Photo courtesy of Rian Finney and Susan Zhang.

7 high school students on going back to class during the pandemic

"For me and many of my classmates, choosing to go back to school isn’t just about us, it's about the people we love most who don’t have the privilege to make this choice."

by Anika Nayak
|
27 August 2020, 2:00pm

Photo courtesy of Rian Finney and Susan Zhang.

Back to school season is already upon us, but it may look different this year for many students across the US. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, policymakers and school officials debate nationwide regarding how best to safely reopen schools in the coming months.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics support safe in-person learning in schools. However, they acknowledge that areas with high case rates must institute virtual learning options to best foster safety.

There’s no doubt that the benefits of attending school in person are super valuable to students' overall wellbeing. Recent re-openings of high schools and colleges across the US, however, have sort of been a nightmare. The Cherokee County school district in suburban Georgia closed many schools just weeks after reopening, after students and staff tested positive for coronavirus (and over 900 had to be quarantined). The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill opened for the fall semester with a hybrid classroom model in place, but they switched to fully remote learning a week later due to an increased number of cases on campus. (As of August 24, the university reported a 31.3% positivity rate for COVID-19).

While the debate on how exactly to open schools continues, many students are preparing for virtual learning in the meantime. But even online instruction has shortcomings, further marginalising low-income families and those without access to technology, and widening learning gaps for students of the neurodivergent community. Distance learning has become increasingly difficult for students as they adjust to this “new normal” while spending their school day at home. Many are wondering, when will it be safe to actually go back to school?

i-D spoke to seven high school seniors across the country who have completed the majority of their high school education in person, but are concerned about getting back in the classroom this fall. Here’s how these students are navigating their education during the pandemic.

US high school student Rian Finney from Maryland

Rian Finney, 17, Baltimore, Maryland
What are your biggest concerns regarding going back to school in person this fall?
I am worried about how my school will mandate the policies set forth by the CDC if we reopen at this point in time. The majority of students at my school are Black and at an increased risk of catching the virus. I am also worried for a lot of students and their families who may be immunocompromised, and I believe they should stay home to learn online. My school also has small rooms and poor ventilation, which I am concerned about as it does not align well with preventing the spread of COVID-19.

What does learning look like for you at this time?
My school is starting with virtual instruction, but I don’t really know what’s happening in the next couple of months. Technology for online learning is harder to access in my school community, but my school district has been instituting access by providing each student with a tablet and wifi hotspot. While my school district hasn’t been very clear on how the entire school year is going to be handled, I hope we can return to school when it is safe to do so.

What measures would you like to see your school implement to foster a safe learning experience for you?
Ideally, I want to go back to school but knowing how big some of my classes may be, I don’t think it’s reasonable. When it comes to online schooling, if teachers could provide us with the same attention they would give in a classroom environment, then we could get the adequate instruction we need. In my school district, there are already some good measures implemented to optimise students’ learning, but there could always be more. There are various locations in my city where students can pick up complimentary school lunches, but I think there should also be resources allocated to student mental health services.

What are you most looking forward to in this new school year?
I am most looking forward to my prom and all my senior events, which are memorable milestones for 12th graders at my high school. These are the last high school events I will be experiencing before I graduate. I feel like my school may host these events in a socially distanced way, as they would not want the graduating class to miss out on important traditions.

US high school student Divya Ganesan from California

Divya Ganesan, 17, Palo Alto, California
What are your biggest concerns regarding going back to school in person this fall?
Although I think the classroom setting is an environment I learn best in, I believe that virtual learning is the best option right now for my family and school community as we experience high rates of COVID-19 infections in the Bay Area. My father, after experiencing a stroke earlier last year, is immunocompromised — thinking about his health as well as older members of my family makes me worried about the risks of school in person. For me and many of my classmates, choosing to go back to school isn’t just about us, it's about the people we love most who don’t have the privilege to make this choice.

What does learning look like for you at this time?
My school will be completely virtual in the fall in a similar system that we piloted last spring. I have been amazed at the work that faculty have done to transfer curriculum to not only adapt to the online system, but take advantage of new opportunities.

What measures would you like to see your school implement to foster a safe learning experience for you?
I would really like my school to implement opportunities to do work off-screen in the form of paper handouts, textbooks and readings. My experience with the online classes in the spring taught me that Zoom fatigue is real and truly changes the way and speed at which I can learn and work. I hope to have at least half of my homework in forms in which I don’t have to look straight at a screen. I would also appreciate, as some of my teachers have done in the past, incorporating the outdoors into some classes. Group walks or dances in the beginning of class are great ways for me to both get up from my desk and also connect with my other classmates.

