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December 17, 2020

Student Voice: How going back to school doesn’t mean going back to normal

A view shows a classroom at an elementary school amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, Sept. 9, 2020. REUTERS/Emily Elconin

 

by Joseph Suharno, high school senior, Fulton County, Georgia

At the start of November, it had been four months since I last physically appeared in school. Over that time, I picked up some not amazing habits while distance learning. These habits will sound familiar to many of my fellow students and their parents and teachers: Sleeping through my morning classes, joining my classes’ video calls just to tune out the audio, staying on mute to avoid participating in class. 

I realized that I was slacking off a bit too much with distance learning. So when Fulton County sent surveys to its students to determine who would participate in face-to-face learning, I signed up. I lasted for three days. After those three days, I gave up on face-to-face learning for the semester and resigned myself to the digital option.

I was even looking forward to simply walking inside the school building after being away so long.

Before I stepped foot back into my high school, I was excited about returning to school (at least, as excited as a student coming back from what was basically a very long extended holiday could be). I would see my friends and my teachers again. I was even looking forward to simply walking inside the school building after being away so long.

That positive outlook started to fade as I entered the building. It’s not like I expected anyone to celebrate full time F2F as a return to normalcy, but at the same time, all the COVID-19 protocols were a clear reminder – we are still in a pandemic. It was more than just masks on every teacher that acted as a reminder. The arrows hanging from the ceilings of hallways to reduce congestion felt out of place.

There is no clearer reminder that a pandemic is going on than watching your teacher lecture inside a mini-greenhouse.

Instead of walls covered with posters about Homecoming, student council campaign slogans and first day club advertisements, the walls were filled with warnings: wear a mask, wash your hands, maximum occupancy limited to three students. And then there were the “bubble” teachers. These teachers who surround themselves with shower curtains and clear plastic to form makeshift bubbles and separate themselves from their students. I understand they are doing it for health and safety reasons, but there is no clearer reminder that a pandemic is going on than watching your teacher lecture inside a mini-greenhouse.

My first period of “physical instruction” did little to improve my impression of face-to-face learning. With many students still opting to stay home, teachers had to come up with hybrid learning plans. As a result, my “face-to-face” experience took the form of a PowerPoint lesson (with the school providing painfully slow downloads and upload speeds). Teachers’ lectures were directed towards a camera or a computer – not to the students in class. In many ways, face-to-face learning felt worse than what I was doing at home, with the added concern of catching COVID-19.

Teachers’ lectures were directed towards a camera or a computer – not to the students in class.

I remember seeing an administrator holding a temperature scanner at the door, waving students into the building—without performing any temperature checks. I understand the county policy is to perform random temperature checks, but it just seems…pointless? Only a few students are getting their temperatures checked, so most fevers would go undetected. And if those few random checks are often above 100 degrees, it’s likely already too late for preventive measures.  

And then there’s lunch. Despite all the emphasis on having masks on, when lunch period comes around, it seems as if nobody cares anymore. Having a crowded cafeteria filled with maskless students eating, drinking, talking, shouting wastes the effort of all the other COVID prevention procedures.

Despite all the emphasis on having masks on, when lunch period comes around, it seems as if nobody cares anymore.

I truly enjoyed visiting my teachers. But, that was about all I enjoyed about my three day return to physical school. I’d thought of school as a place where I could concentrate and learn, a place where I could focus on my studies. However, when I returned for face-to-face learning, I was unable to see that in my school anymore.

The atmosphere in class during my face-to-face experience was worse than my experience with digital learning (and F2F has the added bonus of potential COVID exposure). So, at the end of the week, I decided to stop participating in face-to-face learning and return to digital. I couldn’t keep going back—it was depressing and uncomfortable to be at school. But I did end up improving my sleep schedule and work ethic a bit more after the experience.

Joseph Suharno is currently a senior at Johns Creek High School in Johns Creek, Georgia. He is planning on studying humanities in college. Currently, in his free time, Joseph is learning new diabolo tricks (and trying not to break anything fragile in the process).


If you would like to contribute to Student Voice, please send your idea to Victoria Pasquantonio at vpasquantonio@newshour.org. For education news highlights, sign up here.

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