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The year of learning differently

Students weigh in on pandemic-driven instruction models

Editor’s note: With most Kent ISD schools back in session for about a month, students have had time to adjust to their districts’ learning modes, whether in-person, online or a hybrid of both. SNN reporters Morgan Jarema, Janice Holst, Phil de Haan and Beth Heinen Bell asked a sampling of students from across the county how it’s going for them so far — what’s working for them and what’s not, how safe they feel, and what they miss about their old routines.  

Andrew Taylor
Senior, Northview High School, hybrid

Andrew Taylor, senior at Northview High School (photo by Dianne Carroll Burdick)

Under the Northview Public Schools learning plan this year, middle and high school students who choose to attend in person learn from school two days a week, and from home three days a week.

Andrew says this year is all about “compromise and being flexible, (and) staying patient so hopefully stuff can keep going on.” He’d like to do as much in-person learning as he can, all year if possible. 

He recently started playing soccer again, is looking forward to track in the spring, and hoping the school can figure out how to have some sort of homecoming event. “We missed out on prom last year, which was really disappointing, so that would be really nice.”

Northview students use Canvas, a learning management system Andrew is pretty pleased with so far. “It’s pretty simple to use, and not too much work, at least right now, but it’s enough to simulate a normal week.”

‘It’s kind of, I wouldn’t say exciting, but cool to be living in this weird time.’

— Andrew Taylor, Northview High School

Andrew chose the hybrid model so he could be in school at least part- time. “I know I need that interaction with teachers. The school is set up like a circuit: you get out of one class and walk one way, straight to your next class, and they’re very strict on it. It really limits the people I see during the day. But I feel very safe.”

How he’s doing: “It’s kind of, I wouldn’t say exciting, but cool to be living in this weird time. Even though you do miss out on some things, I’ll be able to say I had a different experience. I’m just trying to stay positive… just taking the days as they come.”  

Zion Nkugba
Eighth grade, Forest Hills Central Middle School, online  

Zion Nkugba, an eighth-grader at Forest Hills Central Middle

Zion and his sister, second-grader Shiloh, are 100 percent virtual learners this year. Maya, 3, also is at home. 

Zion, whose current studies include foreshadowing in language arts and the history of the U.S. North and South, admits the start of the school year has been a struggle. 

“I’ve been keeping up with my grades, but it’s been a little bit harder (than the end of last year),” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a little too much. I think it’s just the workload.” Also, his screen froze several times while being interviewed for this profile.

Shiloh works in the living room, at a new desktop computer the family bought, while Zion uses a Chromebook issued by the district. 

‘I wish there was another way to do this.’

— Zion Nkugba, Forest Hills Central Middle School

“Sometimes I do my Zoom meetings in my room,” Zion said. “It’s quieter and I have more space. I do some of my work with my mom in the dining room. Maya just sort of pops in whenever she wants, so I don’t turn on my camera.”

He admits he misses what for him is the motivating regular routine of in-person school, and his preference is to be with his friends. But Zion said he feels safer at home until the pandemic is more under control. 

“I wish there was another way to do this,” he said. 

Still, Zion keeps this historic time in perspective. What he envisions his adult self telling young people someday: “It was a crazy time, and I was one of those people who got lucky.”

Hannah Vander Lugt
Senior, Kent City High School, in-person

Hannah Vander Lugt, a senior at Kent City High School

For senior Hannah Vander Lugt, it “was really important for me to be back in school in person.”

Recovering from surgery due to a volleyball injury just before schools closed in March, she was ready to reconnect with friends. “I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but rather really bummed about not being able to have friends support me,” she said. 

She is currently enrolled in online-only Grand Rapids Community College classes as well as in-school high school classes. 

“The classes are so much smaller now. We never had a problem, because we are a small school,” she said. “But now we get a lot of individual attention from the teacher and that is really helpful.” 

‘Wearing a mask just means I am respectful of others and their feelings about it.’

— Hannah Vander Lugt, Kent City High School

She noted that online classes are a “bit difficult to get into, but once you are familiar with the process, it works all right.”

School regulations regarding the pandemic are “pretty standard and easy to understand,” she added. “Wearing a mask just means I am respectful of others and their feelings about it. Most students stay 6 feet apart when they can and nobody seems to mind the rules.”

Ezequiel Gomez
Sixth grade, Kelloggsville Middle School, online 

‘I sometimes do get distracted but mostly not.’

— Ezequiel Gomez, Kelloggsville Middle School
Ezequiel Gomez, a sixth-grader at Kelloggsville Middle School

Most of his friends call him Eze, pronounced “Easy.” He would tell you that his decision to do online schooling this fall was not necessarily easy but was the right call.

“I am glad I chose this option,” he said. “I sometimes do get distracted but mostly not. I am very happy with how my school year has gone so far.”

When he’s not doing online school, Ezequiel enjoys board games, including the social aspects. He said online school provides some of those valuable social interactions too, especially the Google Meets where he gets a chance to talk with his other classmates and collaborate on projects and assignments.

