This article was contributed by San Benito High School student Julia Hicks.
The spread of COVID-19 has slowed down millions of lives around the world. On March 13, San Benito High School initially responded to the pandemic by cancelling school for two weeks in order to keep students, faculty and staff safe and healthy. As mentioned in newsletters sent out by the school in early March, the district undertook a deep cleaning of the campus and prepared for the possibility of implementing distance learning as students and staff were required to stay home.
As the pandemic began to spread, the school extended the closure until April 13. On April 1, the SBHS Board of Trustees decided to extend its distance learning plan until the end of the spring semester.
Now, SBHS is one of hundreds of schools across California that will remain closed through the end of the school year, under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place order. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond emphasized that “just because campuses are closed, class is still in session.”
For SBHS students, the end of classes on campus—along with clubs, sports and other activities—came suddenly. Senior Hailey Darnell said the cancellation of prom in Santa Cruz was “upsetting. I had already bought a dress.”
“It was hard to hear graduates from past years telling me how fun events like Sober Grad Night were for them, and it sucks knowing that I won’t be able to experience the same thing,” she said.
Darnell, who will be attending the University of Oregon this fall, was also part of the senior class office, a group of students who help put on graduation and all senior events. Despite her disappointment, she said that “with these circumstances we are in, I completely understand” the reason for their cancellation.
SBHS Senior Nicolas Skardoutos, who will be attending and playing baseball at the University of La Verne, reflected on the shortened sports season. Like other Baler athletes, he was disappointed he won’t be able to return to the diamond in the spring.
“Senior year was my breakout season, and we wanted to win the Central Coast Section title,” Skardoutos said.
With the National Collegiate Athletic Association allowing this year’s college seniors to get an extra year of eligibility, Skardoutos worried that the pandemic could affect his ability to make an impact during his first year of playing college ball.
“I understand it’s hard for all seniors, but I want to play too,” he said.
Class in a computer screen
San Benito students and teachers have been adjusting to holding classes online. Junior Andrew Miranda said the ability to “have more control of your schedule,” was a big plus during the pandemic. The need to improve time management was a lesson Miranda felt “will be useful when you go into college.”
The distance learning schedule at San Benito High School features one-hour blocks for English, science, world languages/academy and P.E. on Mondays and Thursdays; and math, social science, career technical education, and visual/performing arts on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are when teachers hold office hours, during which they answer emails, consult with student groups, give assignment feedback, and hold Zoom meetings with their department colleagues.
Skardoutos said the distance learning class schedule is less stressful. “I can choose what class I want to do first.”
At the start of the week, teachers post their weekly assignments via Google Classroom, or students pick up paper packets from the high school and hand them in when completed.
“Teachers giving all your work in bulk allows you to work at your own pace,” said junior Yvette Fragozo.
Though technology allows some students to communicate with their teachers, there are those who feel it isn’t the same as interacting in a classroom. Junior Luis Espinoza, who will be Associated Student Body vice president next school year, said it feels “like we’re all in a video game.”
And, he added, “it feels like an early summer.”
This makes it challenging for some students to finish their schoolwork.
“I can’t really learn the same through a computer,” said senior David Gonzalez, adding that he missed the traditional way of education.
Junior Trivia Rocco said, “It’s hard to stay focused with technology and the internet at your fingertips.”
Those taking Advanced Placement exams in May will be able to test from home, but the format will differ from years past. For example, an AP U.S. History test would normally consist of 60 multiple choice questions, three short answer questions, a long essay question, and one document-based question, covering areas learned throughout the entire school year and typically taking around three to four hours to complete.
But in the time of COVID-19, the College Board has changed the test to one document-based question that students must complete in 45 minutes. Some AP students see the adjustment as nerve wracking. Fragozo said it’s stressful for those who put in “a semester of hard work and dedication, to only have one question decide if you pass or fail.”
Skardoutos said it’s tedious trying to learn new concepts at home.
“It’s hard if I have a question because I can’t just go and ask my teacher,” he said. “Now, I have to write them an email, when they’re already bombarded by emails every day.”
Some students sympathize with teachers.
“They’re doing their best and in a time like this, what can you do?” said junior Ramon Duran, adding that he appreciated the leniency offered with assignments. “Teachers have their own personal lives, too.”
Sophomore Alys Pareja said one of her teachers reached out to her class about what they found to be the best way to do their schoolwork in the distance learning environment. “It’s nice to know that some teachers are here and want to listen to us,” Parjea said. “Teachers are trying to get used to it along with us students.”
Rocco said the leniency teachers have shown students during the pandemic is something that should continue when school resumes.
“People can still choose to be lazy and procrastinate, but kids who work to help pay the bills, they don’t always have time and energy after working in the early morning, going to school, possibly picking up another shift, coming home to eat, shower and then trying to do hours of homework.”
Making the grade
One notable change San Benito High School has implemented is the move from letter grades to a three-tiered ranking of pass, pass with distinction, and incomplete. Numerous college systems—including the University of California and California State University—have said they will accept it.
Classwork now goes into a “distance learning” category in students’ gradebooks, meaning it won’t have a positive or negative impact on the grade they had at the end of the last grading period. From now through the end of the semester, a student’s grade can only improve. This can be beneficial for struggling students, but there is concern about decreasing motivation among higher achieving students.
“It’s not exactly fair because people worked hard and people that maybe didn’t work as hard still get the same ‘pass’ on their transcript,” said Gonzalez.
Duran said the new grading was acceptable, “but disappointing for students who’ve been excelling.” Darnell said that “knowing that things can’t drop my grade, I’m not as motivated.”
Despite the uncertainty and inconvenience of sheltering in place, it has been a positive experience for some teens, affording them more quality time with family, more time to play musical instruments, or time to simply enjoy being outside.
“I’m proud of how the community has reacted,” said Espinoza. “It’s great that we’re able to come together and look out for each other in tragic situations.”
Rocco said “it’s crazy to think you’re going to a school with over 3,000 people every day and now the only people I see are my dad, sister and occasionally one friend.”
Duran is especially thankful to live in a connected world. “Imagine if we didn’t have the technology we have today,” he said.
For Pareja, being isolated is “something you just have to adapt to. It’s different and it will get better.”
“You don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” she said.
COVID-19 has impacted everyone, regardless of profession, age or location. For San Benito High School students, it has left an indelible mark on their lives. The coronavirus has shown teachers and students a “new normal,” and challenged them to learn what works and what doesn’t in distance learning, which is expected to continue through summer school in June and July. A positive mindset is something the staff, teachers and students of San Benito High School are doing their best to sustain during this time of uncertainty, as they look forward to returning to a normal social, home and school life.