Eli Green, a sophomore at Mt. Lebanon High School, understands why he must learn from home right now, but he also recognizes there would be advantages to being in school with his friends and teachers.
“I feel like I would benefit from going into the building,” he said, “especially with distractions at home.”
Green shares a sense of anxiety, though, about rejoining physical classes in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m nervous,” he said. “Teachers are nervous. My peers are nervous about the situation and I feel it would be hard. I feel like it would be hard to socially distance in a big high school.”
Mt. Lebanon High School began the school year on a purely remote model, then in October, moved to a hybrid model with in-person instructions two days a week. Several weeks ago, when COVID-19 cases began to skyrocket in Allegheny County, the district resumed solely remote learning. Students are now scheduled to return to the hybrid model later this month.
Green, like many other Pittsburgh-area Jewish students, is coping with the challenges of the 2020-’21 school year. Students not only have to worry about grades, parental expectations and getting into college, but they also are dealing with shifting between in-person and virtual learning, canceled activities, the inability to see friends closer than six feet apart, face masks and proper hand washing.
“It’s kind of annoying,” said seventh-grader Akiva Sunshine.
Because of the pandemic, Sunshine, a student at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, is currently learning at home using Google Classroom. It is hard to get into the rhythm of learning, he said, because his routines have been disrupted, shuffling from in-person to virtual learning and back.
When school takes place in Hillel’s physical building, Sunshine spends his day in a cohort with 12 or 13 other students, wearing masks and social distancing. Weather-permitting, he eats lunch outside, with — but apart from — other students.
This year, Hillel gave everyone their own Google Chromebook, which has helped navigate the changes between virtual and in-person instruction, Sunshine said. “It’s made everything flexible and super easy to deal with.”
For Aviv Davidson, an eighth-grader at Community Day School, moving from virtual to in-person classes has not been too difficult.
“Considering everything is online, I think that the school has done like a really good job of this teaching in general, because I’m still getting the same amount of education as I would be in a regular time,” Davidson said. “The only difference is the classes are shorter, but that works out because we’re spending less time in front of a computer screen.”
His brother, Cobi, a fifth-grader at CDS, also is comfortable that school has moved to virtual learning for the time being. He misses seeing his friends, he said, but even when they are in the CDS building together it can be hard: “We’re separated into cohorts and I don’t get to see friends in the other classes at all.”
Both Davidson brothers, though, have found a few advantages to virtual learning. It’s sometimes easier to communicate with teachers online, they said, and they prefer starting their day a bit later because they no longer are walking to school.
Abigail Bernstein, an eighth-grader at Hillel Academy, said all the changes this year have felt like a “whirlwind” and “sometimes it can get a little bit like a roller coaster.”
Still, “the schools are doing a really good job making sure everything goes smoothly because we have different schedules for if we’re in person or virtual,” Bernstein said. “And I mean, sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, the next day, you’re going be virtual,’ or ‘We’re gonna go back,’ but it’s been pretty smooth.”
Over at Mt. Lebanon High School, Green plays percussion in the school band. He is also learning to drive. This should have been an exciting year filled with field trips and outings with friends, but those things can’t happen because of the pandemic.
“I can go through a drive-through by myself,” Green said. “I can go to Target and Walmart or Game Stop to browse, but that’s really about it.”
Green is more bothered by what the virus has done to his extracurricular activities.
“So many things got canceled,” he said. “My field trip with the marching band got canceled, a bunch of conventions got canceled.”
The high school band at Mt. Lebanon was supposed to make a recording — something Green was looking forward to — but that was canceled as well.
“We were on the doorstep of recording an album, a CD, and couldn’t because of a spike in the cases,” he said.
Hillel Academy is not offering its usual selection of clubs this year, Bernstein said, but she takes dance classes at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Her lessons started in person there but moved to a virtual format on Nov. 20.
Erin Barr is the clinical coordinator for Jewish Family and Community Services’ UpStreet, a teen mental wellness program offering drop-in consultations with therapists, scheduled therapy appointments, text-based peer support and support groups for teens. Barr said it’s important to remember that many students are suffering a loss even if they are outwardly showing signs of coping well.
“I think there’s a lot of grieving going on,” Barr said. “I don’t know if we always think about it, but they’re missing out on a lot of defining moments in their high school careers, especially when you talk about seniors. They’re missing school dances and musicals. You know, you’ve done drama your whole life and now in your senior year it’s canceled.”
Behaviors that might normally be attributed to teenage moodiness could instead be caused by grief for what has been lost due the pandemic, Barr said.
Many students are finding ways to cope, though, despite the changes to routines and lost opportunities.
“I think we’re seeing some kids that have found some ways through it,” Barr said. “They’re coming up with some routines or healthy habits for themselves, changing their schedule around a little bit to make sure that they’re fitting in time to take care of themselves, or an activity that they like to do like exercising, or they’re finding ways to interact with friends virtually.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.