Across the country, high school students adapt to virtual learning, new normal of pandemic

Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California, remains closed to all students.
Photo by Joshua Yang.

BY IAN LEI   NOV. 11, 2020

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the adoption of virtual learning by schools across the country has given high schoolers a multitude of learning, social and emotional challenges.

Zoom Fatigue and Student Exhaustion

Zoom fatigue, a heightened sense of exhaustion as a result of staring at electronic screens for hours on end, poses a serious difficulty for students who have no choice but to learn through Zoom.

“For some physiological reason, sitting at my desk in my home, staring at a screen for several hours is more tiring than being at school in-person,” Luca Utterwulghe, a senior at Albert Einstein High School in Maryland, said. “My eyesight went from 20/20 to 20/40 since the beginning of [this pandemic].”

Thomas Li, a senior at Henry M. Gunn High School in California, echoed Utterwulghe.

“I took a look at my screentime on my Mac, and I'm hitting upwards of 13 hours on average each day,” he said. “You’re on your screen the whole time for school, and then even after school ends, your homework is online. [During] this time, everything is online, and that's a lot of screentime.”

According to BBC, videoconferencing is particularly challenging because students expend more energy picking up on non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language when communicating. Students consequently experience difficulty in forming the relationships that are integral to their learning with teachers and peers.

Students also say that the monotonous nature of their online classes and school schedules can feel unengaging and only adds to their exhaustion. Nick Partridge, a senior who attends Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, provided one such example.

“Classes would be less draining if everyone got the opportunity to talk about something they’re enthusiastic about,” he said. “The problem with how that’s approached right now is that only a few students find whatever they’re forced to talk about actually interesting.”

For some students, strategies like taking notes have helped them stay accountable and engaged during virtual classes. To combat Zoom fatigue, students have found taking screen breaks or short walks after classes to be effective. And, of course, students have slowly adjusted to virtual learning.

“When school just started in August, there was a lot of Zoom fatigue going on,” Li said. “By the end of the day, I would be super tired and I would want to take a nap after class ended.

That has gone better to some degree as I’ve gotten used to distance [learning], but I would say that there are times, even now, when I'm tired at the end of the day.

Admittedly, there are silver linings to being a student during the pandemic, even with the challenges of virtual learning. For example, Ashvin Nair, a student at St. Mark’s School of Texas, said he has improved his time-management skills and can sleep longer given that he no longer commutes for 45 minutes to school.

“Compared to last year, especially, I’ve gotten a lot better with staying on task and getting stuff done at reasonable times,” Nair said. “Overall, I’d say my whole sleep schedule and everything has gotten better as a result. Since I’m remote, I can just get out of bed and login.”

The Pressure of Productivity

Fulfilling societal expectations of being productive during a pandemic is another challenge that students face.

“I feel more pressure to be productive during the pandemic than under other circumstances because a lot of people believe that more time equals more productivity,” said Partridge.

Ian Clark, a senior at Maryland’s James H. Blake High School, similarly feels pressured to be productive during the pandemic, though for different reasons.

“I have to work on all of my college applications, and all of my teachers still assign large amounts of homework,” Clark said. “I am forced to be productive because if I am not, my grades would drop and I wouldn’t finish my applications.”

Mara Fendrich, a senior at Sioux Falls Lincoln High School in South Dakota, initially experienced understanding and a reduced workload, but has since seen a shift in teachers’ attitudes.

“I feel like at the beginning of quarantine last year, teachers were super understanding. But now we have a lot of our activities going on again,” Fendrich said. “We’ve got college application season, and [now] teachers have stopped being so empathetic.”

Maintaining Wellness in a Pandemic

To address new mental, physical and emotional challenges given the pandemic, students have adopted a variety of methods to ensure their wellbeing.

“The way I’m maintaining my wellbeing is through my family,” Alexa Nunez-Davila, from John A. Ferguson High School in Miami, said. “I’m really dependent on my family to uplift myself and my energy. If I feel tired or insecure about something I’ll talk to them about it and sometimes we’ll pray—that's usually what I do to maintain myself.

Of course, the pandemic has only exacerbated existing pressures. “I feel like my mental wellbeing is not deteriorating because of COVID, but because of college applications,” Somya Mittal, a student at Northview High School in Georgia, said.

Over in Missouri, senior Molly Higgens of Kirkwood High School echoed Mittal’s thoughts. “I do feel a lot of pressure at times to stay productive,” Higgens said. “I think it’s made worse by the fact that it’s my senior year and there’s the added stress of working on college applications. It’s like even though there’s a pandemic going on and it’s a stressful time for everyone, I still have to be putting in the work for my future and that’s a lot to worry about.”

Students say they believe that connecting and keeping in touch with each other will help alleviate the difficulties of virtual learning and maintaining physical, social and emotional wellbeing in the midst of a global pandemic.

“I think the biggest thing we can do for each other is help each other feel less alone,” senior Isabelle Paulsen, from Iowa City West High School, said. “We are all going through the same things, so we should talk about them and relate to each other. [Those interactions] will make everyone feel better.”

Higgens echoed Paulsen. “Now more than ever, we really need to encourage each other to stay positive and motivated,” she said.