Two weeks ago, Porter Whitworth and Carson Belnap were getting ready for the final quarter of their senior years of high school.
Track and field season was about to start, and events like Spirit Week and graduation loomed on the horizon for both — Whitworth at Grantsville High, Belnap at Stansbury High. But then, everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, and in short order, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert made the decision to close all public schools across the state for at least two weeks — a dismissal that has since been extended through May 1. The Utah High School Activities Association suspended all further competition as well.
However, classes have continued to be taught since schools were closed. Instead of taking place in a classroom, teachers across Utah, including in Tooele County, have turned to various online platforms to continue their lessons and keep students moving forward.
“It’s all up to you if you’re going to do (school) work or not,” Whitworth said. “There’s no extra push from teachers or peers. Using technology can be difficult as well. Unless you have it set up beforehand, you have to use those technology skills to figure it out. Sometimes, setting it up can take a while.”
There have been various challenges along the way for educators and students alike through the transition to online-only instruction. Teachers are learning how to use unfamiliar software on the fly, along with trying to figure out how to adapt their lesson plans.
Some teachers are using videoconferencing software like Zoom to hold live lectures, while others are pre-recording lectures and posting them online on Google Classroom and Canvas. Hours have been spent trying to adapt paper assignments for online use, in addition to searching for online labs and other ways to get students the information they feel is necessary to help them advance academically.
Teachers have reported some pushback from some parents who say online access is a problem, though Tooele County School District has Chromebooks available for students who don’t otherwise have access to a computer at home and various local internet providers are providing their services for free during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, the school district is shifting to a pass/incomplete grading system for the final term of the school year, meaning students will receive a passing grade for doing a minimal amount of work without it adversely affecting their grade-point average. The credit for an incomplete grade will have to be made up, but also won’t damage a student’s GPA. That leads to additional frustration for teachers, who noted that they are creating content that students don’t necessarily have to complete in order to pass.
Parents like Ashley Metzger have been willing to work with their children through the transition to online learning, with some ups and downs throughout the process.
“I have two kids who couldn’t be more different from each other,” Metzger said in an email. “My oldest normally struggles with school and would much rather be home than have to go to school — that is, until now. The first few days were filled with tears. You see, he needs structure and routine. Without a designated place for learning and a schedule he can count on, he feels out of his element and completely overwhelmed.
“My youngest lives for school and thrives academically. His teacher is easily one of his absolute favorite people. Since we started remote learning, he wakes up early in the morning and completes all of his work within an hour or two all on his own. We’re supplementing his learning at his request, and as much as he misses his teacher and friends, he’s adjusting well. The good in all of this is that they will come out of this stronger, more resilient, and with a new appreciation for their school and teachers.”
Whitworth said even as teachers and students alike are still growing accustomed to online learning, his teachers have been available to answer any questions via email, helping him to keep pace in his classes.
“With this, I can go at my own pace,” Whitworth said. “I can get stuff done quicker if I’m ahead, but if I don’t understand it, I can spend the extra time without falling behind. So, that has been nice. [The teachers] have been pretty good about getting back to me. My AP Calculus [teacher] — he’s been awesome. I can send him a message and he’s back to me in a few minutes or so.”
Belnap said he feels that online learning has been more efficient for him.
“There’s a lot less ‘busy work,’” Belnap said. “You’re doing a lot more school work instead of wasting time, sitting in class. It’s a lot easier. You don’t have to sit and move at the same speed as everyone else. You can just get on and get it done whenever you feel ready for it and take breaks when you need to.”
However, Belnap admitted that it can be difficult to find the motivation to do schoolwork.
“Mostly just logging on and doing it [is a challenge], because I just find a lot of excuses not to,” Belnap said.
However, the shift to online classes isn’t the only change local students are experiencing. The social aspect of seeing familiar faces in the halls every day is gone, with social-distancing restrictions on large groups.
“It’s definitely been a big change, especially in the social aspect,” Belnap said. “I’m not a very social person or anything — I keep to myself for the most part — but it seems like it just kind of sucks not being around other people as much.”
Whitworth, who serves in Grantsville High’s student government, said discussions are taking place to find a way to honor this spring’s graduating seniors.
“It’s really hard,” he said. “I’ve grown up with these kids since I was born. I know every single one of my classmates and the fact that it’s senior year and I don’t get to see them, there’s the chance that I don’t get to graduate with them, have one last Spirit Week and all those fun assemblies, all the traditions we’re losing — it really sucks. I’m trying to stay optimistic about it, have a good time and make the most out of the situation.”