Masked and ready: Freshmen are welcomed into the building for their first day of in-person instruction on Oct. 6. (Photo by Olivia Shirk)
Masked and ready: Freshmen are welcomed into the building for their first day of in-person instruction on Oct. 6.

Photo by Olivia Shirk

Hybrid reveals freshmen’s lack of connection to DGN community

November 3, 2020

After school on Mar. 16 last spring, 8th-grade students at middle schools in and around Downers Grove were sent home indefinitely due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Few could have imagined that they would not return to school until Oct. 6 – 204 days later. 

After this extensive absence from the school environment, DGN freshmen began in-person high school for the first time through the hybrid schedule. They face all the traditional highs and lows of starting high school – except there’s also the added challenge of a global pandemic.

One of the main struggles for this year’s freshmen was the difficulty of connecting with their teachers and classmates. After starting in a remote learning environment, hybrid learning finally provided an opportunity for students to develop face-to-face connections. While this has been helpful, according to students such as freshman Annie Stephens, hybrid learning is not without its flaws.

“Starting high school during a pandemic is not ideal…Over Zoom, you can only learn so much about how a teacher teaches and how students behave in class. You don’t really know until you meet with them in person,” Stephens said. “So the hybrid model has been helping, but then again it’s only a part of your class and there isn’t much time to talk with your peers.” 

DGN counselor Mark Wasik notes that the lack of inter-classroom relationships can affect the stress levels of students. This can make an already difficult high school transition even more daunting.

“Many [students] are struggling with the lack of social connections and the connections that can be made with adults in the building such as teachers, coaches, and counselors in normal times,” Wasik said. “At best, I think many people are feeling on edge…and for freshmen being thrown into a new building, with raised expectations from 8th-grade year, it has to be especially challenging for them.”

Perhaps the most challenging hybrid experience is had by freshmen coming from private schools, which often have only a handful of students that attend DGN. For former St. Mary of Gostyn student and freshman Mary Kate Casey, in-person classes provided natural opportunities for students to meet each other and socialize. When school went remote, it was up to the students to create these opportunities.

“Some social challenges…for me was having to start friendships with my phone being my only resource and having to reach out to people over the summer…to at least meet some new people, especially coming from a private school,” Casey said.

To make up for lost in-person connection, Student Activities Director Mark Mirandola and the DGN administration have been working to make involvement in school activities more accessible to freshmen. One example of this was the creation of the virtual student activities fair as opposed to the traditional in-person event. 

“We had a really great response to our virtual activities fair,” Mirandola said. “We’re trying to meet [freshmen] where they’re at, and we’re trying to make things as simple as possible for them.”

To create the accessibility that the administration hopes to provide, Mirandola acknowledges that students must feel comfortable and willing to participate.  

“[The fair] was really risk-free and non-threatening for students…[it was] without the fear or maybe uncomfortableness of having to walk up to a table of strangers.” Mirandola said.

Even with their partial return to the building providing a sense of normalcy, many freshmen have been struggling to find enjoyment in high school in the hybrid schedule. For freshmen such as George Wolkow, this environment can make it difficult to stay positive.

“I never got to be a true part of the DGN community yet, if we were fully in school I would be able to connect and be part of the community,” Wolkow said. “The pandemic has definitely made me not enjoy school. All of the online learning is not very exciting and I don’t really enjoy it.”

In order to regain the feelings of positivity and belonging that comes with attending DGN, Mirandola notes that all members of the DGN community will need to put in some effort.

“The sense of [freshmen] feeling connected is ultimately tied to the culture of our building… [building that culture] is the responsibility of every student, but also every teacher…students are also going to have to realize that the high school experience is going to look and feel different, and it might mean putting yourself out there in a slightly different way than you have before.” Mirandola said.

Wasik echoes this sentiment, pointing out that no matter the challenges this year brings, the DGN community will always be there to help the students.

“This year will go down as one of the most unique years in modern history…but I also know that we are in this together, students will always have the support of DGN faculty and staff, and we will come out stronger as a result.” Wasik said.

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