Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has gone entirely virtual this fall, and many Berkeley High School (BHS) traditions have been cancelled or redesigned to function online, including freshman orientation.
This year’s orientation provided its fair share of challenges, mostly involving a lack of participation and enthusiasm. These problems are in line with those common across all of online learning.
“Everybody had their mic off, because Zoom is very hard to interact with each other on … I feel like the same formula of the orientation would have worked better in real life,” said freshman Logan Thompson, who briefly attended the call.
In past years, freshman orientation included an assembly introducing administrators, guided registration, community building activities, and a tour of the BHS campus given to small groups of freshmen by upperclassmen volunteers called “Link Leaders.”
The adapted orientation was held on Friday, August 14, on a forty minute Zoom call. Groups of 8 to 12 students were put into breakout rooms, each with two Link Leaders. The itinerary included name games, competitions, discussing clubs, advice, question and answer sessions, and the review of a Google Doc with specific BHS resources.
The call generally went according to plan, although a lack of student participation was prevalent throughout the event. Orientation typically has an 80 to 90 percent turnout rate, whereas this year it was remarkably low, at only 52 percent, according to John Villavicencio, the BHS Director of Student Activities.
This is likely due to last-minute communication with families. Because school plans were finalized so late in the summer, BHS administration received notice for setting up an orientation much later than usual. The date is typically sent out to families months in advance, but this year it was sent only a week before the event. This meant that many students were already busy on the day of orientation, or did not even hear about it.
The technological aspect of the orientation also led to a lack of participation. 18 percent of student respondents to a Jacket survey indicated they did not attend because of a tech problem.
Freshmen also said there was little incentive to attend. The orientation was advertised in an email as playing games and getting to know peers, which a lot of students didn’t feel excited about. The survey of freshmen who attended also indicated that most students found the question and answer and advice portions of the orientation the most helpful, not the games.
Rohini Chokkalingam, a Link Leader and senior, thought that the lack of interest in activities was part of why many freshmen were unenthusiastic.
“Last year, we gave them their schedule, so as we led around a group of freshmen, we always had the schedule to dangle in front of them to keep them motivated and entertained,” Chokkalingam said.
She explained that without the need for their schedule, freshmen weren’t motivated to stay.
“It didn’t go too well, because the students didn’t want to participate. The people running it tried to get them to do stuff, but it was kinda awkward because nobody really wanted to be there,” said Thompson.
Villavicencio said that the students’ lack of enthusiasm is hard to control, and added that if a student was open minded about participating, they likely had a good time.
Even though some Link Leaders were faced with this problem, the freshmen who really wanted to participate did. Chokkalingam has given out her information to freshmen after orientation in the past, but this year was the only time that a student emailed her a question. She was glad to be a part of the communication between freshmen and upperclassmen this year in distance learning.
“There were definitely a lot of people who wanted to be a part of something like this, even if it was virtual, it’s just harder to get everyone to come,” Villavicencio said.
Ultimately, the goal of orientation is to act as a building block for freshmen to get to know each other and feel comfortable heading into BHS. Villavicencio urged teachers to make the next move, speculating, “I think the virtual orientation is a kind of opportunity to make that foundation, and it can definitely be improved upon and supported by what actions teachers do.” He emphasized the need for community building in virtual classes, which will mostly be dependent on students and teachers in the next few months.