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A Year Like No Other For Naugatuck High's Students And Teachers

Ryan Martins
Connecticut Public Radio
Naugatuck High School

It’s been a school year like no other. Once the coronavirus hit, schools across Connecticut and around the country had to adapt to distance learning for a large part of this academic year.  

Naugatuck High School moved its entire curriculum online.

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Mumthanu Emilah, a junior at Naugatuck High, was one of the many who got swept up in a slew of changes due to the virus. She had to juggle schoolwork while also helping her family by caring for her younger sister.

“My dad works three jobs and both my parents don’t speak fluent English, so I have to take care of my little sister, who’s only 6,” she said. “Not only do I have to do my own work, but I have to take care of her at the same time, and on top of that I have to juggle working.”

In May, Emilah had religious practices to uphold that added to her workload. 

“I’m Muslim American, so we’re practicing Ramadan. This month has been stressful because I’ve been trying to spiritually cleanse and do my homework and make sure my sister is doing her homework; so that’s a lot to take in,” Emilah said. 

Credit Courtesy: Mumthanu Emilah
Naugatuck High School junior Mumthanu Emilah

Emilah wasn’t alone in her struggle to balance schoolwork and other responsibilities. The abrupt change caught educators off guard, including Emilah’s AP Government teacher, Nicholas Varanelli, who had just become a father during the spring. 

“The hardest thing has been keeping the kids engaged. Some of them just have other stuff going on, they’re working. A lot of them are working at Big Y for example, and I get that. They’re working 40-hour weeks and they’re gonna be drained,” he said. “They are not doing that normally during the school year because they have to be in the building. Some are just kind of unmotivated … and some have a younger sibling or even learning disabilities. It’s a challenge.”

English teacher Megan Sherry also reflected on how important it has been to recognize the unique situation students were thrown into.

“I think that it’s really important to look at our students as people,” she said. “When we have students who are waiting in line at a food bank, or working 40 hours a week or worried about a sick family member when they don’t have health insurance, we can’t expect them to care about William Shakespeare. You have to think about, ‘What can I provide them that will make this time in their life easier’ or will make them learn something that’s applicable to this experience.”

Sherry adapted her curriculum in ways that allowed her to get to know her students better while helping them process what they were going through. One example was an assignment that involved students writing letters to their future selves -- relating what that time in their lives was like.

“I had a couple students who reached out to me and one has a mom who works in the ER, so she’s really stressed about that. One babysits four other siblings all day while his parents work,” Sherry said on  empathizing with her students. “I have two children of my own; I know how impossible it is to get anything done when you’re watching small children.”

Despite the rocky transition to a digital classroom, the shift toward digital learning had its benefits.

Flexibility in schedule helped Brayden Alves, a junior at Naugatuck High, to balance his full-time job while also completing schoolwork on time. 

“I work about 60 hours a week so I take Mondays off and I get all my work done for the week on that Monday,” he said. “And it’s a little stressful because I got six classes to get done throughout that day and that whole day is consumed by school, but having the rest of the week off to be able to work and make my own schedule definitely helps.”

For students like Emilah, who were caught in a balancing act of responsibilities, teachers became a source of understanding. 

“When it comes to all my schoolwork, my teachers are very understanding about that,” she said. “If I let them know that, ‘Hey, I’m not going to be able to do this on time’ -- they’re very supportive about it, which I’m so grateful for. I’d say that’s the biggest positive out of all of this; that our teachers are being supportive.”

At Naugatuck High, students have taken note of how leaders in both Washington, D.C., and Hartford have been responding to the pandemic. Students who lean left or right in political ideologies all agreed on one point. 

“We can definitely get through this if we just come together and realize what’s most important, and that’s public safety,” Emilah said. 

The long-term impact of the shift to distance learning has yet to be fully analyzed by experts, but educators at Naugatuck High acknowledged that the lack of face-to-face interaction with their students hampered connection-building in the classroom this past school year. 

Social studies teacher Teresa Obedzinski explained that for some students, the inequality in home life made the opportunity to focus on academics a luxury they simply couldn’t afford. 

“This isn’t just a pandemic problem or a distance learning problem,” she said. “This is something that, as educators, we’ve been able to identify for years. But the global health crisis is now forcing parents, community members and government officials to confront this inequality head on.”

A study by the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, found huge inequities among school districts in Connecticut. Many students haven’t had a conducive at-home study environment, with some lacking adult support or tools they need to study, like laptops and stable internet. 

Class is no longer in session for Naugatuck, yet the impact of COVID-19 lingers on as the virus has changed students’ routines across the nation. Adding to the sense of insecurity are the questions over what the next school year will look like as government officials mull whether it is safe to reopen schools this fall.

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