What are you most looking forward to in this new school year?
If this was a normal school year, I’d be looking forward to classic high school experiences like prom (which we unfortunately missed this year). But in addition, attending an all girls school there are special traditions connecting seniors and incoming freshmen, such as running across our school’s campus to tie the uniform tie’s of incoming freshmen. I was personally super excited to be a peer advisor to a group of freshmen this year, serving as their senior “big sister”. Now our advisory and mentorship times will be moved online but we have fun ways to interact such as sending letters and treats (and supporting USPS!) and also incorporating fun online games.

US high school student Ilana Drake from New York

Ilana Drake, 17, New York, New York
What are your biggest concerns regarding going back to school in person this fall?
As a student with a learning disability, I am looking forward to having smaller class sizes when I participate in hybrid learning (in-person and remote) this fall. Ironically, last spring I discovered that I am able to focus better when information is presented remotely, as the large class sizes and crowded conditions at my school had made learning difficult for me. After seeing other states reopen their schools and colleges, I am cynical about the term “safe reopening,” as reopening will lead to some increased risk. I attend a specialised high school in New York City where most of my classmates and I rely on public transportation in order to get to school, which may increase exposure to the virus. While New York City has “flattened the curve” over the past few months, I am afraid that we will have a second wave of COVID-19 because of the reopened schools.

What does learning look like for you at this time?
While New York City Public Schools have not announced a specific date for reopening, my high school gave us two choices for learning: hybrid learning or fully remote learning. Hybrid learning requires students to come in for one day a week (two for students with special circumstances).

What measures would you like to see your school implement to foster a safe learning experience for you?
My high school has clearly stated that masks will be required and desks will be spaced six feet apart. I hope that a portion of the time we have in person with teachers will be used for doing “check-ins” with students. I also hope that students get to know one another as “real people”, as opposed to some stereotype, and that classes will feel more inclusive and less competitive. I think that mental health needs would decrease if the culture of the school changed from competitive to collaborative.

What are you most looking forward to in this new school year?
While this is the most unexpected senior year, I’m looking forward to learning on my own terms. Because my school focuses on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], I have not had much of a chance to explore other areas, such as political science or sociology. I’ve noticed that many community and political events are taking place over Zoom, which may help to raise engagement and awareness. I am hoping that many of our school events, like Olympics and prom, can take place outdoors and be socially distanced. While this year will be more challenging with navigating the college process, I am fastening my seatbelt for a wild ride.

US high school student Sara Kohler ftom Minnesota

Sara Kohler, 17, Waseca, Minnesota
What are your biggest concerns regarding going back to school in person this fall?
I am most concerned that people in the rural area where I live are not fully aware of the danger of getting infected with COVID-19. The small size and calm nature of my community can offer a false sense of safety. I am not in favour of in-person learning at this time. If all students were to return to school in person, social distancing would be nearly impossible in hallways and classrooms.

What does learning look like for you at this time?
My school is using a hybrid model, but fortunately distance learning is available as well. For hybrid learning, my school will split into two groups. While one group attends school in person for two days, the other group will have distance learning. Then the groups will switch. This year, I personally will be pursuing distance learning full-time.

What measures would you like to see your school implement to foster a safe learning experience for you?
For hybrid learning, I would like my school to enforce masks and social distancing, even during after-school activities like marching band and sports. For both distance learning and hybrid, I would like my school to implement check-ins with students both for academic and mental health purposes. Before COVID-19, we had occasional academic check-ins, but now that everyone will be learning online either part-time or full-time, this will be important more than ever.

What are you most looking forward to in this new school year?
If this were a normal school year, I would be most looking forward to leading my high school’s Programming club. However, with members split between different learning schedules, it will not be possible for everyone to meet in person. I will be working to move the Programming club online and provide resources through my social impact organisation Bits&Bytes, so that all members can have access to them.

US high school student Shanthi Hegde from Georgia

Shanthi Hegde, 17, Suwannee, Georgia
What are your biggest concerns regarding going back to school in person this fall?
My biggest concern is the rising number of cases in my state. My school system started back in the beginning of August and by the second week our county had about 29 total cases. With my school district not mandating masks and enforcing in-person classes, I am at an even higher risk of contracting COVID-19.  I also have underlying respiratory conditions, which puts me in danger. I am most concerned by those who choose not to wear masks and those who take COVID-19 lightly, putting all of us in danger. With schools filled with 1,000+ students, this makes various methods of COVID-19 transmission inevitable. Why is it we choose not to listen to epidemiologists and healthcare professionals when the national public health institute (CDC) is 40 minutes away from us in Atlanta?

What does learning look like for you at this time?
My school has implemented a hybrid learning model. Those who choose to take all classes online can do so, however not all courses are offered online. In my case, a few of my courses are not offered online, so I must come back to school to take them. It is hard for students who need to fulfil graduation requirements to avoid going to school in person.

