Last fall, when students in my Virginia district were asked to decide whether they would return to the classroom when schools eventually reopened, the decision was an easy one for me. Those with last names beginning with A through L would attend on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; M through Z on Thursdays and Fridays. Eager to return to “normal,” I chose to go back to in-person learning when the time came. I wanted to spend at least part of my senior year with some friendly, familiar faces.
Jump forward to Thursday last week — my first day back, physically inside the school, after 354 days at home.
Fairfax County Public Schools had handled online learning well, so I wasn’t surprised to find that administrators had also clearly worked hard to make the return to in-person learning safe from covid-19. But I was stunned to discover how few of my classmates were coming back.
I assumed that about 50 percent of students would opt in. The numbers didn’t go that way. On the first day back, my largest class had four students in-person; in the smallest, there were just two of us. On Friday, my largest class had 10 in-person students, but in another class, it was only me and the teacher.
My parents advised me to use the small class sizes to my advantage and to get the most out of being able to spend time with my teachers.
But the teachers aren’t dealing just with the handful of students in the classroom — they’re also teaching about 20 students online, and have to stay in front of the laptop camera. The students in the classroom ended up looking like extras in a low-budget movie. I felt like an afterthought, watching someone teach instead of being taught.
And that’s if the teacher was among those who chose to return and teach in person. If students are at the school but their teacher is not, they are sent to the auditorium, where they join their classes on school-issued laptops. Quiet is enforced by multiple teachers and administrators.
On the first day, I counted 19 students inside the auditorium during one period, mostly from classes other than mine — 19 students sitting for an hour, in masks, staring at screens and listening to a class using school-issued ear buds that don’t stay in your ears. In three of my nine classes — one-third of my course load — my teacher was not in the school.
The only time it was permissible for students to take off their masks was during lunch. That freedom didn’t amount to much. In the cafeteria, two of every eight seats at a table bore large, white-dot stickers, indicating where you should sit. On the table above those two seats were pieces of paper with a QR code and a number. Once students took a picture of the QR code, that became their lunch spot for the rest of the year. The QR codes are for taking lunch attendance and, I’m guessing, contact tracing if someone tests positive for covid.
At lunch on Thursday, I turned to speak with a friend sitting at an adjacent table, but a teacher blocked our line of sight and told us to sit facing forward so we wouldn’t risk spreading the virus through the air. It was an understandable precaution during a pandemic, even if my friend and I were sitting about 15 feet apart, but it only added to the simmering misery of that first day back.
On a normal school day, lunchtime in the cafeteria is full of laughter and energy. Now, in covid times, it seems sterile and sad. The school itself feels like a museum.
I don’t blame the school district for how disappointing the reopening turned out to be. The administrators have done the best they can under difficult circumstances. If so many students and teachers choose not to return for in-person classes, there’s nothing they can do about it.
Maybe things will be better next fall. I won’t be there; I graduate in June. Until then, I’m scheduled to attend classes in-person twice a week. I do have the option to switch back to online-only classes. Staying home, with limitless snacks, no mask required and teachers at least looking at me through a camera, seems like my best option. I just wish it weren’t.