CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — While elementary students in the Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) system are set to return to in-person instruction five days a week starting Feb. 1, middle and high school students remain engaged via virtual learning, an environment many students are saying does not work for them.
James River High School freshman Katelyn Sladek started a petition online earlier in January, after the CCPS School Board approved a Project Restart plan update that would reinstate Wednesdays as synchronous virtual school days, as they were at the beginning of the school year, among other changes.
Within a week, Sladek’s petition garnered over 11,000 signatures.
“A lot of people are behind, and with that Wednesday off, it’s just a chance to catch up,” she said. “There’s another really important thing where a lot of clubs and communities get together on that day because they can’t any day else.”
Sladek, who says she enjoys virtual learning and has maintained above-average grades throughout the coronavirus pandemic, acknowledges the challenges such an uprooting of the educational environment has created.
“I do actually like virtual learning,” she said. “But the thing about that is I’m a very independent and introverted person, and that’s the only environment that this really fits to.”
Sladek tells 8News that she was inspired by her friends and classmates, who have struggled to keep their grades up over the course of virtual learning, and suffer headaches from too much screen time.
“It’s hard to stare at a screen for seven hours each day.”
That screen time can be extended as students try to complete their assignments, which is why Sladek says having time away from the computer on Wednesdays is so important.
“People clutch to that day because it’s their day to just relax, take a mental health day, say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be alright,'” she said. “Kids’ mental health is really bad right now.”
Sladek says Wednesdays also provide a time for students to catch up on their work, or even work ahead. Though that free time was not available during in-person learning pre-pandemic, she says it’s necessary now, as students continue to struggle with virtual learning.
“Things have now changed in our minds, now that we have experienced this,” Sladek said. “But I think eventually, if things did go back to normal, we would get back into a normal stance.”
According to a comparison of the first quarter grades of CCPS students between 2019 and 2020, significantly more students are facing failing grades. Sladek tells 8News that she has noticed this among her peers, as well.
“Those friends who are getting failing grades right now, they were [getting] at least a B, most likely an A, and it’s actually kind of shocked me,” she said.
Sladek’s favorite subject is English, but she has to study more in Biology, which she says is particularly difficult when taught through a screen.
“Teachers are under pressure,” she said. “They have to evolve their entire rubric. But you have to understand that everything you’re doing is, it’s coming down on us and we’re the ones experiencing it.”
That pressure is precisely why Sladek also suggests giving CCPS students the option of pass/fail grades, as opposed to a letter grade system.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we’re grieving. There’s a lot of loss right now,” she said. “We need some time with our families and our friends for our sanity, and to put extra pressure during this global pandemic and everything that has happened this year, I don’t think that’s right, and I think that pass/fail grades could really relieve some of that pressure.”
Sladek says she has also seen students in her classes struggle to focus on instruction while their internet connection drops in and out. In addition to learning curriculum, students are re-learning how to learn through technology, in an educational environment that differs from the one in which they were raised since Pre-kindergarten.
8News reached out to the CCPS School Board for a response to Sladek’s concerns and appeals.
The Chesterfield County School Board approved last week a plan that will allow us to start returning elementary students to in-person instruction at the beginning of the third marking period. The Board will reconvene on Feb. 9 to review data and research ahead of a planned eventual return of middle and high school students to in-person instruction. Our school division has taken what some might consider to be a more deliberate approach to give medical experts and public health providers time to learn more about the virus. Research now confirms schools are not COVID-19 superspreaders. Our deliberate approach has allowed for these medical findings and public health recommendations to be proven over time and successfully implemented elsewhere. With medical research and public health recommendations in mind, along with proven mitigation strategies in place, we believe it is safe to return students to in-person learning now at the elementary school level and soon at the secondary level.
Sladek says there needs to be more communication between the student body and the School Board. While the School Board does host Public Meetings regularly, she feels those are mostly for parents, and that School Board members should be reaching out to the students who are impacted directly by their decisions.
“Look at us, see us, listen to us, because I understand that it’s a whole new environment right now. They [School Board members] are under pressure, too,” Sladek said. “Please, reach out, send surveys, just get some feedback.”
8News reporter Olivia Jaquith shared an anecdote with Sladek about her own high school, where School Board members created positions for student representation.
“That’s a great idea,” she said. “We’re all going through it. We all understand it. Just be patient, show some grace, and listen. I think listening is a very important thing with the student body and the School Board.”
Many of the problems Sladek has raised were the result of the transition to virtual learning amid the pandemic. While a return to in-person instruction may be the solution eventually, Sladek says students and teachers are struggling now.
“You’ve got coronavirus, which is your physical health, but then, now they aren’t really thinking right now of our mental health, and that’s what this is all about, is that you have to remember that we’re human beings and not robots,” she said.
When students were given the choice to opt in or out of in-person learning, Sladek says she opted out, and will likely do so again if the options arise later this school year. While she feels that in-person learning is the best educational environment for most students, she also believes that, ultimately, health comes first.