Back in March 2020, when American children were sent home to learn virtually, Jovan Davis Jr. was a fifth-grader who was just shy of 5 feet tall and learning how to write full paragraphs.

Now, he is a seventh-grader, in the thick of middle school, 5-foot-4 and writing full essays.

He just turned 12 and can walk to school at Friendship Public Charter School in Southeast Washington alone for the first time. He has a locker, and although this rite of passage came a year later than planned, he has mastered the three twists it takes to open the lock. He was so excited for the first day of in-person school last month that he got out of bed at 6 a.m. and made a special breakfast of sausage links and French toast.

Across the country, millions of children spent 18 months at home, learning remotely outside of school buildings. That was more than a year of routines, hours sitting in a desk, paying attention alongside classmates and conversations in the hallway — missed.

But time pressed on.

Preschoolers in the spring of 2020 are now in the first grade. Pre-pandemic fourth-graders are now in middle school. And 2020’s tweens in the seventh grade are weeks into their freshman year of high school.

A month into middle school, Jovan, a diligent student who completed all his assignments in virtual learning, says he has adjusted. He plays less Roblox, a video game, at night and goes to bed earlier so he can wake up at dawn and make it to school on time. He didn’t see any of his school friends in person during the pandemic, but since they chatted online all the time, it felt like little time had passed when they reunited face-to-face. And all these weeks into seventh grade, he said he doesn’t even feel the mask on his face anymore.

“People say I’m getting older and getting taller, but I don’t really notice it,” Jovan said. “I’m reconnecting with my friends at school. They changed in their heights, but not really in any other ways.”

Last spring, education leaders said they knew it would take time for students to readjust to sitting in a classroom all day. Teachers of the youngest learners say their students had been out of school for so long that they didn’t remember how to line up at the door. One second-grade teacher said that after more than a year at home, she notices her children crave alone time more. When she gives them quiet time to read or write, they now want to go beyond the allotted time.

The academic gaps between students have also grown wider and more varied.

And there are the small differences, too, teachers said. The younger children want snacks more often because they grew so accustomed to eating whenever they wanted during virtual school. They could go to the bathroom as often as they wished, so now they are asking to go more in class. And after more than a year on their computers, they write slower by hand and can’t do it for very long.

Amy Hammond said her 5-year-old, who has special education needs, returns home from school each day exhausted. During virtual learning, Hammond would take her daughter outside for a break whenever she became fidgety. But that’s not possible in a classroom full of preschoolers.

“She got a lot of breaks at home,” said Hammond, whose two young daughters attend Bancroft Elementary in Northwest Washington. “But they are so happy to have that physical space that the challenges don’t matter that much.”

While most D.C. children are back in classrooms full time, this is still the third academic year for these children that has been upended by the pandemic. There are mask mandates and weekly testing — and the possibility of quarantining if they are exposed to the virus.

Parents said they are anxious but decided the benefits their children receive from being in school outweigh the risks. Some parents are pushing D.C. Public Schools to expand eligibility for virtual learning. And a relatively small number of D.C. parents have felt the risks of contracting the virus and bringing it home are too great, and kept their children home.

Amari Tucker, a fifth-grader at D.C. Prep’s Anacostia Middle Campus, was nervous about returning to the school building.

With the exception of his one best friend, he hadn’t seen other school friends in person since the third grade. So his parents apprehensively sent him back.

And on the first day of school, when his teacher asked his class what they did this summer, Amari was the first to raise his hand. He was so excited that he stood up, leaning his small body over his desk.

“My name is Amari, and what I did over the summer was go to the beach two times,” he told the class.

A month later, Amari told his mom that he wants to stay in after care — even on days when her work schedule allows her to pick him up at dismissal time.

“I was ready to come back and see my friends,” Amari said.

For many parents, there has been relief — tinged with anxiety — about sending their children back to school. Jovan’s father, Jovan Davis Sr., who works with the city as a violence interrupter, said he is comforted to know that his son is safe, learning and supervised in school all day. Both Davis and Jovan’s mother work and couldn’t always be with him during virtual learning.

But there have also been challenges.

Amari has spent around half this academic year in quarantine because students in his class contracted the coronavirus. He never tested positive, but his mother — a manager at a CVS — had to find babysitters for Amari and his baby sister, and on some days rearrange her work schedule so she could be with them until their dad returned home from work.

Hammond had to stop working as a personal chef when the pandemic hit so she could supervise her two preschool-aged children during virtual learning. Her children struggled, she said, and her eldest didn’t receive all the special education services she required virtually.

She believes they needed to return to classrooms, but that doesn’t mean she can go back to work just yet. The risk of exposure and quarantining is too great, she said. Her job requires her clients to purchase specific groceries, and then she goes and cooks for them. She can’t cancel on anyone last minute.

“Because school is so inconsistent, I can’t be consistent, and consistency is key to my business,” Hammond said. “So my business is in limbo.” 

Teachers, too, said they felt a similar mix of excitement and trepidation about returning.

Jovan’s English teacher, Mychuwan Logan — a 19-year teaching veteran — realized that her students likely didn’t touch many physical books during the pandemic. So she created a book corner in her classroom, filled with dozens of books that students could borrow, many of which she purchased with her own money.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” Logan said. “But this year, I really wanted them to have that experience of physically checking books out. The smell of the books, I love it in my classroom.”

Each week, Jovan gets tested for the virus at school. And each week, he and his parents have been relieved the test is negative. He said there were some aspects of virtual learning he liked: Jovan doesn’t like to be interrupted when he reads or writes, and quiet came easier at home than in a classroom.

But he has reveled in the experiments he’s participated in during science class and knows that’s something he couldn’t do at home.

“Today we went outside and we were trying to get across the gravel, but it was supposed to be lava,” Jovan explained. “We had to cross the gravel without touching it. We had to use teamwork. And we already did the marshmallow challenge.”