365 Days Later: Oakmont and COVID-19

365+Days+Later%3A+Oakmont+and+COVID-19

A look back at each phase of this year-long journey

“Effective Monday, March 16, 2020, the schools of the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District will be closed for a period of one week,” students of Oakmont Regional High School were excited to hear from their Interim Superintendent Sandra Rehler on Friday, March 13. District members would receive a small vacation, ensure their safety, and then everything would return to normal.

That’s what they believed, at least. 

But the ‘unknown’ penetrated every facet of society  . . .  including education.

The one week break extended to future and TBA dates. Education had to be moved to ‘virtual’. Oakmont’s already-established Digital Learning Team put it into overdrive, doing all they could to support teachers, students, and staff.  With all the unknowns, everyone, including staff, were forced to work from home. For how long? Nobody knew. 

Quarantine protocol was in effect state-wide; no unnecessary risks were to be taken. Oakmont Regional High School was a vacant building. Beginning with the chaotic week of March 16th, teachers scrambled to simply offer a curriculum and students tried to navigate some sort of continued learning, but this was all rushed and unprecedented.

At the same time, people watched the news for information and guidelines, listening to evolving and differing worldly, national, and local directives.  From President Trump to Dr. Fauci to Governor Baker, people heard daily guidance on handwashing, wearing gloves, sanitizing, and eventually wearing masks and social distancing. Hotspots of spreading and fear took over the airwaves. Politics and medicine were pushed to the forefront of all conversations: governors, quarantine, first responders, mayors, essential workers, ventilators, death tolls, and job loss became part of the daily lexicon.

Then, thirty-nine days after the district’s school shutdown, an announcement from Massachusetts’ Governor Charlie Baker put a stamp on the seriousness of the newly-tabbed ‘pandemic’. He stated, “All public and private elementary and secondary schools. . . excepting residential schools for special needs students, shall remain closed for normal, in-person instruction and shall not re-open for normal operations prior to June 29, 2020.” It was official – no one was going back to school in the Ashburnham/Westminster School District.  In-person learning, along with all in-person events, was cancelled for the rest of the school year.  

Scheduled proms were ‘postponed’ and eventually cancelled. The end of winter athletics and the entire spring season were cancelled.  Spring musicals were cancelled. 

Of course, that meant school was transitioning into a fully remote education with zero notice or previous experience. Students and teachers alike were thrown into and asked to navigate the situation as efficiently as possible; obviously, it took some time and effort to organize into something at least partially functional.

“We really didn’t know what we were facing,” said Lincoln Stiles, one of Oakmont’s history teachers. “The first week was like a week off.”

Quickly, it was decided that work would be streamed through the platform of Google Classroom. The obstacle was that many teachers and students were still new to, or not familiar with, this interface. With the sudden circumstances, most students weren’t required to or simply did not attend online meetings. Poor technical matters, such as home wifi and computer accessibility and compatibility added to the issue of holding even basic standards to courses. 

From a staff’s point of view, creativity and impeded communication were the most significant obstacles.  First of all, it was crucial for them to begin practice with online tools such as IXL while also including effective learning activities that could be done individually at home. However, many of those assignments were not accessible for various reasons, and worse, students had difficulty communicating even that. A teacher’s job suddenly revolved around their email inbox, along with scrambling to help every person acquire what was needed for even a basic education. 

“Some teachers were even driving out to bring information to their students,” said David Uminski, the principal of Oakmont. 

Every teacher had different standards, but the consistently rock-bottom attendance, low work turnout, and declining course GPA had the same effect.  Grading was changed to Pass/Fail only and finals were removed from each course. Priorities suddenly became focused towards teaching content and simple completion. 

Mid-April, Oakmont’s Digital Learning Team arranged a chromebook pick-up, which helped students access their assignments with much more ease. While district members began to adjust to the new and lenient learning system, other factors began to spiral just as out of control.

All structure built into the average school day was swept away, and while most welcomed the small vacation, they did not anticipate the entire spring being tossed away. As surely as the pandemic’s gravity grabbed a hold on the nation, the well-being of Oakmont’s teenagers became a focus for faculty.

“I felt very disoriented, physically and mentally,” Oakmont freshman, Ava Bjorkman, observed. She spoke about how the outdoors were her only reprieve from the newfound stress in her own home. 

Many similar situations occurred: as the outdoors was to Bjorkman, Tiktok and Netflix became necessary coping mechanisms for many. As Google Meets were not required and work was minimal, students could sleep until noon, eat dinner at midnight, and go to bed in the A.M hours.  Because of wifi and personal tech issues, little was scheduled, little was regulated.  The isolation many teens were experiencing was suffocating- trapped in their quarantined homes and no longer seeing friends. 

