Jane Lou, a high school senior in Palo Alto, was afraid she would bring the coronavirus home. So when the Palo Alto Unified School District announced the implementation of a remote learning plan for the 2021-2022 school year, Lou quickly enrolled. Despite her dissatisfaction with the program, the 17-year old is enjoying a new online community in which she feels she belongs.
Lou, originally a Henry M. Gunn High School student, is one of 137 PAUSD students enrolled in the remote learning program. According to PAUSD Student Support Coordinator Ana Reyes, the number of online students is heavily skewed towards elementary schoolers, with only 16 PAUSD high school students — six freshmen, three juniors and seven seniors — opting to remain online.
When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 130 into law July 9, California school districts were ordered to provide a remote learning option for the upcoming school year. In partnering with Stride — a for-profit company that has sold an online learning program and curriculum to U.S. state and local governments for over 20 years — PAUSD remote-learning students can access all their classes through a dashboard, taught by teachers unaffiliated with the Palo Alto Unified School District.
“The reason for the rough start was just we had such a short amount of time to get everything in place … from when AB130 was signed to the first day of school.”
— Ana Reyes, PAUSD student support coordinator
At first, students complained about technological difficulties and missing courses, but according to Lou, the PAUSD remote learning team responded quickly to her emails and addressed her problems. Reyes said there have been no further significant issues in spite of these initial complications.
“The reason for the rough start was just we had such a short amount of time to get everything in place … from when AB130 was signed to the first day of school,” Reyes said. “And there were some bumps along the way because of the short timeline.”
Despite her kind classmates, Lou said she has lost contact with many of her in-person friends and finds the program provided by Stride challenging to use, worse than the online learning provided by Gunn which she completed last year.
“To be honest, I hate it,” Lou said. “The UI [user interface] is really old school.”
The curriculum is heavily based on studying online textbooks, Lou said, and the occasional virtual interaction is with students of different grades, most of whom are younger.
Additionally, due to the accumulated screen time of virtual school, Lou’s eyesight has severely worsened.
“My left eye is nearly blind,” Lou said. “I can’t see anything.”
And, like all students who chose remote learning, Lou is prohibited from joining school activities and extracurriculars, ranging from sports to clubs to dances.
“The reason that AB130 was created was for people who felt like going to school and being at school with everyone else was too risky, [and] was a health risk for either them or their family,” Reyes said. “The question that we would have is why would you feel okay going to a dance with 1,000 people?”
Despite the lack of social opportunities, Lou has found a new community in online school and stays social by making acquaintances through online gaming.
However, once she graduates from high school this school year, Lou wants to return to in-person learning.
“If I am going to college, I won’t do it online,” Lou said. “I would be paying the same tuition as other kids, but they would be on campus and I would be at home. I feel like that’s just a waste of money.”
“If I am going to college, I won’t do it online. I would be paying the same tuition as other kids, but they would be on campus and I would be at home. I feel like that’s just a waste of money.”
— Jane Lou, former Gunn senior
Emily Liu, another senior from Gunn, also initially chose to pursue remote learning due to COVID-19 safety concerns and to be able to prioritize preparing for college. However, she quickly changed her mind.
“Because COVID is still going on … I wanted to keep them [my family] safe and keep them protected and try to avoid being in-person around all these people to minimize the risk of contact,” Liu said.
Despite the steps she took in preparation for online classes, Liu decided to switch to in-person school after a week, saying it provided significantly more benefits.
“The first few days were a little bit rough because the program itself was not how I expected it to be,” Liu said. “It’s super independent, and you do have to be committed and manage your time well.”
Because all assessments and assignments for the upcoming months were already published within the first days of school, Liu struggled to organize and plan her school days.
“Some of the classes already put out content for the entire semester, which I think is a little bit confusing,” Liu said. “You don’t really know how to prioritize your time with so many things to do.”
With no friends or former classmates enrolled, looking at her class list provided little support or assurance; Liu said she felt isolated from the other high schoolers who switched to the Stride program, having no one to help her go through this new experience.
“You’re not necessarily put with PAUSD students,” Liu said. “So that itself kind of felt like I was going to a different school anyway, because you have different teachers and different classmates, and I didn’t get to have any live interactions.”
“Being in person, and being around people and in a school atmosphere and in a classroom is pretty different from being online and sitting in your room and being on Zoom.”
— Emily Liu, Gunn senior
Liu’s switch back to in-person school has not been uncommon. According to a tweet from PAUSD Superintendent Don Austin, the number of remote learning school students has dropped from 223 to 137 since the start of the school year.
“I think just overall, the Palo Alto school district structure and the programs are much more beneficial for me,” Liu said. “Being in person, and being around people and in a school atmosphere and in a classroom is pretty different from being online and sitting in your room and being on Zoom.”