Problems with the Pandemic

November 2, 2020

FROM HIATUS TO HYBRID

From Hiatus to Hybrid

On Oct. 2, Blue Valley students experienced a school day beyond the parameters of virtual education and attended classes in-person for the first time in a whopping 207 days — which is almost double Phineas and Ferb’s intended 104 days of summer vacation.

With this announcement came the excitement of seeing friends and teachers face-to-face — or mask-to-mask — as well as the dread of relinquishing the freedoms of online school, such as sleeping in later and having access to snacks at all times.


Hybrid

In addition to the comfort in having a structured routine, many BV students like sophomore Alexis Forgy longed for the interpersonal elements of school that they so dearly missed during isolation.

“I love the social aspect of school,” Forgy said. “I really like going and actually seeing people.”

Along with physically interacting with friends, Forgy believes her ability to learn fully in-person is greatly dependent upon whether or not students come back to school.

“Chemistry is hard because you are supposed to be doing labs, which you obviously can’t do online,” Forgy said.

Despite being enthusiastic about going back to school in the hybrid model, Forgy pulled some positives from the online school experience.

“I feel like teachers are a little bit more flexible with due dates,” Forgy said. “I also like how we have block days every day because I have more time to get all my work done.”

However, online school does have its faults, starting with the amount of screentime and the consequences that come with it.

“I get headaches a lot because I’m on my computer so much,” Forgy said. “I also feel like we get a little bit more work than we did when we were in person.”

All pros and cons considered, Forgy was ready to move forward from virtual learning and start the process of phasing back into a normal education.

“[Online school] is not as bad as I thought it was going to be, but it’s still a lot harder than in-person,” she said. “It’s a lot easier for me to learn things when I actually have in-person school.”

When students finally returned to the building for the first time since March 12, it was a busy day, but nonetheless one filled with the promise of more time with friends and a return to at least some normalcy.

“[I loved] getting back to the social aspect of school,” Forgy said. “It’s a lot easier for me to learn with hybrid instead of online.”

Although Forgy’s feelings about the return to part-time in-person learning are generally positive, she acknowledges some negatives.

“[The worst part is] having to wear masks all day,” Forgy said. “The desks are spread out, and we have to wipe them down at the end of class.”

Following the lead of the classrooms, lunch seating arrangements have also greatly changed — students now eat during 1 of 11 different assigned lunch times in either the commons or the gym.

“We have to sit six feet apart,” Forgy said. “It’s awkward because I’m used to sitting somewhat close to my friends.”

Forgy looks forward to moving forward in-person.

“I’m happy with continuing with hybrid going into November,” she said. “I wish we could totally in-person, but I’m super happy that clubs are starting back up, too.”


Virtual

The COVID-19 pandemic forced everything from hair salons to the NFL to adapt their methods and create a brand-new way of doing things. Schools are no exception.

To create a safe and healthy learning environment for all students, Blue Valley Schools offered the option to take virtual classes instead of attending in-person school. In the interest of their children’s safety, some families decided to exercise this option.

“We weren’t sure if school was safe,” freshman Sydney Maxwell said. “COVID case numbers are still pretty high.”

Maxwell is one of the Blue Valley students taking online classes for the 2020-21 school year.

“It’s not the best [because] I need some more discipline to learn,” Maxwell said. “I’m just not getting that in virtual.”

This online learning atmosphere has been a challenge for all students, but for the virtual students, there is no end in sight.

“It’s been harder for me to force myself to do work,” Maxwell said.

Virtual students are also missing out on a lot of the educational opportunities that in-person learning offers.

“I like having a teacher there so I can ask questions,” Maxwell said. “I’m more of a learner that has to work with someone. I’m not really good at independent work, as in teaching myself.”

Although Maxwell is “definitely not happy” with the virtual classroom, her hopes are high for the future of online learning.

“We have less time with teachers right now,” Maxwell said. “But once the in-person kids go back to school [I think we] will have more time with teachers.”

Additionally, the virtual classroom is teaching kids valuable skills for entering the workforce.

“It’s a lot of extra independence,” Maxwell said.

Students outside of the classroom are learning to operate without the control of their teachers.

“You have to really focus and get your work done,” Maxwell said. “There’s no teacher there to remind you.”

Clearly, there can be many benefits to online school.

“I get out of school early,” Maxwell said. “Sometimes I don’t even have class.”

However, if possible, Maxwell said she will “probably go back to school second semester.”

“COVID numbers might’ve dropped, or there might be a vaccine by then,” Maxwell said.

