The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mid-pandemic return to school is totally weird for kids. And possibly lonely, too.

Third-grade teacher Angela Isom gives a lesson at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Southeast Washington.
Third-grade teacher Angela Isom gives a lesson at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Southeast Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

My son sat alone in the classroom this week, surrounded by empty desks in a silent formation. Even the teacher’s desk up front was forlorn.

“this is stupid,” he texted me. “i’m here all dressed up. everyone else is at home. in sweats.”

A camera on a tripod focused on him as the rest of the class and the teacher logged in from their homes. A bored proctor sat in the corner, scrolling through her phone.

Welcome back to school — hurrah?

The mid-pandemic return to the classroom is totally weird, and there are no easy answers.

As the coronavirus continues to infect millions and kill hundreds of thousands in the United States, returning kids to their scholastic normalcy is proving to be a halting, difficult process.

There are teachers in Chicago who are holding class outside as parents bring them hot coffee and build fire pits, and teachers in Southeast D.C. wearing masks, visors and clothes they sanitize after a full day inside buildings they fear aren’t properly ventilated.

There are kindergartners who have never met a teacher in real life and, on the other end of the scale, high-schoolers who’ve been back in classrooms for weeks.

Even when schools opt for hybrid learning the way my son’s school did, a largely unvaccinated nation — only about 10 percent of our population has received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — is confused and conflicted about whether kids should show up.

In D.C., as schools open in phases this month, the return-to-school rate is different based on Zip code. The wealthier wards had kids returning to class at twice the rate as the poorest ward in the city, according to city data.

Maybe it’s because the wealthier wards have higher vaccination rates than the lower-income wards, whose residents are primarily people of color.

The racial disparities in the way schools are reopening reminds us of lingering inequities

And because coronavirus infection and death rates have hit American Black and Brown communities and lower-income neighborhoods harder, it would make sense that those families aren’t comfortable sending their kids back to school yet.

“The reality is that as African Americans — and I can speak clearly to this — our health outcomes have not been the same as our peers, and a lot of that is related to systemic racism,” Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee, who is Black, told The Washington Post’s Perry Stein. “Every child is different, and every circumstance is different.”

But it doesn’t have to be about income, race or Zip code to divide a school on the return.

Even though my son’s private Jesuit school in D.C. spent a fortune on tech and logistics creating a hybrid schedule rotating three cohorts into the classroom, my son kept finding himself alone or among just a few to go to class in person.

There are a bunch of reasons for this. Some of the students have parents or siblings with health issues who can’t risk exposure to the virus. Some families have grown used to a pandemic schedule — Mom and Dad aren’t going into the office — so they decide that everyone should just stay home. And some kids prefer learning from home, sleeping in and wearing sweatpants to virtual class.

It’s the same story I heard from a friend in New Jersey. Her kid — like mine — was suffering under the isolation and flatness of distance learning and couldn’t wait to go back in.

But when their public school district opened up for hybrid learning, most of her daughter’s peers decided to stay online and at home. On top of that, schools opened and then closed again at whiplash speed. Closed because of a positive case. Now open. Wait, closed.

The 17-year-old “asked to go all remote,” my friend said. “She was tired of the back-and-forth.”

But even when the response is tepid, schools have to provide the option. In too many cases, there are still kids who continue to be shut out of online learning because they don’t have reliable WiFi. Or they have other circumstances that make remote learning tough. In D.C., 60 percent of elementary kids who are returning to the classroom are learning English as a second language, receiving special education services, are homeless or are otherwise at risk.

When ‘back to school’ means a hunt for WiFi

Or there are the younger kids who thrive the most when they’re in social settings.

“It was great. It was amazing,” said Wesley Hanks, 13, who finally got to meet his new teacher in person for the first time last week, when Eliot-Hine Middle School in Northeast D.C. opened up.

“I got to see Miss Maxwell,” he said, talking about a beloved teacher whom he hasn’t seen since March (except for once, “around Christmas when she was picking out Christmas trees”).

“I also got to see my classmates,” he said, whom he also hadn’t seen for almost a year. He said he hopes D.C. opens up all the classrooms to all the kids.

But, alas, that’s not easy to do.

Schools, we keep forgetting in so many other cases, are part of a community. And until that community is fully vaccinated and everyone feels safe, neither can thrive.

Some kids will return, some will stay at home, some will bounce back and forth for the rest of the year, the way my son plans to. That’s okay.

The most important thing we can do for the kids, besides push for every possible way to speed up the nationwide vaccination effort, is to keep in mind that whatever they end up doing in these crazy times, they are not losing a year of learning. They’re gaining a year of firsthand experience in resilience, flexibility and grit that’s rarely part of a lesson plan.

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

The scramble for vaccines is like Prague on the Potomac

As the Capitol riot unfolded, one man felt uniquely betrayed

These two Washingtonians gave America the story we all needed

What truly ails us isn’t a virus. It’s inequity.

Her car was stolen with her cat inside. Would she ever see the 19-pound calico again?

Through crinkly plastic, a hugging wall helps fight the loneliness of covid-19