A Madison East High School sophomore’s new schedule has allowed time for reflection

In ways too complicated to describe in a short essay, it just wasn’t an average school year.
Yani Thoranka in a classroom with a Simpson Street Free Press Shirt
Photo by Larry Chua
Virtual learning has revealed much to Yani Thoronka about her own path, as well as the opportunity gaps that exist for so many students.

By Yani Thoronka

Last school year began like any other. It ended much differently than any of us expected. In ways too complicated to describe in a short essay, it just wasn’t an average school year.

I remember that morning in March when I got to Madison East High School. My classmates and I had been hearing about COVID-19 for weeks. We were washing our hands a little more frequently with every new day. But we still hadn’t felt the effects of what was coming our way.

I was very nervous that morning because I had three tests. I was a little on edge, mostly thinking about what I needed to accomplish during the school day.

I’d taken just a few steps into the building when my phone rang. My parents told me I must come home immediately because someone who worked with my stepmom was in contact with a person who had tested positive for COVID-19. It was at that moment I began to process the situation and what was happening.

The far-reaching effects of lockdowns and quarantine soon became a reality for me, my family and our community. At first I was fine with it. I think it allowed people to see just how easily things we considered important could be taken away. Things as simple as human connection — the ability to hug, high-five or even converse with friends. We took these things for granted. All that disappeared, and it took a while for the reality of a so-called new normal to sink in.

It’s taught us to cherish the things and the people that make up our lives. For me, it prompted a lot of reflection. I’m striving to come out of this pandemic as a better and kinder person.

I was one of several Simpson Street Free Press reporters who recently interviewed Dr. Carlton Jenkins, the new superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District. He stressed to us that basic human decency is more important than ever right now. That resonated for me because I want that concept to be one of the things I learn from these unusual times. I hope our shared human decency prevails and helps all of us survive COVID-19.

During a normal school week, my day started at 8 a.m. I would arrive at school and finish any extra homework until my first class began at 8:30 a.m. Then I would proceed through my school day, which ended at 3:30 p.m. In the two hours before track practice, I’d usually grab a snack or socialize. Practice would typically end around 7:45 p.m. During a normal school routine, I didn’t have much time for myself. I balanced my time between school, sports, homework and extracurriculars.

So when COVID-19 hit, the difference in the pace of my day was a big shock. During my online spring semester, I could easily finish all my schoolwork by midweek, leaving the rest of my week free. The system of virtual schooling wasn’t perfect, but it worked for me. I think teachers tried hard to modify e-learning to fit individual students’ needs. It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t work for all kids, but students were given the opportunity to go through content as fast or slowly as was comfortable, based mostly on personal preference.

I’ve come to believe that virtual schooling is a process. It will take time. Teachers and students are learning together to navigate this. I think that, if done right, it can allow all of us to become more creative. The assignments will no doubt be much different from what we expect from regular school. During spring semester, most of the work that my teachers assigned focused on mindfulness, being more conscious of your body and giving yourself time and space to understand emotions. While not all students participated, I think in some ways COVID-19 brought us together. I noticed that most teachers made a real effort to check in regularly with students, perhaps even more often than before COVID-19.

But now, with teachers and students having to maneuver a virtual school environment, there are also challenges on the horizon. New research shows the coronavirus will cause significant learning losses, especially for vulnerable children. Experts call this the “COVID-19 extended summer slide.”

Many students will forget content we previously learned. And many will struggle with what they’re supposed to learn this coming school year. It’s clear the curriculum needs to be adjusted to work in a virtual setting.

I’ve been lucky. Simpson Street Free Press has provided me with stability and taught me how to engage with online learning. I am grateful for the robust academic support and virtual learning structure offered at Simpson Street during my summer semester. I’ve felt challenged and my confidence and skills have improved.

Unfortunately, not all kids in Madison have these kinds of opportunities. And opportunity gaps lead to achievement gaps. I fear that many of my fellow students of color will soon fall even further behind. My hope is that what Dr. Jenkins called our basic human decency will prevail at this crucial moment in our city’s history.