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Guest commentary: La Jolla High senior: San Diego Unified never got online schooling right

La Jolla High, like all other schools in the San Diego Unified School District, has reopened for in-person instruction.
La Jolla High School, like all other schools in the San Diego Unified School District, has reopened for in-person instruction.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Austin Kingston is a senior at La Jolla High School.

Each morning at 8:25, my alarm went off. Five minutes before class started, I would groggily roll out of bed, log on to Zoom and stare blankly at the wall of black squares and names. Every day for four hours, my teachers would go through the motions, clearly as disenchanted with Zoom as the rest of the “classroom.” With each passing week, it became increasingly clear: This wasn’t working.

The San Diego Unified School District made the transition to online schooling more than a year ago and never really got it right. After the closure of all campuses districtwide, schools were given a “three-week spring break” with the hope that COVID-19 would fade away. When it became apparent that wouldn’t happen, the district prepared for the first iteration of distance learning.

Looking back, the last three months of the 2019-20 school year were almost entirely a waste. To avoid punishing students for a pandemic completely out of their hands, grades were frozen and could not drop below pre-pandemic levels. In practice, this meant that any information after March 13, 2020, went in one ear and out the other. Teachers halfheartedly assigned work to students who needed to raise their grades, but for everyone else, it was like school was completely canceled. Live instruction through Zoom was rare, optional and scheduled at random times throughout the day. With no solid schedule, and frankly no plan, we all collectively tossed out the last few months of that year, hoping the next one would be normal.

Unfortunately for everyone, this school year has been far from normal. The district clearly learned from some of its mistakes the previous year, but distance learning Round 2 was almost as disappointing. A concrete schedule was implemented, mandating a full hour of synchronous Zoom lectures five days a week, with 20 minutes set aside for office hours. Middle and high schools were set to have three classes per day, totaling three hours of live lecture and one hour for questions and help from teachers.

Unsurprisingly, the schedule did very little to solve the main problems with distance learning. I felt just as disconnected from my teachers, friends and school, and less motivated to learn than ever.

The first few months of online school were disorganized, inconsistent and ineffective, and though this school year has been better, online school just doesn’t cut it. Every aspect of our virtual education is dramatically inferior to what we used to have. Students are struggling with academics, participating in fewer extracurriculars and socializing less.

Thankfully, after more than a year of distance learning, the light at the end of the tunnel is emerging.

I’m coming toward the tail end of my senior year of high school. While I must admit that this year is not at all what I hoped for, the return to school April 12 provided me with a new sense of hope. After what feels like the longest “three-week break” of my life, my high school, like all other schools across the district, has opened back up for business. I still have concerns with returning — teachers will have to balance half a class in person and half on Zoom, and I do wish many of the traditional senior activities could happen — but going back to school is a strong first step. As the state continues to round the corner, as COVID-19 cases continue to fall and as vaccination rates increase, schools will open up more, bringing us closer to where we used to be.

A year of online learning has taught me at least one thing: No matter how frustrating school could be, it will always be better. I’m incredibly excited to return to school and meet up with friends, teachers and staff I hadn’t seen in over a year. I’m excited to meet my new teachers who spent more than seven months teaching me through a screen. Most of all, I’m excited to step back on campus and finally start the long process of going back to normal.

This commentary was originally published by The San Diego Union-Tribune.