Berkeley High School returns to, reflects on in-person instruction

photo of Berkeley High School
Gisselle Reyes/Staff
Berkeley High School welcomes back its members with a banner. Students, parents and faculty reflect on the return to in-person instruction.

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Berkeley High School, or BHS, junior Miranda Couch had inherited expectations for her high school experience from her father and older sister, who had both attended BHS. But the pandemic and virtual learning that began her freshman year quickly dashed those expectations.

Now that the BHS community has returned to campus after more than a year, students, parents and teachers are adjusting their understanding of learning and socializing.

“I’ve been kind of adapting over the last week because I have to focus in class now with the teacher and be quiet and keep my thoughts to myself,” said BHS junior France Naville. “I’m not muted anymore.”

Although he welcomes the social interaction, BHS senior Max Schlosberg said he felt nervous about the return, as his introversion flourished during distanced learning.

BHS teacher Joseph Smith noted that ongoing construction has exacerbated foot traffic across the school. However, Smith added that students have been reliably adhering to sanitization and mask-wearing — the majority of students are also vaccinated.

Despite initial difficulties, most students, teachers and parents are happy to see in-person schooling in full swing, according to Jenny Wong, city of Berkeley auditor and Schlosberg’s mother.

“I struggled with teaching online, and missed the students,” said BHS teacher Colleen Simon-O’Neill in an email. “I am excited to return to teaching labs, and to actually have real humans in class. I feel like I am already getting to know my students better after one week than I did after a month in class online.”

Couch added that many teachers have been focusing on community building in their classes. Teachers have also been checking in on students and adjusting workloads accordingly; homework assignments have been noticeably lighter, Naville noted.

Smith highlighted a survey he sent to his students about their classroom comfort and takeaways from virtual learning. This allowed him to uniquely model his classroom after Zoom’s breakout rooms, with students in small groups of desks, allowing Smith to drop in and get consistent feedback.

Simon-O’Neill added that the digital classroom had allowed teachers to experiment with a variety of teaching strategies and platforms. Amid the return, Smith said the district is granting greater autonomy over classroom strategies to teachers.

“A lot of students are coming in with conflicting expectations,” Smith said. “There are things that worked for them in distanced learning as individuals. But it was a big question of how that can be maintained.”

The high school’s management of remote learning was applauded by Wong, who appreciated that the school day was altered so that students were not “on a screen for six hours a day.”

Learning at home had clear impacts on the physical and mental health of her children, Wong observed. Simon-O’Neill noted that BHS has kept in mind that “all students experienced trauma from the pandemic.” Eating and sleeping schedules were also thrown into chaos, according to Couch.

“Human beings are not designed to be in isolation, especially during our formative teenage years,” Wong said. “As a parent and knowing other parents and what they’ve come to me about, there are mental health challenges of teens being isolated in their rooms all day.”

Couch, Naville and Schlosberg all expressed excitement about the social aspect of in-person instruction, such as speaking with teachers face-to-face, wandering the halls with friends and meeting new people.

However, the transition from online to in-person education revealed different elements of inequity in each setting, Smith said.

For instance, attendance had never been higher than when school moved to Zoom, Smith noted, but not every student has access to a computer, stable Wi-Fi or parental support, especially if their parents are essential workers.

Wong and Smith were hopeful that in-person schooling would make education at BHS more equitable.

“Teachers are aware that different students are going to have different needs,” Schlosberg said. “Over the pandemic, a lot of teachers have recognized this and have thus become more understanding … it’s just nice to see things somewhat back to normal.”

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @katherineshok.