Senior Finn Hadly walks through the empty quad as he makes his way to the band room where he finds his assigned seat safely located six feet away from the rest of the students and staff. An awkward silence looms over the class as teachers closely monitor the interactions of students. 

With Palo Alto High School waiting to reopen, students are looking forward to coming back, but most do not know the impact of online learning on academic performance. 

Grades and attendance

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students have had to adapt to online learning, which entails being on Zoom for up to seven hours in a day. As a result, many assumed that students would suffer academically. 

However, students have evidently taken these changes in stride as the number of students with D’s and F’s in the first semester of school decreased from 237 in 2019 to 197 in 2020. The total number of D and F grades has also decreased from 412 to 384. 

According to a report from Palo Alto Unified School District, average daily attendance at Palo Alto High School has increased 2.87% from the 2019-2020 school year to the 2020-2021 school year, with data taken from the first day of school until Nov. 20. However, online learning disproportionately hurts certain demographics.

Chronic absenteeism, defined as students who were absent for at least 10% of school days, is down 2% and 1.8% for white and Asian students, respectively. Despite improvements for some demographics, chronic absenteeism is up 1.6% for Hispanic students, 14.2% for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students, 2.7% for Special Education students, and 4% for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. 

Student opinions

Freshman Tyler Harrison views online learning as a system that benefits students who thrive in an independent environment, while hurting those who need the attention and interaction with teachers. 

“Online learning creates more of an achievement gap,” Harrison said. “For some people, it’s 

difficult to operate in a system where they’re not necessarily held accountable all the time.”

In Harrison’s case, learning online makes it difficult for him to communicate with teachers and stay motivated to do work. According to a February Verde survey of 140 Paly students, 43.6% of students claim that they are doing worse academically this year while 20.7% say that they are doing better in comparison to last year. Additionally, 80% of students said that they felt that they were learning less online than they would in-person. 

Along with improvements in academics, Harrison explains how the online environment has improved his attendance record. 

“I think it’s definitely a lot easier to get to class on time because it’s just a link that you have to click on instead of finding where your classes are on the first day of school,” Harrison said. “And also just getting from class to class on time with the 10 minute passing period is easier.”

Even though attendance has increased and students no longer have to spend time walking to classes, 43.3% of students claim that they are less motivated to arrive in class on time. 

“It’s harder to get through your work when you’re not happy or motivated while doing it. So sometimes even small challenges can be really tough.”

— Kira Sterling, senior

Senior Kira Sterling is among the students that feels the lack of motivation comes from social isolation. 

“It’s harder to get through your work when you’re not happy or motivated while doing it,” Sterling said. “So sometimes even small challenges can be really tough.”

Despite difficulties with online learning, Sterling admits that she has doubts about wanting to return to school.

“As much as I miss being at school with my friends and seeing my teachers in person, I don’t feel that going back to school right now is a good thing to do,” Sterling said. “I know there are a lot of experienced people who have spent time working on a way back into classrooms, but even with the safety precautions I would be concerned how we are going to stay safe.”

Individualized education programs

Meb Steiner, a Special Education aide at PAUSD, explained that with such a variety of student needs, the Special Education department has seen both struggles and success with distance learning. 

“For some of our kids, it was really hard to access online learning,” Steiner said. “If you’re a student who’s visually impaired or non-verbal you can’t navigate the technology.”

Steiner claims that while chronic absenteeism has been an issue for the Special Education program during the pandemic, it’s not a new challenge that they are facing. 

“Chronic absenteeism, I will say that, even prior to the pandemic, was a concern — it’s not a new issue,” Steiner said. “And it’s not like being back in school is some magic pill that’s going to fix it, because we had kids who really struggled with their mental health when we were in school, physically in-person.”

However, most Special Education students are adapting well. 

“We’re still all together, we created fun activities and we did little breakout rooms with smaller groups of kids to divide them up based on their needs, their academic plan and their goals,” Steiner said.