What measures would you like to see your school implement to foster a safe learning experience for you?
My school is generally doing a good job of maintaining social distancing. However, the hallway trafficking system lasted a few days, and isn’t being heavily mandated anymore. In the morning, students must wait in the cafeteria, which can increase the number of students in one location, making social distancing inexorable. There are still many people who come to school, and our parking lots are usually full. Some classes are filled with 32 people, which can make close contact inevitable. Temperature checks would make both students and teachers feel safer interacting with each other in the classroom setting. The mandate of masks in my county would make us feel safer at school, as well as feel safer when we come home to our parents.

What are you most looking forward to in this new school year?
Clubs at my school are going to look a bit different this year and instead of meeting in person, we will be conducting online meetings. I am most thrilled about starting the new year with my Science Olympiad team and preparing for the state competition in the spring.

US high school student Angela Zhang from California

Angela Zhang, 16, Los Angeles, California
What are your biggest concerns regarding going back to school in person this fall?
While I do understand why some teens are adamant on returning to school, it is important to consider health as our first priority. Los Angeles, my hometown, has been a hub for activism, yet much of that also includes abiding by what “staying safe” truly means — including acting upon [safely] opening schools. As a questioning, Chinese-American young woman, I am also worried about the other virus, a virus in even my community — racism. Discrimination towards minorities within a pandemic, whether through blatant strikes or dismissed microaggressions still pervades, particularly in the private school sphere. I’m not a virus; yet in hushed, deafening whispers within hallways, I still feel as if I’m going to be.

What does learning look like for you at this time?
To my knowledge, my school is resuming the virtual plans we ended our previous year on, utilising platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom; however, in the instance we are able to transition to in-person learning, we’ll have the option to switch. As an incoming high school senior, and part of my school’s first graduating class, I’m aware this next year will start off as a different “conclusion” to my HS career, yet it is an experience I’m looking to learn from.

What measures would you like to see your school implement to foster a safe learning experience for you?
Over these past few months, I’ve truly come to recognise the privileges both a majority of my school community and I hold; yet, I do understand that’s not where recognition ends. In light of truly recognising families in need, our school — and many others who have the means to do so — needs to allocate attainable health and economic resources to students, or potentially other schools in our network. A safe experience is meant to be for everyone, and that extends far beyond checking-in once in a while. I implore our administration to listen to the youth, and truly understand why increasing ethnic inclusivity in our history courses is pivotal towards creating the safe space we hope for.

What are you most looking forward to in this new school year?
Though we haven’t yet set traditions like prom or football, I’m excited to begin similar legacies. There is a lot I can be thrilled about — coming in as head for our Student Council Committee, continuing my work with Girl Up and expanding my nonprofit ArtVocacy — but most of all, it’s rekindling the community we had a summer ago, building real empathy with real people, especially after undergoing obstacles of our own. It is a single experience, yet it is one that won’t be cancelled — and that’s what matters.

US high school student Varun Ramanathan from Florida

Vaarun Ramanathan, 17, Tampa, Florida
What are your biggest concerns regarding going back to school in person this fall?
I am highly against going back to school in person because COVID-19 is still very prevalent. My school closed at the start of the outbreak and now, when the virus has spread widely within Florida, it is illogical to go back in person. I would much prefer a virtual learning experience where I can learn from the safety of my home without having to decide which I value more — my education or my health. My high school is relatively large with 2,700 students, so reopening for all would not be practical since there is a high chance of transmission. Regulations for a socially-distant campus are hard to enforce since it is natural for teens to cluster together in the halls between classes.

What does learning look like for you at this time?
My high school has offered us the option to choose virtual learning or attend school in person. I plan on pursuing virtual learning even though the experience will be much different than online instruction in the spring. Initially, our resources and assignments were located solely on one platform that was manageable, but now we have a multitude of new softwares to learn and get used to. Since my school is accommodating both in-person and virtual learning, the teachers' attention is split between two groups of students..

What measures would you like to see your school implement to foster a safe learning experience for you?
I don't want the quality of education to be compromised when it is transferred into a virtual format, but I would still like to see a balance where teachers are lenient about students adapting to this new experience. I would like to see if teachers would still be willing to offer additional tutoring outside of school hours to ensure students are on pace with their classes, because in a virtual setting it is easy to lose consistency. I would like to see school administration continuing the academic counselling sessions they hosted during traditional school, to ensure the senior class is prepared for college and beyond.

What are you most looking forward to in this new school year?
I always look forward to leading a Stock Investment club I founded at my high school. I hope to continue running meetings in a virtual setting if my school is willing to accommodate online club meetings and if my teachers are willing to remain sponsors. I think the extracurricular aspect of school is very important and I look forward to my school transitioning all extracurricular activities virtually instead of cancelling them altogether.

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