“I don’t think I would change a thing about online class,” he concluded. “It’s very awesome!”

Olivia Outman
Junior, Lowell High School, hybrid 

Olivia Outman, a junior at Lowell High School

Olivia Outman chose Lowell’s hybrid model of in-person and online instruction, and is glad she did.

“I really like being back in person and prefer it over being completely online,” Olivia said. “I feel like I understand things better, and you’re also able to talk to the teacher to ask questions when you’re right there. On the online days sometimes I can kind of zone out, and there are times when the software goes down so then the work piles up and you have to make that up.

“(This fall) has definitely been better than last spring because it’s been more of the teachers really helping us with instruction, instead of just giving out assignments and hoping we figure it out.”

Outman typically has around 13 students with her in each class and said she feels safe while in the building, where masks are required. However, students have to sit alone at lunchtime and aren’t allowed any mask breaks throughout the day, which she said can be irritating.

‘I’m not so worried about getting (COVID-19) myself, I’m more worried about the students who have immune systems that aren’t as good.’

– Olivia Outman, Lowell High School

The mask rule also applies to sports, including during practices and in locker rooms. Outman, who participates in both softball and cheer, said that’s been one of the toughest adjustments this fall.

“There’s a lot of running, and that’s really tough (with a mask on) and makes it hard to breathe,” she said. “Personally, I think it messes with our oxygen.”

Outman said all of her siblings chose the hybrid model so that they could return in person, and all have been happy with that choice.

“At first (socially distancing at school) was very weird and I didn’t like it at all, but now I don’t mind it,” she said. “But it is still pretty different. Seeing people who don’t follow the rules is frustrating. I’m not so worried about getting (COVID-19) myself, I’m more worried about the students who have immune systems that aren’t as good.”

Christian Martinez-Ramos
Senior, Kelloggsville High School, in-person 

Christian Martinez-Ramos, a senior at Kelloggsville High School

Christian chose face-to-face learning this fall at Kelloggsville High School, where approximately half the student body is in person and half is doing virtual school. For Christian, the decision has been a good one.

“I’m glad I chose this option, and I am enjoying it,” he said. “I get to see my one-of-a-kind classmates and the amazing staff at the high school.”

He added that wearing a mask everyday hasn’t been bad, but “I could understand if some students do struggle with that.”

The safety measures at Kelloggsville have been great, Christian said, with social distancing, visible sanitizing and daily temperature checks.

‘I’m grateful for this school year. It has been tougher than most, but I wouldn’t change anything.’

– Christian Martinez-Ramos, Kelloggsville High School

“The school does an amazing job keeping us safe, and I’m grateful for this school year. It has been tougher than most, but I wouldn’t change anything because you gotta struggle so later in life you can handle anything that comes your way.”

Joslyn Herbst
Eighth grade, Grandville Middle School, online 

Joslyn Herbst, an eighth-grader at Grandville Middle School

Joslyn is attending school virtually this year and says she has “really enjoyed” the school year thus far.

 “I miss the in-person connection with teachers and peers, but I feel very grateful that I can still see them,” she said.

Herbst, whose mother, Lori, teaches in person at West Elementary School, watches the prerecorded classes from her bedroom so as to not be distracted by anything else happening at home.

“I like using Google Classroom because everything is very orderly,” she said. “To be honest, I would prefer to watch live lessons, but I can understand that it may be difficult for the teachers. I have not had any issues with logging on or staying engaged.”

While her classes are going well, Herbst admits that the virtual experience can’t compete with school the way it used to be.

‘I miss coming to class every day, in person, talking and socializing with my peers and teachers.’

Joslyn Herbst, Grandville Middle School

“I miss coming to class every day, in person, talking and socializing with my peers and teachers,” she said. “I miss the fun events and activities that take place at school.

“But personally, I am doing well. I never feel lonely because I know I have my friends and family to support me.”

Justin Anderson
Seventh grade, Kent City Middle School, in-person 

Justin Anderson, a seventh-grader at Kent City Middle School

Justin Anderson is hoping that “things will go back to normal next school year,” but he doesn’t find the rules put in place for in-person schooling to safeguard against COVID-19 too restrictive.

Wearing masks poses small issues such as falling down and making some people harder to hear, he said. He was relieved to find out football helmet face shields did away with having to wear one during football. “It is hard to run hard with a mask on,” he said.

Social distancing rules provided a plus and a minus. Unlike in the past, students stay with the same group all day. 

“We don’t get to hang out with other friends like we used to,” he said.  A “good thing” he said, is the separate lunch times for each grade: “We have more room and it is easier to socialize.”

‘We don’t get to hang out with other friends like we used to.’

Justin Anderson, Kent City Middle School

Comparing in-person to online learning is simple for Justin. “Last year doing it online was difficult without a teacher sharing examples or answering questions,” he said.

He said the pandemic doesn’t depress him, but that it is “kind of hard” not to visit with his great grandparents. 

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio


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