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  • Olivia Sarton, APA

Hybrid vs. Digital: Freshmen Opinions

Anyone who has been through high school can sympathize with the experience of entering freshman year. The first couple of months are crucial to making impressions as well as lifelong friendships, as you are pushed head first into a new environment with unfamiliar surroundings and unfamiliar people. On top of this typical high school struggle, UCVTS is an academically inclined school, hence expectations are higher than many students are used to. So now, you have to worry about not only finding a friend group and getting a good reputation, but also about exceeding your own academic expectations for yourself. This is already a heavy load for the average teenager, but the UCVTS Class of 2024 has had to carry it along with the extra weight added by the global pandemic.

While the vast majority of freshmen were already exposed to the online learning experience in March, it is an entirely different matter to start off your high school journey with a new cast of characters than it is to continue middle school with people you’ve known your whole life. As society begins its first steps towards normal life, our campus has converted to a “hybrid schedule,” in which students spend two days a week at school on campus and two days virtually from home. This may have lifted some of the burden of digital schooling from the shoulders of our freshman, but many of them still have concerns about the safety risks of going back to our classrooms. So which is preferable to our freshman class: completely online or hybrid learning?

Over the course of the past month, I have interviewed nearly thirty of UCVTS’s Class of 24’ freshmen about the struggles and benefits of both digital school and the hybrid schedule. Shockingly, despite having participated in virtual learning for the larger part of quarantine, only 16% of those interviewed reported liking this method more than the newer hybrid plan. Upon further research, the main reason people may have for this preference is the health aspect. While the faculty on campus is doing everything in their power to make the hybrid experience the safest it can possibly be, students still have some concerns about the size of the groupings attending school at the same time. Aside from safety precautions, there are many positives to the online learning schedule. For starters, students get to see all of their peers at the same time. When following the hybrid plan, the same groups of freshmen would attend in-person classes on the same days of the week depending on the first initial of their last name. Due to this fact, digitally is the only way that everyone in a class can interact at the same time, rather than being separated during class time. This not only gives students more of a chance to get to know each other, but also to get to know the teacher without their attention being split between Zoom and the classroom. In addition to this, virtual learning allows for more one on one interaction between freshmen and their teachers. Wednesdays are fully open for extra help meetings and breakout rooms are always available so that teachers can hold impromptu sessions for those lacking understanding during class. From a student’s perspective, online learning allows students to sleep in later, which is something that highly benefits mental health. In turn, this may also improve attendance as fewer mental health days may be needed.

Unfortunately, there are ways that an all digital schedule takes away from a teenager’s mental well being as well. Many say that sitting behind a screen all day makes them feel alone and unmotivated. On top of this, being home makes snacking and phone use during class time much easier to get away with, which can be distracting. One large issue that every teacher and student has also faced is the struggle of technology malfunctions. Faulty microphones and delayed audio can make communication nearly impossible, especially with larger class sizes. This also prevents participation, as many responses to questions go unheard due to glitches. Overall, digital school is both a blessing and a curse; it may keep us safe, but it leaves us isolated and needing to constantly adapt to new learning methods. According to one APA freshman, “I would like to be going to school full time, [but] the world needs to calm down from its temper tantrum first.”

The large majority of those I interviewed (84%) revealed that they have a preference for the newer hybrid schedule. As with all virtual learning, there are pros and cons to this plan. Numerous freshmen remarked that they found themselves to be more attentive during class periods while in-person, as being in front of a teacher removes the temptation of distraction. Furthermore, being at school, even for just two days a week, adds the social aspect of education that teenagers may be craving. Most students are unfamiliar with their peers, as everyone has come from different towns, so getting the chance to talk (albeit only to at most half of the grade) in a place other than on Zoom or through group texting is a huge plus for many students. Though breakout rooms and Wednesday meetings are great improvements to online learning, being in-person allows more chances for students to explain their questions better to their instructor, and to receive an answer that is more personal. All of this is certainly beneficial, but perhaps one of the largest advantages of time on campus is the comforting sense of normalcy that freshmen gain by doing something ordinary. Another APA freshman, comments, “When I first walked into school...I automatically felt a sense of safety. UCVTS is doing a great job of keeping us apart while still helping us through the day.”

But what is the cost of this comfort? Even though the general consensus is in favor of a hybrid schedule, many agree that this method could use some improvements. As being hybrid entails that those with last names beginning with a letter from A-L and those starting with M-Z are highly separated. Due to this, some teens hardly get a chance to talk to people who do not go to school on the same days as them. Even when students are present together in person, it is a struggle to get to know anyone truly with social distancing and masks. It has also been a major difficulty for teachers to move between Zoom calls and their classrooms to meet the needs of everyone. In truth, there is no good way to teach during this time: hybrid school can be changed back to all-digital overnight if a Covid-19 case is discovered. This makes lesson plans nearly impossible to create with the unpredictability of our situation. Lastly, the greater part of the freshman class has not gotten the chance to really know the buildings and campus of UCVTS since orientation. Hence, navigating the hallways of each school has been a trial for some students. Fortunately, students are given ten minutes between periods to locate their next classroom. Nonetheless, hybrid learning may be the preferred way to go about this pandemic, but for many it has made education an incalculable and fearful experience.

So which is better: all digital learning or a hybrid schedule? The truth is that there is no right answer. Online school has created a safe and consistent learning environment, but leaves students distracted and deterred by faulty technology. The vastly preferred hybrid plan allows for students to be motivated and social, but is unpredictable and confusing for the first year of high school. The experience of freshmen is far different from that of any other high school grade level. Perhaps sophomores and juniors are not as partial to hybrid learning since they already know their peers and campus. For seniors, this is their last year of high school and many already go to Kean University, so how do they feel? All in all, we, as a community, are just trying to fight through until we make it to something resembling our old lives. I believe that Alexandra Guskuma (an APA freshman) put it perfectly: “It's such a different experience seeing someone face to face compared to through a screen. Honestly, Covid is obviously disturbing our learning, but I don’t see a problem with the whole situation. We’re just slowly adjusting back into normal life, we have to take things one step at a time.”

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