’s harder to stay engaged when you aren’t in a school setting where your teachers are constantly there to support you.
Though most of Catz’s classmates at CAPA showed up to class, sometimes her teachers didn’t. The situation was egregious enough that she said some students even emailed the principal and vice principal to tell them that teachers had checked out.
“We don’t have time to wait for some teacher who doesn’t want to teach,” Catz said.
Though across the board students struggled with motivation during remote learning, each of the students said the enthusiasm of their teachers made the difference in their own desire to learn the subject.
For students at nearby private high schools, teacher engagement was not an issue. Felix Bhattacharya, a junior at Winchester Thurston, said he felt that he has always had a close relationship with his teachers, which helped to smooth the transition to remote learning. After spring break (which was the last two weeks of March), his online classes picked up quickly, although he did feel like it was sometimes easy to lose focus because of the distracting big window next to his desk.
At Ellis, Ramani said she felt similarly. Her teachers were all invested in this platform and she could always set up meetings if she had additional questions. Usually, Ramani stops into a classroom to casually ask a teacher a question so she voiced that she found this new formal format frustrating.
Russell explained that at Oakland Catholic, their teachers assigned them way too much work at first. Still, after a class meeting with the school president, their work became more manageable.
Students who were able to settle into remote learning said they missed the extracurricular activities of school but quickly remote dance shows, debates, and more started to go online.
Because Pittsburgh CAPA revolves a lot around the arts, Catz said she felt heartbroken when her shows were canceled. As a musical theater major, Catz was going to be in a schoolwide production of “Hairspray” and a department production of “Chicago.” She conveyed that it felt like they had done all of this work for nothing though they were consoled by the possibility of performing these shows next year. Her theater class started to meet online every other week and her voice lessons also resumed.
Winchester Thurston was planning to put on “Urinetown,” so instead Bhattacharya and his castmates filmed a scene remotely.
Theater at Ellis functioned similarly, featuring an online murder mystery radio play.
At Obama, Bisno’s Youth and Government Conference was canceled. Instead, he organized a virtual conference. Normally, they would hold everyone to a very high standard but online, they were able to make it more fun to give people a chance to escape from their reality.
“Sometimes you have to adjust your expectations — and that’s OK and that’s healthy,” explained Bisno, who served as Pennsylvania’s youth governor.
The Upper Schoolers at Winchester Thurston were also able to see the fun in this new reality. Their Student Council organized a 24-hour ‘Zoomathon’ featuring different events at each hour. Bhattacharya described events ranging from playing Kahoot! to college discussions.
At Obama, instead of the usual Cinco de Mayo celebration in Spanish class, Jones’ teacher sent out recipes and videos for the students to watch.
Though braced with difficult circumstances, each school was able to adapt accordingly, even coming up with a few new events for the online calendar.
Overall, students said they had mixed feelings about how much they were able to learn remotely. Some responded that their classes were just giving out busy work while others derived enjoyment and knowledge from their respective assignments.
As the school year was ending, Jones remarked that she started to think about moving forward as a senior. When she heard about friends who had family members die from COVID-19 or the murders of black people, her attitude changed.
“I just don’t care anymore. I don’t care about [missing out on] prom or senior prank day. I care about protesting as a black woman and helping people,” she said. “When so many people are getting sick and there are protests going on, you’re not going to prioritize your history PowerPoint due tomorrow.”
Ada Perlman is an intern at Print and a junior at the Ellis School. This article is being co-published by Print and the Pittsburgh Current.