At the end of the day, virtual learning has its ups and downs, as does in-person learning, but all of the Blue Valley students and staff will be working together to find a way through this school year.

“I’m not mad about my decision, but I’m definitely not happy with [it],” Maxwell said. “I just wish I could go back to school so that I can learn with my friends and have an actual teacher there in front of me.”


Virtual/Hybrid Mixture

Junior Jessica Alexander made the decision to do hybrid learning so she could take certain classes and reap the benefits of in-person learning while still staying safe.

“I wanted to be able to have my theater and chemistry classes in person,” Alexander said. “I thought a virtual experience wouldn’t be as beneficial for me due to the fact that I am an extrovert and miss the conversations generated in my typical classes.”

So far, Alexander has mixed feelings about virtual learning.

“I enjoy taking math and U.S. History online,” Alexander said. “I almost wish I didn’t have to take them in-person at all anymore, but other classes have me excited to get back.”

Her biggest worry about the hybrid learning plan was a lack of organization.

“I am scared that I [won’t] know where [I’m] supposed to be those mornings,” Alexander said. “Outside of school, I already have a complicated schedule, so this is really going to test my time management.”

Due to the pandemic, performing arts students like Alexander no longer have as many performances to look forward to.

“It’s harder to get motivated for the class when we don’t get to practice for a show,” Alexander said. “It really is a shame.”

Alexander is prepared for the COVID-19 and school situation to continue changing.

“This plan doesn’t seem perfect, and the pandemic isn’t over, “ Alexander said. “Things could change quite drastically again.”

Five days after it started, hybrid learning had not made a good impression on Alexander.

“Hybrid is a bit worse [than expected],” Alexander said. “[It’s hard to] remember which days are which, know when to go in [or] stay home.”

While Alexander has concerns with social distancing, the hybrid model proves to have some benefits.

“[In] theater and chemistry, [we] get to do more interactive stuff,” she said.

Alexander also believes that despite the safety precautions not being followed perfectly, she isn’t excessively worried about her health.

“[I feel] as safe as I can given the circumstances,” Alexander said.

Now that she has experienced hybrid learning, Alexander thinks the district can improve its COVID-19 learning plan. Her experience with hybrid learning so far has only made her more confident about wanting to take more virtual classes.

“I don’t think I will do [in-person] next semester for anything but theater if I can help it,” Alexander said. “I have found that I get more work done when I don’t face the classroom distractions, and I really enjoy getting to work at my own pace with my classwork.”


Advice from the BV Nurses

Through the pandemic, the school nurses Julie McCrea and Anne Smith dedicated themselves to the students’ well being. While we all enjoyed our extended summer, these two worked with other school nurses across the district to plan for this school year.

“[We did] a lot more educating on COVID, [and] we had meetings throughout the summer to get updates to prepare and to discuss things as they came up,” McCrea said. “We tried to make sure we were prepared as best we could be for coming back [this semester].”

Since March, the nurses have seen a major change in communication between the district and its surrounding community.

“We always had communication before, but it’s definitely increased on the education side a lot to try to help educate students and families of the new normal,” Smith said.

This year is uncharted territory for everyone, and staying up-to-date on important school information is critical for a good learning experience.

“I want this to feel like a safe place where they can come and get the health care they need,” Smith said.


Experts’ Opinions

The Blue Valley Board of Education approved of the Kansas State Department of Education’s coronavirus gating criteria on Aug. 18. However with that change, fall activities were suspended for two weeks.

“At the time of the board meeting, we had committed to look at the gating criteria on a regular cycle, but [school] was different from what athletics and activities were,” BV School District’s chief communications officer Kristi McNerlin said. “On Sept. 4 the decision was made [that] as long as we made significant modifications, [we would] allow athletics and activities.”

Since then, school is back in session with hybrid learning with new health regulations.

“We have the mask [mandate, and] we’re doing our best to do social distancing,” McNerlin said. “The mitigation efforts that we have in place, I believe, will reduce to the greatest extent possible the number of cases we will have in our schools.”

According to Dr. Alex Hallock, COVID-19 is a new disease of the coronavirus. Hallock is the Associate Chief of Staff for Education for the Veterans Affairs Eastern Kansas Health Care System.

“This is a particular strain of COVID that humanity has never seen in any great degree, so we’re much more susceptible to it,” Hallock said.

While this new strain of the coronavirus has flu-like symptoms, Hallock said the two do have disparities.

