For this fifth year of The Seattle Times Student Voices project, we invited students from Washington public high schools and colleges to work with Education Lab to write about issues of educational equity. This essay by Akila Rajan is the fourth in the 2021 series. Visit http://st.news/studentvoices2021 to learn more about the student writers and read other essays in this series as they are published.

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As of now, we’ve spent more than a year in quarantine. That’s more than 180 days of harrowing recalibration for teachers, students and families trying to navigate virtual learning. Now, on what we hope is the tail end of a year of remote instruction, there is an undeniable temptation to close the book on a system that has led to increased learning gaps, put more pressure on parents working full time, and led to a host of technology-related health concerns

This has been a year of silver linings and of reckoning. We’ve been forced to ask ourselves where we need to make changes and how. So before we shut the book on virtual learning, we should ask ourselves: What have we learned from it? Here are some valuable lessons from my experience I believe are worth keeping.

Problems arising in school from lack of staffing — most notably for mental health outreach and teacher-student engagement — can in part be answered by virtual resources. 

I attend Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, part of the Everett School District. It follows a typical public school setup: 2,278 students to six counselors. The senior class of 2021 numbers 507, with roughly 84 students to a counselor.

Contacting a school counselor for college- or career-related help is difficult. Trying to get mental health assistance is a herculean task. For seniors, college application season is a double-edged sword: We’re frantically sending counselors requests for transcripts and recommendations, but hesitating to ask for help dealing with the pressures of life after high school because with staff busy as they are, we know we won’t get it.

Virtual resources have the potential to take the burden off counselors, allowing them to reach more students. This past year, my school began offering weekly virtual “Snackchats”  during lunch. Students can log on during the 30-minute slot and speak to a counselor, either as a group or in private via a Zoom breakout room. Counselors could apportion themselves according to how many students showed up and were able to do so without the constraints of limited office space or staff.

While this alone may not be enough to connect with a student body of more than a thousand students, the school district also created a Virtual Quiet Room with resources ranging from crisis helplines to guided meditation videos. Students looking to relax can access these materials 24-7, allowing counselors to devote their time to helping students with more immediate concerns. 

Supporting this effort is Washington state Bill 1373, recently signed into law. Effective July 25, it would ensure that mental health and substance abuse help resources and suicide prevention hotlines are posted on the homepage of each school’s website. This must include local, state and national resources. While it does little more than make an existing resource a bit more visible, it is part of an approach to student engagement that joins a greater shift in virtual learning: giving students more independence and ensuring help is readily available whenever they may need it. 

A successful virtual education also rests on the resources students have access to at home. A student’s success in using video resources and regular online instruction depends on whether they have a computer, the quality of their internet connection, and whether they have a quiet work space. Experts predict that these differences in the learning environment, which are more pronounced in low-income areas, will increase the learning gap between students. Discussing the virtues of remote learning without accounting for differences in wealth and resources is impossible. But the key is incorporation, not replacement.

My classmates and I agree one of the more helpful aspects of virtual instruction is that learning isn’t dependent on being based in a classroom. Recorded lectures and other supplemental materials make it easier to catch up on a missed class. Students don’t have to be in a physical space to learn effectively. If a student is sick, it’s now possible to log onto a class without having to drag yourself out of bed — something I found myself immensely grateful for once cold season rolled around. 

This year also saw the implementation of “Learning Improvement Wednesdays” — a day without synchronous structured class time when students can work independently after checking in online. These Wednesdays gave me and other students a welcome reprieve from screen exposure and the freedom to manage our own time. For some students this meant catching up on late work or planning a club meeting; for others it meant taking a break from staring at their computers. For seniors, Wednesdays were opportunities to structure our day according to what we needed, a skill that can only benefit us as we enter college or the professional world. 

By now the phrase “unprecedented times” has been used ad nauseam — we’re all hoping to get back to some form of normalcy. It’s important to remember that the problem of leaving students behind, academically and emotionally, didn’t disappear when in-person learning did. It just took a different form. 

This year showed us that when there’s a necessity to change, we can step up to the plate to do more than just bring students up to speed. And as we return to a tenuous new “normal,” we’d do well to remember that we’re best equipped to support students when we use all the resources, in-person and online, at our disposal.