WOOSTER Maria Pagniano quickly realized at the start of the school year – when she was attending in-person classes twice a week and learning remotely on other days – that her schedule wasn’t the best use of her time.
A junior at Wooster High, the teen’s mother spoke with her guidance counselor in September about transitioning to online learning full time through the Generals’ Academy. Pagniano later got her driver’s license and began working as a barista at Undergrounds Cafe & Coffee House.
“Being online, being able to work and still having time to hang out with friends is preparing me a lot for the future,” she said. “That’s such a huge change, going from your whole life being in school and then basically making your own schedule and doing what you can when you can.”
Although many feared the COVID year and online learning would put students behind, some area high schoolers say they’re thriving and have secured a sense of independence. The flexibility of education online has allowed them to study on their own time and gain work experience during typical school hours.
Students saving up, building resumes
Although the trend of high school students leading nontraditional schedules isn’t exactly new, requests from juniors and seniors to learn online have grown because they’re realizing the benefit of “hands-on experiences and opportunities,” in the community, said Tyler Egli, a guidance counselor at Wooster High.
“We’ve had students, more so than normal, coming in and requesting their work permits,” he said.
Some students, such as those attending the Wayne County Schools Career Center or taking college courses, were already leading unique schedules.
More high schoolers who perform well online or who can build their schedule in a way that shortens their school day are taking advantage of the freedom, Egli said. It allows them to save money and start building their resumes.
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For example, one of his students has been working alongside an electrician when he gets out of school early.
“It has completely changed the trajectory of his future goals and aspirations,” Egli said. “He was thinking of doing something in the medical field, and now he’s excited about pursuing construction management for his career. Without COVID, he may not have gotten that experience.”
Initially, educators and parents were concerned about the mental health of students during the pandemic and didn’t want them falling behind on school assignments. For many students, however, acquiring a job gave their routines more structure and “a sense of normalcy,” Egli said.
“For some of the students who struggled through COVID, they found a purpose and something they’re good at,” he said.
Some students say flexibility offers more freedom, less stress
Pagniano worried the switch to online learning would squash her motivation – “but it really didn’t,” and has been a good fit overall, she said.
She usually spends two to three hours on homework in the morning, after which she goes to work three or four days a week. The teen also attends volleyball practice in the evenings. Developing her own routine, without the monotony of moving from one class period to the next, is freeing, Pagniano said.
There are some disadvantages to stepping away from the schedule of a traditional high school student, she acknowledged. For instance, she can’t raise her hand in the classroom when she has a question and has to communicate with her teachers virtually.
Kiersten Miller, a sophomore at Waynedale High, opted for remote learning along with her two younger sisters, Josslyn and Madi, at the start of the school year.
Because of their father’s likelihood to be exposed to COVID-19 as a fireman and paramedic at the Mount Vernon Fire Department, the family decided online schooling was best and would minimize the chances of Miller’s peers having to quarantine.
“Honestly, my grades are higher online,” Miller said. “I feel like it’s because I get to learn at my own pace. I don’t have to deal with other people making comments. I can focus.”
The teen, who is friends with Pagniano, also juggles cheerleading and her job at Buehler’s Fresh Foods in Orrville, where she usually works a five or seven-hour shift. Miller doesn’t know many students in her grade that do the same because in-person learning seems to be more popular, she said.
“I like being home with my family,” she said. “I like being able to make money. And I get to hang out with Maria. We can do a sleepover one night and do homework in the morning.”
Next year, Miller plans to attend school in person. She’s working on a schedule with her guidance counselor that will give her the chance to knock out classes early and head to work after 10:30 a.m.
Aubrey Farnsworth is a junior at Wooster High and attends the exercise science and sports medicine program at the Wayne County Schools Career Center. She has mixed feelings about online learning, which she does part-time when she isn’t at the career center Wednesday and Friday, along with every other Monday.
Farnsworth works as a hostess at Olde Jaol Steakhouse and Tavern, a job she started in October. On the days she isn’t at the career center, she works lunches as well as Friday evenings.
While the flexibility to do homework when it’s most convenient for her is nice, she craves the high school experience, which the COVID-19 pandemic altered for many.
“It’s easier to manage having a job and getting my school work done, but I miss seeing my friends and also just being connected to my home school,” she said, adding she longs for pep rallies and dances. “Most importantly I miss the feeling of being normal.”
Businesses schedule students to work more frequently
The flexibility some students have to work during normal school hours has allowed businesses to schedule their young employees more.
“It has helped our business,” said Sam Carnahan, manager of the Olde Jaol Steakhouse and Tavern, who has several high school students on staff.
Tiffany Sandy, owner of Undergrounds Cafe & Coffee House, can schedule Pagniano for a few more hours a day with her learning from home.
Normally, Sandy could only bring in high school students for a few hours after school until closing time at 5 p.m.
“We have her (Maria) come in and work at 10 or 11 a.m.,” Sandy said. “She can make a little bit more money. It helps because she’s still able to do her schooling before or after.”
A pleasant surprise for Egli has been hearing from the businesses that employ his students. Managers from several places, such as Burger King and Boo Bears Brew, have called him to check in on students and make sure they’re keeping up with school assignments.
“It was cool to see that they value education and understand school should be a priority,” he said.
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