Learning in Limbo: These students are getting by, but they miss the way school used to be

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Miles Walters, 12, calls it “the big elephant in the room.” Even when it goes unmentioned at school, he said there’s no escaping some reminder of the pandemic.

Miles, a seventh grader at the Sheridan School in Washington, attends in-person classes part of the week.


Miles Walters
Miles Walters before his first day of seventh grade. (Courtesy of Julie Segal Walters)

The rest of the time he taps in to classes from his home computer. And with students required to wear masks and to remain six feet apart at all times, the experience is a strange one for Miles. The worst is recess.

“There’s only so many activities that we can do. Like there’s no tag,” Miles said. “I just miss being able to see people’s faces and be able to run around without having to dodge and weave around people and come too close.”

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With their education in an uproar for nearly a year now, four area students talked about how learning from home or in person and at a distance has affected them and their education, for better and for worse.

Miles, whose family are members of Temple Sinai in Washington, said his school adopted a hybrid schedule: Mornings are spent virtual learning and most afternoons the students gather at school.


“I think it’s great that we get an opportunity to be with each other, in some sense,” Miles said. “It’s not great that we can’t see each other’s faces.”

Rachel Barold
Rachel Barold. (Courtesy of Helen Barold)

Rachel Barold, 12, of Bethesda also misses the social aspect of the pre-COVID world. Since the spring, Rachel’s classes at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda have been entirely virtual. Rachel, a seventh grader, says everyone is learning less this way.

It’s difficult to concentrate on a screen all day, Rachel said. It’s a passive experience. She talked about the old days when she did lab assignments in science class and collaborative group projects in math class. Since COVID began dictating curriculum, class work has become mostly just worksheets.

“It’s not great,” said Rachel, whose family belongs to Temple Sinai. “It’s more of just a lecture style. And it’s not really super conducive to learning in a middle school setting.”

Sami Himmelfarb
Sami Himmelfarb (Courtesy of Sami Himmelfarb)

Sami Himmelfarb, 17, of Washington also feels less socially and educationally stimulated in school since the onset of the pandemic. Back in the spring, she believed there was a possibility that the fall would see a return to normalcy at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.

“It was false hope to think that everything would be OK by the summer or by the start of the next school year,” said Sami, who is a member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington. “Still, in the back of my mind, I just expected to have a typical first day of school and to see all my friends and my teachers. And when that didn’t happen, it was a bit of a shock.”

Now a senior, Sami said she struggles to pay attention in school, as it involves looking at a screen all day and doing assignments that can feel like busy work. And Sami said she misses having a clear division between school and home.

“It’s really hard to sit down and do my homework when it feels like I’m doing homework all day,” Sami said.

Ari Priniotakis
Ari Priniotakis pictured in his bedroom before participating in a virtual speech and debate tournament. (Courtesy of Amy Rofman)

Ari Priniotakis of Washington said he doesn’t hate virtual learning, but he isn’t exactly enthusiastic about it either. The 13 year old said his classes at Alice Deal Middle School are entirely virtual, which he’s gotten used to at this point.

“I’m fine with it,” said Ari, whose family belongs to Machar: The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism. “I’m not one of those people who’s, like, overly excited about it, or just hate it. I think it’s fine.”

Ari, an eighth grader, said a plus of virtual learning is the flexibility when it comes to doing school work. However, he feels there’s less instructional time this school year, with more time spent on assignments. He misses the in-person classes, which he believes led to more questions asked by students as opposed to the virtual quizzes, online articles and documentaries they’re learning from now.

Rachel also misses in-person classes.

“If we went back, even just one day of the week or half a day of the week, it would be effective in just gaining that social aspect back,” Rachel said.

Sami said her classes were entirely virtual until December. That’s when Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School brought her class back two days a week, every other week.

“I was really apprehensive hearing that we were going to return to the building, just because it was right when cases had really started spiking,” Sami said. “And it turned out to be really positive. Like, I can’t say that I’m learning a whole lot more. But just for the sake of everyone’s mental health, being able to stay in class and be away from your computer and to socialize during lunch and walk around during the day, I didn’t realize how much I needed that.”

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@EricSchucht

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