“[With] COVID, we’re testing more people, and it seems to have a much higher mortality than influenza does,” Hallock said. “We don’t know how bad it could be if we didn’t put in place [restrictions]. Because there’s so much unknown about it, that’s what’s scaring people — 20,000 [deaths] a year we can deal with, but 200,000 tends to freak us out.”

Having helped with the 2003 smallpox response and being in charge of the 2014 Ebola response for the VA, Hallock is more aware of how to react to COVID-19. However for the school district, this is uncharted territory.

“We’re doing the best we can with the information we have at the time,” McNerlin said. “We’re partnering with our medical experts. We want kids back in person every day.”

Hallock, whose daughter Sarah is a junior at BV, knows there are inevitable risks associated with returning to school. Still, Hallock believes the school district should balance the traditional learning environment with the rate of infectivity.

“Unfortunately schools are put in an extremely tough position,” he said. “Obviously as a dad, I don’t want my daughter to catch something that could potentially harm her. At the same time, this happened so quickly that we did not have a way of adequately trying to figure out a good response for it. It’s sort of a double-edged sword.”

Though Hallock and McNerlin both said cases will rise in schools, they stressed the gravity to lessen the number affected. A great way of doing so is by wearing a mask.

“[The] Johnson County government can make whatever recommendations they want, but ultimately it’s going to boil down to the individual,” Hallock said. “The point of the mask is that if you’re a carrier and you don’t know [have] it, we want to minimize your risk of giving it to somebody else.”

Agreeing with Hallock, McNerlin believes independent choices affect the outcome of the school’s education.

“If they’re exposing themselves because they’re not wearing masks outside of school, that impacts potentially the learning environment,” McNerlin said.

While Hallock recommends to socially distance and wear a mask, it’s also important to remember the basics.

“Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands,” Hallock said. “Infection control boils down to covering your mouth when you cough, washing your hands frequently [and] staying home if you’re sick.”

Hallock also emphasizes the coronavirus’s ability to become a teachable moment.

“When [COVID-19] dies down, we need to take lessons learned and apply them for the future,” Hallock said. “If we’re not paying attention to what we’ve learned from all this, then we’ve wasted an opportunity because we have to find some good.”

During this time, McNerlin still finds merit in the difficulties of the pandemic.

“I’ve learned how important it is for us to be kind,” she said. “There are a lot of varying opinions and people are impacted differently by COVID-19. At the end of the day, regardless of where you stand in your opinions, express those opinions with kindness.”

As for whether or not the country will ever return back to “normal,” Hallock doesn’t think it will nor should.

“Things change constantly, and we will change with it,” Hallock said. “The problem [is] we’re right in middle of it, but humanity will find a way because we always do.”


Pre-Hybrid

With all of the new changes occurring at BV this year, it’s no surprise that some students have been at the school since the very beginning. While many students are getting back in the swing of things and are becoming acquainted with the hybrid schedule, some students with diverse learning needs have been at the school for almost two months and are getting used to seeing other students around the school again.

Sixteen students have been at BV since school started in September working with intensive resource teacher Heidi Parrish along with other members of her department. At the start of the school year, there were some challenges that Parrish’s students faced with the new schedule.

It might have been difficult at first, but Parrish’s students have since gotten used to the new schedule and were very excited for other students to be back at the school with them.

Along with the new schedule changes, another one of the struggles that Parrish’s class had to overcome with online learning is the challenge of not having student helpers in the classroom.

“Our students learn from their peers and each other as much as they learn from us,” Parrish said.

Like other students at BV, Parrish’s students had the option to be in person or online, and while four chose to stay online, more and more students are choosing in-person learning. With the number of students coming to
BV, there are a lot of safety procedures that have been implemented in their everyday school experience.

“Our students have been doing really, really well with wearing their masks,” Parrish said. “They have to wash their hands or sanitize every hour, [and] right when they come in, we have to check their temperature.”

Students were also asked to bring a personal pencil box with supplies like scissors, pencils and pens, in order to prevent cross-contamination with other students or staff. Additionally, students are given a short break each hour so that the long block periods aren’t too mentally draining.

“Usually, I give them one 10-minute break during the [class period] and we go outside,” Parrish said. “They’re able to take off their masks for that entire time, but if somebody’s having a hard time with [wearing a mask,] we will go with whatever individually each kid needs.”

Even with all of the new procedures and schedules put in place, Parrish said the students adjusted very well to the changes.

“Our students have been total rock stars,” Parrish said. “They have been wearing their masks, washing and sanitizing their hands, and just overall being very flexible. Honestly, you can tell they are so happy to be back [in school and] in a routine.”

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