As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, forcing many nonessential businesses to close, schools have shut their doors, too, to adhere to the statewide mandates for social distancing. With it, they embrace another form of distance, learning.

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If today’s students weren’t already living their life behind a screen, they are now.

As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, forcing many nonessential businesses to close, schools have shut their doors, too, to adhere to the statewide mandates for social distancing. With it, they embrace another form of distance, learning.

‘Now I can’t’

Online learning started Monday for the Noonkester family, who live on Eglin Air Force Base. Heike Noonkester was a stay-at-home mom even before the pandemic, and her husband, Brian Noonkester, still works.

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Little has changed for their son Jacob, a pre-school student at Shalimar United Methodist Church, who received a few worksheets from his teacher. But, Lucas, a fourth-grader at Eglin Elementary School, now does school work on a laptop alone using the school’s designated programs for different subjects.

“We were pretty lucky because all the programs that Lucas is supposed to use to get his studies done are working just fine for us and he can do his work and breeze through it,” Heike Noonkester said. “Other parents had a lot of problems with logging in, getting devices to work and whatnot.”

The school provided laptops for students who didn’t already own one and free Internet access to those who didn’t have it, Heike Noonkester said. Lucas’ teacher provided assignments and set up a schedule for students, explaining how long each subject should take.

Online learning takes much less time than school normally would for Lucas.

“The teacher said no more than 30 or 40 minutes per assignment, but for him, it’s pretty easy,” Heike Noonkester said. “It’s a lot of reading and watching videos. Some of them have a test at the end of each section or he will have to do a quiz on Friday after he is done with all of his assignments.”

Lucas spends his newfound extra time playing the video game Roblox, swimming in their new pool or practicing baseball with his father. As an A and B student, he doesn’t mind online learning.

“Working from home on a laptop is what he loves,” Heike Noonkester said. “He’s 9 years old and likes to do all things electronic.”

“I really do like doing (school) on the computer,” Lucas said. “I know how to use it and it’s a little bit more fun that sitting down and taking your pencil and writing stuff down. You get to type on the computer and learn more computer skills.”

He admits not attending school has its drawbacks.

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“It’s not as good as regular school, because I don’t get to go outside as much,” Lucas said. “I really don’t get to talk to friends that often and I can’t do all the things you do at school.”

His biggest disappointment, though, is that his baseball season was canceled.

“I was pretty upset because I was doing very good in progression,” Lucas said. “I really wanted to show it off to all the coaches and really wanted to be on the field. Now I can’t.”

‘I’m not a teacher’

The Velez family has seen some of the same perks and drawbacks to online learning as the Noonkesters.

Jazmyn Velez, a seventh-grader at Liza Jackson Preparatory School, loves the flexibility.

“I really like it because it’s really easy for me and I get done really early, so I have the whole day to myself,” Jazmyn said. “I do well with it. I do miss going to school and interacting with people, but I can text them if I want. We can do live group chats sometimes for classes.”

Jazmyn’s mother, Tania Velez, sees it as a “catch 22.” She is temporarily off work in sales because of the coronavirus.

“She’s in seventh grade now, but she’ll be in high school two years,” Tania Velez said. “She will already have that experience of doing online learning and being self-motivated to get all her work done. I think that’s good. The fallback is because when she gets it done, she’s free. I’m trying to find other ways to keep them busy besides them gravitating toward being on their phones, watching TV and getting on the computer. That’s the biggest challenge is keeping them busy for a full day.”

Tania Velez has two other children’s time to occupy, twin boys and fourth-graders, Devin and Dominic. They receive an hour-and-a-half of school work a day and are given suggested activities to replace art and physical education, she said.

“I make them go on walks everyday to get them out of the house and for myself, just to get some vitamin D,” Tania Velez said. “We set up a workout room in the garage for them to get some exercise and stay active. All three of them are swimmers, and because the pool is closed as well they haven’t been able to do their extracurricular activities to keep them active.”

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The students enjoy not having as much work. But when they struggle, Tania Velez does, too.

“I’m not a teacher,” Tania Velez said. “What I learned 20 years ago is definitely not what they’re teaching or how they’re teaching it. I’m having to email teachers and understand what work to do and ‘Are they on the right track?’ ‘Where is this assignment they’re posting?’”

Tania Velez has her own work, too. She works remotely now because of the coronavirus.

“It’s balancing while I’m on a conference call and they’re trying to ask me questions and where to find the answers and emailing teachers,” Tania Velez said. “The teachers are very responsive in sending emails back and sending videos, which is helpful. But I feel like they’re going to lose truly the concept of the material they’re actually learning at the end of the day. That’s my only concern with them missing so much.”

