A week in, here’s what students have to say about MVLA’s hybrid return

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY ALLISON HUANG

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Students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District returned to campus this week for hybrid instruction, the culmination of months of planning, negotiation and often contentious debate.

For Los Altos freshman Katie Skaggs, it wasn’t so much a “return,” but instead a first day of school — she’s never been on campus for in-person instruction before.

“It was a bit weird,” she said. “I was nervous going into it, like I think most people are on their first day of school. But the 20 minute passing periods are nice because I don’t have to stress about getting from one class to another, and I think I’ve kind of gotten the hang of where my classes are, which is helpful.”

The district’s hybrid schedule sets passing periods at 20 minutes — as opposed to the typical five — in part to allow for cleaning in rooms as the over 2,000 students participating in in-person instruction district-wide (about half the student body) shuffle through the day.

In-person and remote students attend the same classes over Zoom, meaning that in theory, whole-class lectures would be similar to distance learning, the only difference being that half the class is sitting in the classroom while the other half sits at home.

A week in, Skaggs said that while the quality of the hybrid instruction might not be remarkably better than it is in distance learning, it does have its merits.

“The teachers are actually in front of you … it’s harder to get distracted,” she said. “You kind of have to stay focused, which is helpful in a way.”

Skaggs also said that being in the classroom especially makes a difference when doing work in groups.

“With small group discussions in breakout rooms, none of the people talk to you and they just ignore you,” she said. “But now we’re able to have face-to-face conversations and I think that’s very helpful. I learn better with a face in front of me, not just some computer screen.”

Social interaction — something that community members have long cited as an argument for broader in-person opportunities — is also one of Skaggs’ pros of attending school in-person.

While she said that she sees some close friends outside of school about once a week, she contended that it’s “different” seeing people at school. 

“I see people that I haven’t seen since March of last year,” Skaggs said. “Or the people that were a year older than me when I was in seventh grade at Egan, I see them for the first time in like two years. Then the people that I went to elementary school with who I haven’t seen in four years.”

As for COVID-19 safety precautions — which primarily consist of 3-foot social distancing and masking — Skaggs said that although she ultimately felt comfortable, she thinks that social distancing during breaks could have been stressed more.

“I don’t think they’ve done the best at social distancing, but me and [my friend] … whenever we see a big group of people we kind of try to find our own area,” she said. “During brunch there’s very little social distancing.”

She added that social distancing in classrooms is always enforced and that masking is a non-issue — and again stressed that she ultimately felt comfortable because she had the freedom to remove herself from situations where she didn’t, a sentiment which she guessed that most of her peers shared.

As for major downsides to being in-person, Skaggs had relatively minor gripes (although “minor” may depend on who you ask).

“Not being able to leave the Zoom early is really the only thing,” she said. “And actually having to speak in Spanish class.”

Mountain View junior Ella Blatnik said that although her experience has ultimately been positive so far, her return wasn’t necessarily smooth-sailing. 

“It was a little overwhelming,” Blatnik said. “Before [I went] I was overwhelmed about having to see people and having all the technical difficulties. But when I got there it was like ‘Oh I feel awkward just sitting there, I feel like I have to have a conversation.’ I don’t know … different things came up that were just awkward.”

But like Skaggs, she said that she enjoyed seeing not only her friends and classmates, but being able to catch up with acquaintances and people that she’s “not that close to” for the first time in over a year walking through the hallways.

Blatnik, who had initially participated in then dropped out of the district’s “stable groups,” said she finds the hybrid model far more engaging because more of her classmates returned to campus and she’s able to shuffle through classrooms as she normally would. Plus, it’s far easier to stay engaged with her teachers in the classroom with her.

She said she sensed a bit of initial awkwardness as teachers struggled to present to both students in the classroom and at home, but felt it turned out fine.

“I think because it’s more of a natural tendency to want to pay attention to the people in-person, a lot of teachers intentionally focused on the Zoom to kind of fight that natural instinct,” she said. “But in the end that kind of all balanced out.”

Blatnik did note the school’s internet problems, citing the third period outage on Thursday. 

Bob Fishtrom, director of information technology services, said that the district-wide outage stemmed not from the district’s networks but from a Comcast outage — a “very, very rare” occurrence. 

“I was at Los Altos this morning and was in a classroom, about 10 kids were there,” he said. “I asked how the WiFi was and they said it has never been better. Let’s hope this pattern continues.”

Blatnik, for her part, was good-natured about it.

“It was difficult, but also not too bad because … we’re all suffering at the same time,” she said. “So if we get kicked out of the Zoom meeting at the same time, at least we’re all kicked out.”

Los Altos junior Trinity Bang, who elected to remain in distance learning in order to spend more time with her family, said that the school’s internet outage affected her even at home.

“My third period was basically me trying to figure out what was going on,” she said. “I had math at that time and I was paired with a partner and sent to a breakout room, but neither of us knew what was going on … That was a really confusing experience for the people at home.”

Other than that brief blip, Bang said that in terms of educational experience, this past week has been about the same for her as distance learning has been all year.

But she did make a point of noting that she felt a certain “disconnect” with the students in the classroom, in part for social reasons but also bare logistics. 

“In a couple of my classes, [in-person] students haven’t been logging onto Zoom, so when they talk in class or they make a contribution to the conversation I can’t really hear or understand them,” she said. “I don’t know if I would say my learning … experience has been worse this past week, but I definitely feel more disconnection with my peers than I have this past year because I can’t hear them really or build off their ideas.”

Skaggs, who was in-person, said that in the majority of her classes she was required to log onto Zoom with her remote peers, but some teachers had microphones in the classroom and told in-person students to speak up so remote classmates could hear.

Los Altos senior Jimmy Gao said that interacting with in-person students hasn’t been a problem in any of his classes, and that other than the school’s internet outage, nothing’s changed for him this week. 

“I mean the only difference is that the teacher is presenting to a live audience,” he said. “What she says to the class is just normally what would have been.”

He also said that with AP tests on the horizon, many of his teachers have transitioned into more review-type lessons instead of teaching new content, which may contribute in part to the relative sameness. 

Gao, who’s apparently been afflicted with a particularly bad case of senioritis, said that he opted to remain at home because he “just didn’t think it was worth it.”

“It’s going to make slacking off a lot harder,” he said, likely speaking for many fellow senioritis victims. “You have to stay awake because the teacher’s always eyeballing you.”

Gao said that another consideration was that he already sees friends outside of school, so social interaction wasn’t a huge pull factor for him.

On the other hand, Skaggs, perhaps because she still has another three years before the expected onset of senioritis, is looking forward to next week when in-person students stay on campus for the whole day rather than the half-day rotations of the past week (she said that it’ll be weird to have to start packing lunch for school again).

She also expressed optimism that any first-week kinks will be ironed out given time, as students and teachers adjust to the hybrid model.

“I think it was good for me to go and get some type of freshman year,” she said. “It wasn’t what I expected, but it’s something.”

Carly Heltzel contributed to the reporting on this story.

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