Soph Miller, a sophomore, said that she had picked up a number of bad habits. She explained that as a social person, she loved to see others and that was no longer possible.  As she joined the negative spiral, she and her fellow students lost their motivation to do schoolwork. This made academics worse.

Already, nothing was easy. Some teachers or students merely had misunderstandings- there were cases where the materials required for a functional remote learning environment were impossible to have. The two parties struggled to come up with new solutions that still worked, and, as more and more people lost their optimism and drive, those solutions weren’t priorities.

Likewise, senior Charlie Kovaleski mentioned that lack of structure and inconsistency were his main troubles, along with the obvious one: communication. Just as teachers experienced with students, no one was simple to reach anymore. Hardcore avoidance became a thing.

As financial fallouts intensified, some students began to work during school hours because they didn’t have to adhere to a school schedule. Their own availability for teachers lessened and muddled into sporadic ‘turn-ins’. Almost ghostly feedback posts would sit piled up and unresponded to until administrators or guidance would call parents and cell phones trying to find some access and common ground.

At the same time, many students, and even some parents, had to take a break from their jobs because of the pandemic. Many financial difficulties rose about as a result. One senior, Regina Cerasuolo, shared her experience. “It is only me and my father at my house and we both lost our jobs. Thankfully, we were eligible for the unemployment benefits.”

Kovaleski also shared that his family had to take pay cuts. He said he was lucky to have gotten a job over the summer so that his parents could focus on his younger brother and other needs.

Plenty of families had to file for unemployment relief as Covid began to take its toll on the economy. Some households were forced to exclude certain amenities and some necessities from their lives, while the more fortunate stayed fairly stable. On March 27, 2020, Congress approved The CARES Act, which helped by supplying family stimulus checks, improving unemployment benefits, offering loans to struggling businesses, and giving additional forgiveness for college loans, rents, and mortgages.

 

Graduation 2020: Delayed and Different

So, the entire spring situation was unexpected and messy, and full of unwelcome obstacles, but toward late May the infection numbers seemed to flatten and some ‘masked’ normalcy arrived. One thing it brought about was the talk of an incredibly important event: graduation. What would Oakmont do?

The Class of 2020 was extremely disappointed to think that the highlight of their school career might be diminished to an online procession. They were strongly opposed to the idea and made their voices heard. “We were working very closely with seniors at the time, who pushed to have it postponed,” said Principal Uminski. 

Finally, after every graduate had received their gowns on May 14th and local virus cases and state restrictions had eased, a live graduation seemed viable.  The organizers worked to make the ceremony as normal as the situation would allow. 2020 Oakmonitor journalist and senior Macy Ghilardi captured the sentiments in her famous article published in The Gardner News and the Worcester Telegram: The Roaring Class of 2020

Graduation took place on Saturday, July 18th.  Masks were mandatory for all attendees. Six guests were allowed for each graduate in a specifically measured family pod – all chairs were placed six feet apart. Finally, the resilient Class of 2020 walked in single file across the entirety of Hurd Field on a beautiful summer day with many faculty and staff in attendance.  While social-distanced and attendance-controlled, the graduation was certainly appreciated.

The ceremony was a success. However, a challenge that was ten more times as difficult loomed over the weary committee members’ heads: arranging a method of teaching amid the virus for the fall ’20.

 

Fall ‘20 Reopening 

Summer was full of meticulous planning, studying, arranging, and organizing. Taking the reins from Rehler on July 1, the new Interim Superintendent Dr. Todd Steward surrounded himself with community representatives, political administrators, and health experts to be prepared for the reopening. The state requested each Massachusetts school district have three thorough educational models ready to implement: full in-person, hybrid, and full remote.

As Oakmont was to begin the year with their fully-remote model (excluding special needs students), teachers had to refamiliarize themselves with Google Classroom, training day by day, exploring new websites and tools available through Chrome. Oakmont’s Digital Learning Team was an enormous help! In the case of a hybrid model, they also reviewed the new details: teaching two separate groups the same material at the same time, printing some papers but also posting them online, and presenting their screen both on a Google Meet and on a physical whiteboard.  

Arranging an in-person learning model was, indeed, a process.  Along with Dr. Todd Stewart and his team, Oakmont administrators and staff had to analyze mountains of coronavirus-related material to determine if their meticulous plan was approvable.

“Our main goal was ‘how do we keep our students safe, how do we keep our staff safe, and how can we give top education?’” Stiles said. He explained how on his camping trips in August, he was often interrupted by Google Meets that would last for hours.  Just like every other district staff, his ‘vacation’ was incredibly busy.

