A student’s perspective on returning to school

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I’m happy that I chose to return to school, but I don’t always feel safe.

After more than a year of virtual school, you would think the night before I finally returned to the WJ building for my senior year would be full of celebration. Yet the reality was full of anxiety. The anxiety didn’t stem from COVID-19 or staying safe around others; instead, it was about change. The past year has been full of adjustments: staying at home, cutting back on seeing friends and family and going to school from my house, to name a few. But the thing is, I got used to those adjustments. Staying at home has become normal, it is comfortable. The idea of returning to school and living a “normal” life once again felt extremely nerve-racking; I didn’t know what to expect. Yet, life keeps moving forward, and the time came to set my alarm to the dreaded 6:00 a.m. that had once been part of my regular routine.

On the morning of April 8, I stood at the bus stop for the first time in over a year. Since there are no other seniors at my stop, standing alone wasn’t a surprise. But I didn’t expect to be the only person on my entire bus. At around 7:30 a.m., my bus pulled up to the WJ parking lot and I walked back into Walter Johnson. All students coming through the mosaic entrance were told to fill out a Google Form for contact tracing purposes. We then made our way to the cafeteria. There were around 10 other students in the room, sitting at desks neatly placed six feet apart. We waited there for about an hour and a half before we were able to go to classes.

As I walked to my first in-person class since March 13, 2020, there was a weird feeling; the feeling of familiarity. I expected to feel strange as I entered the halls of the high school, but felt normal instead; it was like someone put life on pause for a year and then suddenly decided to press play. Being able to see my teachers in person felt great. We all had the instinct to introduce ourselves, even though we had known each other for the past eight months. Online school made the world feel distant, it made me feel alone. The first day back at school was the day that the world and I reunited, and wow, was that a relief.

Even though the day was filled with joy and familiarity, it was also filled with annoyance and doubt. As much as we all want it to end, the pandemic is still a part of our lives. In order to reduce transmission of COVID-19, WJ has established certain guidelines that all staff and students must follow; yet for me, it wasn’t enough. In one of my classes, a student took off his mask. To my surprise, nobody said a word. I sat uncomfortably as the class went on, trying to avoid the student.

In the student orientation video, staff mentioned that students would be able to eat lunch in one of five places: the cafeteria, a teacher’s room, the auxiliary gym, the student commons or outside. However, Mrs. Baker announced that students weren’t allowed to go outside for the first week of the return. After hearing that we were confined to the building for lunch, I ventured into the cafeteria and sat at a desk next to an open door, the only spot where I felt somewhat safe. Yet, a couple of minutes after I sat down, an administrator came over and said they were closing the door so that students wouldn’t be able to leave. The announcement was so absurd I wondered if the administrator was being serious. An open door does not stand as an invitation to leave the campus, all it does is create more airflow — which is exactly what should be happening in a room saturated with staff overseeing more than 50 students. I left right away with one of my friends. We landed in a classroom and ate there. I didn’t enjoy taking my mask off inside, but there wasn’t another option.

I loved being at school that day, it was great to return to a somewhat normal version of life. But many people were not as safe as they should have been. I understand that this was the first day of in-person school and everyone is trying to take a day to adjust, but you can’t do this when you are in a pandemic. I do not regret my choice to be at school. It has benefited me in ways I didn’t know it would; I have been happier in the weeks that I’ve been at school than those when I’ve been at home. But the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, and we have to remember that as we finish out the school year. Those who are not wearing their masks correctly should not be ignored by administrators and teachers; students should be allowed to take advantage of the enclosed courtyards in our school to ensure our safety when eating; CDC guidelines about eating inside in large groups should be taken more seriously. The return to in-person learning has been a game changer for many students, and to ensure that this can continue, the school needs to be doing everything that it can to keep staff and students safe; and right now, I don’t think they are.

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