To gain insights into what academic life has been like for students during the first half of the 2020-21 school year, the Scarsdale Board of Education met with a group of Scarsdale High School students via Zoom conferencing Monday, Dec. 7. The special meeting comprised school board members, district cabinet members, the high school principal, faculty advisers, student-elected representatives from the SHS school government, and students selected from a range of grades, areas of study and extracurricular involvement.
While a few questions were posed as prompts by the educational professionals present, the meeting was largely dominated by student voices and experiences, with students eager to contribute their thoughts. The discussion focused on student engagement and participation in extracurriculars and classes, level of comprehension and quality of education in the asynchronous model as perceived by students, and some of the positives and negatives that have arisen in terms of personal growth and academic achievement due to the hybrid instructional format of this unprecedented school year.
“I feel like the issue of engagement is very real,” said Ian Zhou, a SHS freshman, on student engagement in school clubs. Zhou, who joined the Speech and Debate Club, spoke about his difficulties navigating the extracurricular scene as a freshman new to the high school, and feeling unable to meaningfully connect with other students. “Sometimes [club Zoom meetings] don’t feel organic and it feels sometimes overly structured,” he said. “On Zoom you can only have one person talking. A lot of times I’ve noticed that it’s usually just a few people talking.”
Alex Kahn, a sophomore who also participates in Speech and Debate, echoed Zhou’s sentiments and shared some of the perspectives his freshman friends have confided in him.
“For people who are sophomores, juniors and seniors, I think it’s much easier for them than for freshmen ... Freshmen who are joining [clubs] are trying to meet new people over Zoom where literally two people can’t talk at once ... I think the most important thing would be trying to facilitate relationships between freshmen specifically ... I think it’s just really hard to meet each other on a Zoom where there’s like 10 people in the Zoom and one person talking to all of them,” Kahn suggested.
Rishika Bansal, class of ’22, a member of the SHS student government and a Speech and Debate officer, spoke to some of the strategies the club has employed to try to mitigate these issues. “We’ve tried to overcome it by breaking out into smaller groups and doing conversations that way. But it’s definitely still a challenge,” she said. Bansal added that Speech and Debate, like the SHS student government more broadly, has been working to keep the student body engaged by posting frequent announcements and videos on the club’s Instagram page.
Academically, students in the meeting expressed their generally positive thoughts and experiences with the pace, content and delivery of curriculum. For some students the pace and amount of content covered felt like “more or less a normal year,” as summarized by Zhou, who highlighted that his Spanish teacher told the class that in comparison to other schools, Scarsdale is ahead of the curve. “When [my Spanish teacher] talked to teachers in other school districts,” Zhou said, “[He found that] we’re ahead; we’re doing a lot more quizzes and tests and we’re covering the material.”
While for others the pace has seemed a bit slower, no one had any complaints. “I think classes moving slower than they would be in a regular year [is] inevitable because we’re obviously not getting as much time in class … But I think we’re still getting a substantial amount of content in all of my classes,” Kahn said, making sure to emphasize that he doesn’t think any changes should be made. “I think obviously teachers want to get as much of their curriculum in, but what I think is more important is the quality of the education we’re getting, and I think the issue that every student has had is that we’re online a lot more … [We can’t be] sitting at a computer for six hours straight, or even more. Even if you’re technically learning more content, you’re probably actually going to be learning less because you’re going to get tired and not be able to focus. When I’m in [my] double chem [class] on Zoom, it’s hard to focus even in just those two hours,” Kahn pointed out.
Bansal, who is a remote-only student, said that engaging with material through a screen has been a bit difficult, but overall “teachers have done a really phenomenal job trying to keep virtual students engaged.” She added that teachers have been “reaching out to [remote learners] specifically and making sure that everything’s OK.”
Several students spoke about the extraordinary efforts of their teachers to teach the curriculum and maintain their connections, and noted their appreciation for the Wednesdays when they can meet with teachers through built-in tutorial times.
For some students, this year’s academic model appears to have aided them in preparing for college.
“As a junior, I think this schedule has been extremely helpful with ACT work and SAT work because I’ve noticed that I’ve been able to do my work more throughout the day,” said Claire Scarcella, SHS junior class resident. “I do my schoolwork throughout the day so less things are piling up at night. I’m able to go to bed earlier, or have a clearer head for certain parts of the day.”
Zoe Tucker, class of ’21, felt similarly, pointing to the time management skills she feels she has gained as useful in adapting to a college schedule next year. “I feel like [this] schedule is setting me up personally as a senior for college, [where] classes are going to be spread out, with maybe some in the morning maybe some in the afternoon,” she said.
Freshmen like Abigail Underweiser also described new skills they have gained due to the new learning model.
“I think I’ve definitely become more of an independent learner from this whole experience. I used to rely a lot on the in-person classes, being with teachers and having them explain things after class,” Underweiser said, pointing to how she has had to become more self-sufficient, either figuring out the material for herself or reaching out to other students with questions. “Class community has become really important,” she added.
For freshmen especially who may not have friends in classes or classmates they feel comfortable reaching out to, succeeding academically has become a bit more difficult.
“The classes I’m doing the best in I have the most people I know who I can call and text if I have a question about an assignment, and the classes I’m probably doing the least well in I only have maybe one friend or no friends,” Underweiser said, later pointing to an example of a class where the posting of due dates was not clear and, for one quiz, half of the class only found out about it from a few other students.
“I think that facilitating class communication, [something to encourage] just talking between classmates outside of class for studying or for questions. I think that’s something that we could work on,” Zhou recommended to the school board. “If you have fewer classmates to talk to, you have less of a support structure outside of your teacher ... Finding ways to facilitate classmate interactions would be a good step in helping kids adapt to this new situation.”
Another widely echoed recommendation included encouraging or showing teachers how to use Google Classroom and create Google calendar events in order to create a level of consistency between classes regarding assignments.
Generally, however, students felt good about the upcoming semester. “I think that teachers are doing an amazing job right now,” Benjamin Ewing, class of ’22, said at the end of the meeting. “Last spring class didn’t feel like class, school didn’t feel like school, and this year I think that, because of the teachers I have … this has been a year where I’ve learned as much as I usually would have learned.”
Afterward, in her opening comments at a board meeting later that night president Pam Fuehrer said, “[The students] spoke about the community of the classroom, and the relationships that they are building. We heard that school feels like school and that classes feel like classes, that the workload seems manageable. …The board always values the time we get to spend with these students … We understand how demanding the past nine months have been and we deeply value their input.”