The painstaking preparations extended throughout the summer and even into mid-September, the latest Oakmont’s school year had ever begun. The state of Massachusetts had passed that all schools and faculty had 10 extra days to train, prepare, and practice on-line teaching strategies to be ready for the first day of remote student classes on September 14. They set the goal to transition to hybrid learning October 29.

Teaching and learning were expected to be much improved and student attendance, accountability, standards, and grading would be raised far past spring expectations.  

After an uncertain summer, students used their school-provided Chromebooks to log onto their first Google Meet of the season. However, unlike the previous spring’s remote learning system, kids had an almost-normal schedule. The Meets were required for attendance and all teachers taught lessons and remained available throughout the block.  

During late September and early October, teachers and administrators were at school, teaching as student voices boomed through Chromebook speakers and echoed in empty classrooms. But education was much more effective and accepted. 

Obviously, learning online had its drawbacks – for math, especially.  According to a November ‘20 survey conducted by Uminski, “Both students (38%) and parents (39%) reported math as the content area causing the most stress.”  

The principal went on to say that while math was likely the most difficult subject in normal times as well, learning those concepts combined with remote education increased the hardship by twofold.

In addition, 71% of students reported that they were spending too much time on screens for school purposes. Teachers and students complained of back and neck pains.

Students suffered socially as well.  Sophie Miller said that she disliked online learning because it was impossible to get out and talk to others in person. Newly-learned Google Classroom Meets, Chats, and breakout rooms rarely filled the entire void of group discussions or collaborative work.

Moreover, attending class from home was distracting for many. “When you’re home, there’s that hard transition from actually doing your work and ignoring the many things you would rather be doing,” noted Leanna Klettke, a freshman.

While making some strides with online coursework, community Covid numbers remained low, and the state urged schools to move to hybrid models sooner than expected. Dr. Stewart and his colleagues decided to move up the Oakmont transition to hybrid date to October 15.  At last, students would attend school physically – at least for two days a week hybrid style, as the district’s plan laid out.

Students were separated into three groups: Cohort A, Cohort B, and Cohort C.  In a basic five-day school week, Cohort A would attend on Mondays and Tuesdays and Cohort B would attend on Thursdays and Fridays.  Cohort C was a group that would remain fully remote, following a separate lesson plan, and Wednesdays were reserved for cleaning between cohorts, catching up, and analyzing the area’s Covid statistics.

Cohort B arrived at Oakmont on the 15th,  in cars and on socially-distanced buses.

It definitely was not anything that they had seen before.

Before entering, it was ensured that each district member had a mask covering their nose and mouth, as well as a map that showed the different routes each person must follow.  To avoid walking by one another, students would follow arrows on the hallway floors. Sometimes, the options were either to go outside or to take the long route.

“We normally have passing time as three minutes, but now it’s five minutes because we understand that students might need that extra time,” explained Uminski.  The added two minutes were also helpful to students needing to run an errand before class, such as a visit to the bathroom- for both in-person students and the ones attending from home.

Medium hand-sanitizer dispensers were conveniently placed all around the building; next to doorways, immediately as one entered the lobby (which also had its bench room reduced by half), and in lunch rooms.

Masks created occasional issues, but the student population generally accepted the means to ensure their safety.

‘I don’t mind wearing a mask. I’d rather other people and myself be safe,” Klettke wrote.

Some students and staff described masks as more than just protection from the virus. Comically, district members even joked about their masks hiding acne or not having to wear makeup from nose-down. 

There were also health benefits! Regina Cerasuolo realized that she hadn’t yet caught the seasonal illnesses, colds, or flu- an observation many people noted. The reasons were mask regulations, obsessive hand-scrubbing, and other cleanliness precautions.

“Wearing masks makes me feel very safe, even if we weren’t in a global pandemic,” she explained positively. 

Along with hand sanitizer, every student carried their personal chromebook, a new tradition for most.

Once in their classes, students would sit in a checker-board pattern, six feet apart. Between periods, the teacher’s job was to disinfect any items that could have been touched. Some desks were labeled so that Block A, for example, would sit at blue-coded ones and Block B would sit at their red-coded counterparts.

In every block, a mask break joined the new schedule. Either venturing outside or distancing well in the hallway, every person could breathe freely for a moment.

Sophie Miller, the author of “How has non-verbal communication been impacted by Covid-19?” felt that mask breaks were an excellent solution to wearing masks all day.  She explained,  “It gives students a time to see each other’s faces without being covered. It also gives them time to step away from all the stressful work they’re experiencing.”

