The global impact of COVID-19 has required schools all over the world to adapt quickly to the new standard necessary for students to continue learning, but Berkeley High School (BHS) seems to have struggled doing so. Among other problems like conflicting class schedules and confusing online instruction, BHS staff shut down the use of Zoom after only two days of classes due to an incident involving a “naked adult male using racial slurs,” according to an email from BHS Principal Erin Schweng. As of Monday, May 4, BHS has returned to the use of Zoom.
So the question is, was shutting down the whole platform the right response to the incident? BHS may have been short sighted in considering what their teenage audience has already been exposed to. In the modern world of technology and communication, our staff seem to have had unrealistic expectations for what online school could really be. Instead of dramatizing a single incident, maybe BHS should focus on creating an online environment where all students can learn.
Even before the worldwide transition to an internet-based society, teenagers were on the internet, and they didn’t use it sparingly. Despite parental and educational intervention attempting to prevent too much exposure to unwanted content, seeing online pornographic content unintentionally is inevitable for many in today’s world. In a recent study, The Journal of Adolescent Health found that one in five youth ages 12 to 16.5 have experienced unwanted sexual content online. Considering the increased use of the internet that comes later in high school, this number is probably even higher for older teens.
Along with online exposure, students are not new to other kinds of negative content. Even living in Berkeley, somewhere known for its acceptance and diversity, there are still people who don’t refrain from racist behavior and language. The fact that this is still happening doesn’t mean it is okay, but should it have prevented students from learning opportunities when the only people truly offended by it were adults?
This issue should not have been ignored, because it did disrupt valuable learning time, but banning the use of Zoom entirely created an even bigger problem for the high school students who could have been learning. A valid concern for the District is that this could have happened to a younger audience who have yet to spend much unsupervised time online. A possible better solution would have been to only switch platforms for younger students. High school is a completely new phase of life following elementary and middle school, meaning that expectations are completely different. Why shouldn’t solutions be too?
The transition into high school generally comes with more independence and less direct oversight from parents and teachers. This means that live classes have become even more important to help get work done in the absence of supervised class time. I know many students, including myself, that struggle to stay focused and get work done without the structure of a regular school day and work time. Being without this structure has relieved stress for many, but it has also led to challenges with motivation and staying connected.
When there are no opportunities for social interaction, I find myself looking forward to Zoom calls. This might not be the case for everyone, but it is always valuable to take a few minutes to see people other than your family and return to the familiarity of live learning. After the incident of what staff have been calling “zoom-bombing,” teachers have been using Google Meets, another online video chat platform. While it provides a lot of the same things as Zoom, teachers have noted that it lacks some helpful features for online teaching. Google Meets doesn’t have “breakout rooms” where students can split up into groups to discuss things, and it also only lets you view a few people at once, preventing teachers and students from having a communal experience. These features on Zoom made online class feel a little more personal and familiar, both important in order to foster a good class environment for students.
Teachers have had a variety of approaches to the use of live class time. Some have regular and mandatory classes to teach and share material, while others have optional office hours for more casual interaction and questions. While it can be nice to have more freedom in choosing whether or not to go to class, required classes bring structure to a student’s school life that is crucial to staying engaged and productive. Teachers should find ways to create consistency in their class schedules by having mandatory weekly classes on Zoom. This consistency would also come in part from having all BHS students use the same platform, and not shutting down this platform due to disruption.