Schenectady High School seniors Alex Ordway and Angelita Cotto sometimes had a difficult time getting motivated this year as they struggled with remote learning.
“I just didn’t feel the drive to get up in the morning and work like I did when in school,” said Cotto, who made the honor roll last year before the pandemic upended schools across the country. “I’m academically smart, but it’s just the drive for me. I just didn’t have the drive.”
Ordway, who often logged into class from his bed, said trying to muster the energy and interest in academics has been draining this year, especially when faced with the distractions of home.
“It’s almost too familiar of an environment,” he said. “When you go to the bedroom, this is the place I sleep, this is the place I watch TV, and I think I could be doing this and not be bored (with school).”
But starting Wednesday, Ordway, Cotto and scores of other students across all grade levels were back inside Schenectady High School, catching up on old assignments and taking virtual classes from the comfort of a classroom desk. More students will join them over the coming weeks as district officials recall more staff who were laid off in the fall and work to make space for families who have asked for a spot in one of the district’s new “learning pods” set up in school buildings.
After imposing hundreds of staff layoffs in the fall and shuttering school buildings to secondary students in an effort to brace for potential state aid cuts, district officials this week instituted a new learning set-up that enables some students to attend their virtual classes from small pods of students inside the high school, as well as at Mont Pleasant and Oneida middle schools. The students continue the virtual classes, but get to do so in the controlled academic environment of the school and with the support of paraprofessionals, teachers and other school support staff. District officials also initiated a new afterschool and weekend tutoring program.
Next week district officials plan to establish similar “learning pods” at district elementary schools, where students have been attending school in person during the mornings before finishing school remotely in the afternoon. The pods at the elementary level will enable students to finish out their virtual afternoon classes from school.
After surveying families about whether they would be interested in sending their child to a pod, the district confirmed spots for about 400 students in a total of nearly 40 pods spread across the high school and middle schools. (Mont Pleasant is hosting pods for Central Park Middle School students.) Another nearly 1,500 students were waiting for a spot in a pod to open as the district continues to rehire staff so they can expand the number of pods available to students, district spokesperson Karen Corona said Wednesday. School leaders prioritized students who have been struggling with the remote environment for the first seats in the pods but hope to eventually provide a spot for every student who has requested one.
“As we bring staff back, we are going to be creating more pods,” Corona said. “Our goal is to get every student in a pod whose family requested it.”
The first set of pods opened Wednesday were staffed by 12 teachers, two reading specialists, six special education teachers and 65 paraprofessionals, according to a count provided by the district.
The high school seniors said it felt good – albeit a little strange – to get back into the high school, where they have been shut out for nearly a year. They said the school environment helps motivate them to do their school work. Even the mere fact of getting up, getting ready and leaving home instills more of a desire to do that work, they said.
“There’s a place to go,” Ordway said. “Instead of sitting in bed typing away on a laptop, you have to actually get up and get ready to go – instead of sitting there half awake.”
While students in the pods aren’t necessarily taking the same classes at the same time, the students do have a shared space to do their work along with educator supervision.
“You see everyone else working, so you think, oh, I might as well work too,” Ordway said.
The high school seniors have watched the final months of their time in the district pass by from home.
Ordway and Cotto both said they still missed parts of the traditional school day that can’t easily be replicated in learning pods – eating lunch with friends in the cafeteria, dropping by a teacher’s room to go over a question, meeting up with friends at the end of the day. And they still hope the activities that mark the final days of any senior year will happen in some form.
“Honestly, it’s heartbreaking because I always dreamed my senior year would be the best year of my school life,” Cotto said.
But Cotto also said she was already getting caught up on old assignments just a few hours into her first day back inside the high school. Calling herself one of a handful of “guinea pigs” to launch the new pods, Cotto said she hopes other students join in the days to come as students and educators both see the first students in the pods making academic progress.
“When other people show up and have seen our growth and how much we have grown from not being able to get assignments done to getting them done every single day on time, hopefully they will let more people in,” she said. “They want to help us as much as we want to get help.”
Cotto said attending school in person will “definitely” help her get back on track to finish her work and graduate on time.
“I feel like I have a purpose now,” she said.