“It’s a nice break and it gives me a chance to talk with my friends and peers,” agreed Kovaleski.

Despite the advantage mask breaks gave to students, learning and teaching while socially distant was a challenge for many. Teachers could not walk around the classroom; rather, they had to sit at their computers to amend for the online students while they struggled to grasp concepts from their residences.

Stiles, who taught classes synchronously, said that lecturing in front of a chromebook for the remote students was like being an actor. Likewise, those students felt that watching a lecture was akin to watching a movie – much less engaging.

With hybrid learning, having some students at home and some in school also warranted a huge setback.  Along with mask breaks, not being able to work in groups slowed down the class. “We can still get things done, but it takes longer,” claimed Stiles. 

This was due to the amount of time it would take for online breakout rooms to form, technical difficulties, or family interruptions. 

Pace certainly changed his history course, but Stiles was more concerned about doing things well. He also implied that having some students in front of him easily won the logistical, systematic battle – a sentiment all teachers shared.

Hybrid learning did have its benefits for students. Thandiwe Frazier, a freshman, liked how convenient hybrid learning could be. “You can learn the material in person, then go home the rest of the week to practice/study it,” she answered on an Instagram poll.

The mixed learning model was also extremely beneficial because it provided healthy socialization and then a solace for those needing to recharge.  Kielyn DeMoura, also a freshman and daughter of Oakmont’s Music Director, Kris DeMoura, talked about how she enjoyed “seeing her friends on some days and then being able to relax on others.”

Wednesdays, fully remote for all cohorts, were also appreciated because they were half-days.  These gave students and teachers the much-sought-after time and opportunities to follow up on assignments, grades, and projects.

While the hybrid learning system had its ups and downs for many different district members, everyone could acknowledge how unusual everything was. Gym class, in particular, was drastically different.  Doing interactive sports was no longer an option; germs could be transferred while students became close. So, to avoid transmission, Oakmonitor administrator McKinely Chabot said, students mostly did walking along with individual basketball. Because it didn’t require students being close, badminton was also a common activity. P.E. students were responsible for sanitizing any equipment they touched. They spent more time outside than ever- even in late fall and early spring.

There was one more great difference between prior-Covid and during-Covid P.E: Chabot continued, “The biggest change, though, is the remote assignments. I’ve never experienced a lot of written activities when it comes to Gym [class], but at home, it’s either that or watching videos.” 

She spoke about her understanding of the situation- not much could be done, and the teachers were doing the best of what was possible.  

Luckily, with the second semester rolling around, Fitness Class had transitioned to using the website PLT4M for physical assignments that were doable at home. Workouts included mobility and yoga and provided a wonderful break for home-learners who were stuck at their desk for most of the day.

In the same fashion, seniors experienced something drastically different from their long-awaited final year. While the Class of 2020 graduated with the coronavirus breathing down their necks, the Class of 2021 missed out on what was meant to be an incredibly fun experience. Many activities were cancelled, including Thanksgiving Turkey Bingo, Homecoming, and the Senior Halloween Party.

“I feel like my senior year ended back in March of 2020,” said Theresa Brouillet, a member of the French Honor Society. “Even though we were given the opportunity to go back to school in person, I don’t get to see half my grade until we start practicing for graduation.”

Charlie Kovaleski expressed the same feelings. When asked how he felt about his senior year, he described, “Sad, that’s the perfect word to say. I’ve been looking forward to this year for years and it’s the one that goes down the drain.”

Clubs were just as intensely disturbed, with one major example being Drama- students had to be more creative than ever, completely reliant on online resources. Additionally, small groups were spoiled because of the pandemic, as Cerasuolo confirmed. “I really looked forward to reviving the Cheese-Tasting Club with my best friend, but this year I didn’t even get to think about it.” She also expressed confusion about what clubs were actually operating at the moment. It was hard to find a compact place of all activities’ information, resulting in lots of clubs getting a low turnout.

However, some good things came out of the sorrows. A school-wide Kahoot was hosted by S.A.C. members Daniel Salois and Thomas Therriault.  Interclass were played as a movie in late January. Teacher Appreciation Weeks were held to bring about some cheer. The school continued to support the Special Olympics and was even recognized as a Special Olympics Champion School, furthering their encouragement of the athletic system.

Although certainly affected, sports continued on. In the fall, Cross Country members wore masks and ran as far apart as possible. Popsicle sticks, which were normally used to record a student’s placing in the race, were simply removed from the concept. In field hockey, one modification was that there were no penalty corners.  Golfers were required to bring their own equipment.  In soccer, if an official believed Covid conditions were not safe in the bench area, they could issue a yellow card to the head coach.

