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A Year of Virtual Learning Reveals What to Preserve for In-Person School

The second installment of a series on what we can keep from distance learning discusses preserving the shorter school day and term system.

To read the first part of this series on transitioning to in-person school, click here.

Distance learning sucks. Nobody likes enduring the boredom, awkwardness, and discomfort that comes with virtual schooling. However, the Berkeley High School (BHS) administration has made some excellent changes this school year to accommodate students currently wading through a swamp of struggles. These changes are not only beneficial during the pandemic, but would also be useful to keep around once we go back to in-person classes.

One of the most significant changes to the BHS student experience in distance learning is shorter school days. A BHS school day, excluding lunch, used to be about six hours long. Now, Zoom school runs for just over half that. This is one change that should definitely be retained during in-person classes.

Shorter school days have the potential to vastly improve the mental health of students and faculty alike. Being out of class with the sun high in the sky, with hours of free time stretching ahead of you, means more time to spend on the activities you enjoy outside of school. Even one more hour in the day is an hour that can be spent on a meaningful extracurricular, a conversation with a friend, or a game night with family. Many teens have struggled with mental health in recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. If students were able to spend less time in the stressful environment of public school and more time doing the things that make them happy and relaxed, it could significantly improve their emotional wellbeing.

Of course, it’s also important that the academic achievement of students isn’t significantly compromised. While a 2013 study from the National Bureau of Economic research showed that longer school hours can improve academic achievement, such a correlation only occurs when the classroom environment is structured to support it. Public schools in the US are notoriously underfunded, so it seems unlikely that schools can put the time and money into creating a rigid system to make those long school hours pay off. Furthermore, countries with some of the highest-ranked education systems in the world — such as Korea, Finland, and Japan — all have shorter school days than the United States.

Decreasing the number of classes students take in a day would be an easy way to shorten the school day, and also provide other benefits. This year, the BHS administration implemented a term system where students take only half of their classes at a time. While the system isn’t perfect, it is still a net positive and should be kept in future school years for the benefit of the student body.

A major benefit of the term system, in which students only take three classes at once and alternate schedules every 4 to 5 weeks, is that it allows students to focus on and study for a smaller amount of classes. This is much less time-consuming and difficult than having to juggle six, especially when preparing for finals.

Humans are not naturally multitaskers. Only an estimated 2 percent of people are able to multitask without adverse effects on their productivity. With a block schedule, students are required to switch gears less often throughout the day, both in school and when doing homework, thereby increasing productivity and potentially leading to reduced stress and improved academic performance.

This school year has been far from perfect. Still, some aspects of the learning experience were better than past years. The BHS administration must not forget the lessons learned this year about what makes for a productive school environment. If the administration carries these lessons into future years, improving the BHS experience down the road, this abominable year will not have been for nothing.