(WSAW) – There are a lot of people thinking about what is in the best interests of students this year as the coronavirus pandemic causes safety protocols to change the way schools function, but what do students think?

a woman sitting at a desk in front of a laptop computer: Students from around central Wisconsin share what their experiences in the new school year have been like as the pandemic creates changes they have not seen before.

© Provided by Wausau-Rhinelander WSAW-TV
Students from around central Wisconsin share what their experiences in the new school year have been like as the pandemic creates changes they have not seen before.

NewsChannel 7 took on a special project, gathering students from all over central Wisconsin from various grades to hear what their thoughts and experiences were and are as school begins and continues over the next year. Aug. 31, 2020 was the first day of coverage looking at what students’ experiences were over the previous five months, what they are thinking about ahead of the start of school, and what they are doing to get through all of the changes. The second round aired Sept. 24, 2020. The interviews were conducted in three groups due to student schedules and happened Sept. 14, 15, and 16. All of the same students who interviewed in the first piece interviewed for the second piece and there was one more student added who was interested in the first round but was unable to make that first interview.


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Students started the school year at a variety of times, as early as Sept. 1 and as late as Sept. 14, and from a variety of approaches, with some fully in-person, some fully online, and others in some mix of that. While the students are from different grade levels and each school district is handling the year a little differently, they had a lot of shared responses.

The students who participated are:

  • Charleze Valliere, a senior at Merrill High School
  • Lexie Durkee, a senior at Stevens Point Area High School
  • Oliver Nazari-Witt, a junior at D.C. Everest Senior High School
  • Estella Christiensen, a junior at Wausau West High School
  • Julia Engebretson, a sophomore at Wausau West High School
  • Cadence Ryman, a freshman at Merrill High School
  • Connor Skarsten, an 8th-grade student at P.J. Jacobs Junior High
  • Kayla Skarsten, a 6th-grade student at Washington Elementary School in Stevens Point

The new school experience

The district and grade students are in make a difference in what they are experiencing, with some similarities and some stark differences.

First, they all breathed a sigh of relief after that first day. There were a lot of unknowns and while they do not necessarily like all of the things that make up their new school year, they now know what it looks like. For Engebretson, who saw her Wausau school suddenly move online in the spring and continue fully online for the new school year, she said she saw an improvement with the platforms and methods teachers were using. She said Google Meets has allowed for full classroom discussions allowing students who were not necessarily comfortable meeting virtually one-on-one with their teacher last spring an opportunity to be “together” and ask questions with their peers. However, it is not perfect.

“Technical difficulties are really getting to me. I wasn’t expecting to be kicked out of classes like every three seconds,” she laughed. Engebretson is hopeful that with so many schools using the same platforms around the country and world, that the kinks will get worked out.

Christiensen agreed and added that the workload is vastly different than the spring, frankly, it is more work. Teachers assign their work at the beginning of the week and students have to keep track of what is due. She and Engebretson explained not having physical classes to go to and having to keep track of so many classes online has made it challenging to know what is due when and for which class. They both said it is hard to know if it is a comparable amount of work to what they would have during a typical school week pre-pandemic.

Engebretson noted there is not a lot of relationship-building between students and teachers right now. The teachers are focused on getting straight to learning.

Nazari-Witt, who said getting through school work virtually at D.C. Everest in the spring was quick, now has a lot of work on those days. Durkee at SPASH and Conner Skarsten at P.J. Jacobs Jr. High said the virtual work is comparable to the spring and they are both able to get it done quickly.

All eight students said they prefer in-person learning, but all noted they understand districts had difficult choices to make. Several that have at least some in-person learning said they are very concerned about the possibility of going fully virtual because they treasure the benefits even partial in-person learning offers. For those who are athletes or who have extracurricular activities like dance, they noted they are trying to be especially careful with health precautions so their seasons are not canceled.

Some similarities across the board for students physically going back to school in some capacity are that they are required to wear masks all day. Half of those in-person said wearing one is surprisingly easy, the other half said that is one of the hardest parts to this new school year. The masks have also created some unexpected challenges.

“Usually I have, like, a water bottle with me everywhere I go just to stay hydrated and I found it’s really hard to find the time to be able to drink the water because you have to take your mask off in order to do it,” Nazari-Witt explained.

Kayla Skarsten, who is back in-person except for on Wednesdays said it is really hard to read teachers’ facial expressions with masks as well.

All schools have made some efforts to social distance, but the students noted some higher health risks, whether it is being able to distance themselves while passing in the hallway, other students not taking health precautions seriously, or having desks too close.

“Our class sizes are not that much smaller,” Ryman said. Her smallest class she estimated had about 15 students, but most float between 20-30. She said her biggest concern was not being able to properly social distance in the hallways or in classrooms. The cafeteria is the one place that she noted looks vastly different this year, with no more than four students allowed at a table. The students from other schools noted class sizes have dramatically decreased, for example, Durkee’s Spanish class only has three students in total.

That reduction in class sizes has impacted some of the enjoyment of school for students. For several Stevens Point schools and the D.C. Everest district, only half of the student population is at the physical school at the same time, meaning there is less of a chance for students to have a class with their friends.

“I only have a couple of classes with my friends because not only did we get split up between the cohorts, but there’s also just so many more like classes that are going on,” Nazari-Witt said. “So, I find it hard to just, like, have fun in school.”

Conner Skarsten said one friend that got him through his school days is on the opposite end of the alphabet, meaning he does not get to go to school with him at all.

Even for those that do get to see some friends in their school day, there are heartbreaking challenges.

“The hardest part for me is probably seeing my friends but not really being able to do anything about it,” Durkee said, explaining that they cannot give hugs or high-fives.

Kayla Skarsten noted that issue too, saying she has to almost shout when talking with her friends or doing collaborative work during class.

Then there are all the other social aspects that come with school including students attending sporting events, homecoming, dances, etc. that students are mourning this year.

“The hardest thing for me is it’s my senior year, traditions are changing. Our homecoming was canceled. Football games we can’t really go to. Each player gets four tickets,” Valliere said. “Not being able to participate in those events is really hard.”

“Those are things that you really do look forward to in high school and they’re kind of being stripped away from us,” noted Christiensen.

The future after high school

Getting a taste of what the school year will look like and what things have already changed or could be changed, high school students, especially upperclassmen, overall have concerns about preparing for life after high school, whether that is college, career training, or a job.

Valliere, who is already taking classes at a local technical college and plans to continue that after high school, was the only upperclassmen that was not concerned about that next step.

Durkee and Nazari-Witt noted they had to cancel college tours and are concerned that they will miss out on opportunities to find the right college to fit the.

“Most of those online tours don’t really give you the whole picture of what a campus is like and what the classes are like, stuff like that,” Nazari-Witt explained.

Some schools are not requiring the ACT scores like they once were, which Durkee said was a plus for her because while she has a good GPA and well-rounded extracurriculars, she is not a great test-takers. While Christiensen felt the opposite, saying if you do well, it can help you get into certain colleges.

Nazari-Witt also was concerned about advanced placement testing, that if his school does not teach him everything, he could miss something on those AP tests, which give students college credit if they pass.

Engebretson and Ryman said as a sophomore and freshman respectively, they feel they have time and are not concerned right now, but that could change depending on how schools continue over the next few years. Engebretson, however, was empathetic with students who rely on sports to get into colleges especially if they do not get a season to show their skills.

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