Westbrook High students work on their project in robotics class back in 2020. The science programs have suffered without hands-on experiments, teacher Adam Wolf said. Courtesy photo / Adam Wolf

Westbrook High School science teacher Adam Wolf said that distance learning had a bad impact on students’ math and social skills.

Westbrook High School courses were taught in a hybrid of in-person and remote learning last school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A fire at the school over the summer meant that the first three months of this school year were taught remotely.

Remote learning meant no experiments and no peer work, which Wolf said is crucial. He estimated his class learned about 60% of what they usually did.

Science courses are hands-on, said Wolf, who teaches physics, chemistry, engineering and robotics. The courses are marked by peer learning, hands-on experiments and a lot of input and help from the teacher.

According to Wolf, students anecdotally aren’t as good at quick math as they once were, having relied on calculators for equations and quick math at home. Now, younger students are having difficulty working in groups, often sitting in silence.

“When we have a break-out room online, I’d join as a teacher and see no one is talking, and this is 9th grade to the senior level,” Wolf said. “There was so little student-to-student conversation that you see some of our younger students are having a hard time with that now. So, one of the main focuses I’ve had in returning back to school is to make sure there is time for that interaction.”

Freshman Lance Whitehead told the American Journal that asking a question during an online class would often disrupt the learning process, grinding it to a halt.

During distance learning, coursework had less impact on students, according to Wolf and Whitehead. For example, the only experiments during the pandemic were online simulations, which are predictable and lack the randomness that requires problem-solving among students.

“He did his best to give us resources, but it’s not the same when you are in-person and doing the experiment,” Whitehead said. “A week before the break we focused on slinky waves and I learned about longitudinal waves, but it felt really different and better to be in person and create those waves. It’s the human part of it. It’s not set parameters, you can change it up.”

Whitehead said, compared to other classes like Spanish, science was the hardest to translate to remote work.

“(I)n science, you feel you’re understanding more when you can talk it out; you can use your resources in the classroom,” Whitehead said.

While Wolf has noticed positive impacts of in-person learning – like increased socialization – he is unsure how long-term the negative impacts may be.

“I won’t speculate on how long it will impact students, but we may have a better idea in two to three years when our sophomores become seniors,” Wolf said. “It may be hard for some people to see this, but I think this situation, while not ideal, is the best possible outcome. We are back in person, will be for the year. It was a really tough three months for a lot of students and teachers.”

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