‘Figuring things out’

Prom, senior breakfast, the senior awards ceremony – these are a few things Lyndsey LaBorde crossed off in her planner. She is one of the top five seniors at Fort Walton Beach High School.

“It’s definitely tough missing out on all of the senior things I was looking forward to,” LaBorde said. “In the light of what’s happening, it’s a sacrifice you have to be willing to make.”

Learning from home is “not terrible, but different,” she said.

“It’s definitely challenging to get the hang of,” LaBorde said. “I think the hardest part would be trying to create a routine and get in the mind space of having to learn while being at home all day. It’s hard to stay organized. But my teachers have been super understanding and willing to work with us to make sure we’re figuring things out.”

At first, LaBorde spent more time on school work, because she was figuring out how to use the required online platforms. Now she has adjusted and spends about the same amount of time, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., she said.

Her parents are elementary and middle school teachers, so they are at home, too.

“They’re actually having to teach from home while I’m having to learn from home,” LaBorde said. “They’re trying to make things work, but not overwhelm their kids. They worked all last week trying to get these things figured out. The teachers are still learning, too. The principals are still learning. We’re all tying to figure it out together.”

LaBorde and her friends are figuring out how to socialize, too.

“It’s been hard, because I enjoy seeing my friends and getting to go places and do things,” LaBorde said. “We had to be creative. Sometimes we all get on a Zoom chat while we play an online game. Sometimes we all Facetime while we cook lunch. It’s important to find ways to stay connected with your friends. You can be stuck at home physically, but you can still communicate with people and still have fun and reach out.”

Graduation is likely postponed, but LaBorde’s main concern right now is advanced placement testing. Students will test at home.

“We’ve been preparing for these three-hour long exams and now we’re taking a 45-minute free response question test at home,” LaBorde said. “That’s definitely scary. For me, I like to be in that setting where I only do school work in that setting. Now that I’m working at home, it’s difficult to put myself in the mindset of ‘This is an exam that I’m taking,’ because I’m used to only doing little bits of homework at home.”

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No pomp, no circumstance

There is never a good time for a pandemic to halt schooling in a classroom, but amid college senior year in one of the most hands-on and difficult majors, wasn’t it.

Madalyn Danielak, an electrical engineering senior at the University of Florida, hasn’t had it easy.

“All lecture components usually have a lab component tied to it,” Danielak said. “You go into the lab and you’re usually displaying a physical circuit or making something or the TA gives you a problem and you have to fix it in lab. Transitioning all that online was very weird.”

Danielak’s biggest concern was a “monster of a class” called senior design – one that’s required for graduation. It involves partnering up with a fellow senior and embarking on a big project that demonstrates their skillsets, she said.

“The two weeks after they shut down the lab, everybody was like, ‘What’s going on?’” Danielak said. “I was staying in Gainesville, because I wanted to be close to my partner so we could still meet up and work on the project, because we aren’t really sure what was going on with our requirements – if any were going to be dropped and what was going on.”

The information came little by little, she said. Five days after the University shut down, she received an email from the department head.

“It said basically, ‘We’re dropping a lot of the requirements,’” Danielak said. “We were supposed to have a full prototype, but instead we just need a very small demo. In that email, he also specifically said, ‘If you are staying in Gainsville for this class alone, please go home.’”

Danielak returned to Niceville. She hopes to finish her demo and final school project in two weeks.

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That wasn’t her only concern.

After interning for two summers at Eglin Air Force Base, where her father works, Danielak was offered a job upon graduating.

“I was scared immediately about my job offer,” Danielak said. “I was scared there was going to be a hiring freeze … We were excited to have employable degrees and graduating into a good economy and then everything takes a hit.”

Danielak has since learned her employment is safe. She will still miss out, however, on the pomp and circumstance of her senior year, especially senior demo day.

“That’s when everybody in the class at the end of the course displays a poster board and their project,” Danielak said. “People can ask you about your project. They can look at it to see what you spent all semester making. At the end of that show, they hand out cash prizes for the most innovative projects. I was looking forward to that very much. In January, I told my parents, ‘Pencil down this day in April. Make sure you have work off so you can come and see this, because I’m going to be very happy.’”

She doesn’t fail to mention another important date – graduation.

“Now that it’s in end of July, early August – if it doesn’t get moved again – a lot of my friends have already said, ‘I was going to walk, but I’m not going to come back to Gainesville for a day to walk and hear my name,’” Danielak said. “I’m going to do that, but I’m not going to walk with my friends anymore and that’s very sad.”