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    MIDDLE SCHOOL IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

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    If you aren’t chilled to the bone by memories of your own middle school experience, just imagine going through it while sequestered at home, relying on a finicky internet signal as your only connection to your teachers and peers. That’s what many American students in 2020 are currently facing during the COVID-19 pandemic, including those in San Diego Unified school district.

    Halfway through the second quarter at Roosevelt International Middle School, the reviews are coming in from students, teachers, and families; and the consensus is that, relative to the general hellscape that is 2020, pandemic school is going pretty well. With the caveat that the COVID era has been personally tragic, economically devastating, and at the very least majorly disruptive to millions of people, it is clear that bright spots and glimmers of hope abound at Roosevelt.

    In the case of academic classes at Roosevelt, the content varies little from in-person curriculum, even as the format is a drastic departure from traditional school. Google Classroom, Zoom, and other learning platforms comprise the classroom and texts, and students communicate with their teachers via email, chat, or virtual office hours. The schedule has been modified to prevent burnout and confusion from too many Zoom meetings: instead of the usual six classes per day in a semester system, students take three intensive classes per day (four if they take an elective), and follow a quarter system. With decreased time in the (virtual) classroom, kids are expected to complete more work independently than they normally would.

    Despite the obvious drawbacks of isolation from their peers, some students recognize upsides to online school. Eighth grader Toby Newlin and Seventh grader Rivka Alaya both sited the lack of social “drama” as an unexpected bonus that decreases stress and allows them to focus on their work. However, Newlin notes, “I now have added drama at home, like my mom looking over my shoulder.” Still, missing their friends—and the inability to make new ones—was the most frequent complaint from students interviewed for this story. While parents tend to struggle with the amount of screen time required of their children—and how they can help keep them focused on “school” internet despite the siren song of “fun” internet—they are largely impressed with efforts of the school district, the administration, and Roosevelt teachers in developing an entirely new teaching model since the country was blindsided by the virus last spring. Geena Pearson, whose son is in sixth grade, singles out “consistent communication” as a major aspect of Roosevelt’s success in dealing with the hardships inflicted by the pandemic, noting that Principal Steinberger and RooFriends (the school foundation) have “exceeded expectations” in this regard. Ms. Pearson added that the online classes have been “working out pretty seamlessly for [her] son,” and that “he’s loving all his teachers.” She was especially surprised at how “engaging and challenging virtual PE was.” PE and Music classes are perhaps the most unrecognizable from last year, relying on exercise challenges, workout videos, and in the case of Music, online music production and composition platforms where kids make and share their own music in addition to practicing their actual instruments.

    Roosevelt serves families from the uptown area of San Diego and beyond, and is located adjacent to the world famous San Diego Zoo. But in some ways, its physical attributes are currently irrelevant, since most students haven’t been on campus at all this year. Nonetheless, the sense of community transcends the limitations of fully online classes, as teachers, administrators, and staff use their expertise and passion to keep students engaged and families connected.

    Principal Bernard Steinberger, who started working at Roosevelt this spring, just three weeks before in-person school was shut down, says that the most surprising aspect of this strange era has been the kindness and understanding that the school community has shown toward one another. “I miss that energy of interacting with kids in person,” he says, adding that he is “proud and grateful” for the effort that the students and staff are putting into making this a meaningful school year. Steinberger says an unexpected positive aspect of moving almost every aspect of school online has been higher than usual parental involvement. Back-toschool nights and “town hall” meetings have had record turnout, Mr. Steinberger reports, “presumably because it’s much easier for families to log into a Zoom meeting than to drive to school on a weeknight.” Obviously, everyone is yearning for a return to “normal” school, but Mr. Steinberger appreciates the lessons of this crisis, including the effective use of online learning and communication platforms. “Education in this country will change forever because of this,” he predicts. For History and Social Studies teacher Francisco Garcia, the struggle is a matter of social conscience. “Truly one of the biggest challenges is maintaining a sense/of normalcy while I teach—when in fact we are living through a period of societal uncertainty. I feel a responsibility as a teacher to make my students feel safe and hopeful; staying positive is crucial.” Mr. Garcia is concerned that internet connectivity issues continue to be a hindrance to learning; but reports that his class attendance and student engagement is solid despite technology glitches.

    English teacher Jennifer Peterson says that the biggest challenge for her this year has been the additional class preparation. “I knew I would have to totally transform the way I teach in order to successfully connect with and challenge my students in an online platform,” she says, “so I spent a lot of my summer doing so, and I continue to plan into the evenings many days despite the fact that I am part time this year (for the first time in my career) due to [budget] cuts.” This workload is in addition to the increasingly complicated parenting demands of her own children, who are going to school online while she works from home. Ms. Peterson has been pleasantly surprised by the extent to which she has been able to connect with students in the virtual classroom, and how much she can differentiate and personalize instruction using online learning platforms like Flocabulary, Nearpod, Screencastify, Newsela, and Flipgrid. Perhaps confirming what parents have long suspected, Ms. Peterson admits that the “mute” button can be an effective classroom management tool that offsets some of the additional stress of online teaching.

    The current plan with San Diego Unified schools is to increase in-person instruction to the students who need the most help, and ramp up to a “Phase 2” reopening in late January. Of course, all of that depends on the trajectory of infection rates, which is currently far from ideal. Although it seems like there is not much we can do to affect this trend, Ms. Peterson has a homework assignment for us all that definitely can’t hurt: “Wear your mask! Teachers want to be back in the classroom with our students. A lot of us have our own children we are caring for at home while trying to continue to teach other people’s children. We love our jobs and understand the struggle working parents are going through. Let’s all commit to one another’s health and wear our masks so we can ALL go back to school.”

    By Andy Hinds

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