In the winter, basketball and ice hockey players had to switch and sanitize their materials often. Considering the circumstances, the season went quite well! Boys’ Basketball went 10-0 and won it all with a modified pod playoff.

For all teams, masks were required unless there was a ten-foot distance between persons. Coaches and officials were limited. Most equipment had to be personal and all was to be sanitized between each use. New rules were put in place and four different teams had to quarantine at least once.

According to Jen Buszkiewicz, a soccer player, wearing a mask on the field was the greatest challenge during a game. “My skills haven’t changed, but my stamina definitely has- because of masks, we’ve all had to sub more often because we get tired quicker.” 

However, Buszkiewicz spoke positively of the situation, especially of her coaches’ efforts to keep the team safe.  She was very thankful to them for making her soccer season enjoyable despite the many drawbacks. 

The greatest of these downsides was how games were streamed online via links from the principal to avoid the formation of crowds. As the players no longer had a live audience, but everything was live streamed..

Indeed, while a lack of spectators during games certainly disheartened the athletes, there was also a lack of spirit in school.  During such a hard time, it was a given that cheer would be low. Having their faces half-obscured by masks and having not seen each other for a long time gave students difficulty when it came to socializing. 

Lunch, in particular, was incredibly quiet compared to the usual chaos.  Instead of two lunches, the day had three lunches with two different locations; the cafeteria and the gym. In those rooms, desks were positioned six feet apart, facing forward. Moreover, scannable QR codes were on each desk. From there, students would report where they ate in case any contact-tracing was necessary.  Because of the arrangements, phones became a common interest.

“We were seeing that there was a lack of energy in lunch, so we decided to play music,” said Uminski.. which seemed to have worked, because the mood in the lunchrooms finally began to lift mid-January. 

Around that time, finals would normally take place.  However, the decision was made for the previous term of school, in the spring, to not give final exams due to the unfair situation of every person being in quarantine.  After much debate, it was decided that the coming semester’s finals would also be cancelled.

On this, Uminski said, “They were an enormous stresser and anxiety builder that just wasn’t necessary.”

All students felt enormous gratitude for the new adjustment.  They expressed their feelings with words like “thankful,” “blessing,” and, most of all, “relief.”

“A lot of classes are extremely behind because of online learning, so knowing that one less thing we have to worry about is relieving,” stated Brouillet, explaining the circumstance’s reasoning from a student’s perspective. This benefit brought by the virus was mostly subjective to them, but there were others to be found for everyone.

At the end of the day, students were dismissed in five-minute intervals instead of the usual circus. This prevented a large crowd from gathering and possibly transmitting the invisible virus.  First, at 1:40, all drivers and their passengers were released. Next came the parent pick-ups at 1:45, and, finally, the bus-riders were allowed to leave.  Teachers and parents, in particular, appreciated the new dismissal system. It effectively dealt with the chaotic traffic and impatience problem of a pre-Covid dismissal, even with there being more drivers than ever before.

“We have learned things about ourselves during this pandemic that will definitely affect decisions in the future,” said Uminski. “There will probably never be more than 4 or 5 snow days because we know that we can attend remotely on any given day.”

Knowing that, school would never be forced to extend after June 20th- an excellent adjustment for the summer. 

That, along with personal chromebooks and limited snow days, is hoped to become the new normal.

At the time of publishing this article in mid-March, the Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley, proclaimed with almost 10% of all Americans vaccinated, and teachers allowed to vaccinate, and a steady decline of positive cases, there is a push for ALL in person schooling sooner than later. The elementary schools are returning full in-person April 5th, and middle schools April 28th. So, Oakmont and other Massachusetts high schools are on the verge of returning soon after; furthermore, flickers of hope continue brighten the future with some form of prom, graduation, and full class activities before June. 

The number one word to describe the pandemic at Oakmont was challenge. Every student, staff member, and parent suffered from exactly the same thing for the first time. They were disorganized, separated, and clueless, but they worked through it together.

The second word to describe the pandemic at Oakmont was perseverance. Despite the matters in question, all district members decided to be patient, cooperative, and resilient as time wore on and an end was far from sight.

From a student’s perspective, things were hard, but they were grateful for the staff’s diligent work. From a staff’s perspective, things were hard, but they were grateful to see students and their parents cooperating. From a parent’s perspective, things were hard, but they were grateful to have chosen this school district.

Everyone at Oakmont struggled so much because of the pandemic. They were met with so many obstacles, some that ended in victory and others that ended in tears.

Yet, as coronavirus vaccines were distributed and as the spirit in the district began to ever-so-slightly lighten up, one could see that Oakmont Regional High School had grown so much stronger.