August 10, 2020

Students are back in school. Here's what it's like, in their own words.

Daily Briefing

    As a wave of students and teachers last week returned to school for the first time amid America's coronavirus epidemic, those attending in person faced a "profoundly altered experience," the New York Times reports. Here's what it's like on the front lines, according to students and staff.

    Weekly line: The 3 biggest obstacles to reopening schools

    A short-lived 'return to normalcy' for some students

    According to the Times, the return to in-person classes is not only a far different experience than before the epidemic—but for some students, the return also was far briefer than expected.

    For instance, 16-year-old Jaleah Walker, a junior at Corinth High School in Mississippi, said students at her school were given the option to take online classes or attend in-person, and she chose to attend in-person classes to establish a "sense of normalcy." It had been months since she'd seen her friends and she felt that going to school would provide a better learning experience.

    And Walker said the return felt "pretty normal," the Times reports, despite the new safety measures in place. Masks were mandatory, temperature checks were required before entering the building, desks were spaced out to allow for physical distancing, and students had to eat lunch in their classroom instead of the cafeteria.

    Still, one week after opening, a student at the school tested positive for the coronavirus, and others who had made contact with the infected student were sent home to quarantine. By Thursday, there were six positive coronavirus cases at the school. Eventually, Walker's mother advised her to take classes online. Walker told the Times that she doesn't know when she'll return to school in person.

    Kennedy Heim, a 14-year-old freshman at Elwood Junior-Senior High School in Indiana, had an even more difficult experience. Heim's school briefly opened for in-person classes and then quickly shut down again, after a staff member tested positive for the virus. Heim's mother then got a phone call from a contact-tracer telling her Heim may have been exposed to the virus. A few days later, Heim tested positive.

    At first, Heim said she "just felt like [she] had a cold," but hours after the positive test result, she experienced a common symptom of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. "I was trying to hydrate" with Powerade, she said, "and I was like, 'Definitely can't taste that.'"

    Heim said she has no idea how she contracted the virus, and she's not sure if she infected anyone else. She said she wore her mask the two days she was at school except for when she was eating, and she would only remove her mask when no one was nearby.

    Heim's mother, Liz Wright, who is a second-grade teacher at the school, said she was initially "skeptical about kids getting" the virus. "But to be a part of this pandemic, it is a real thing. It's not fun to have to FaceTime your daughter in the other room."

    And still, other students are hoping to make the most of a difficult situation. Ian Whelahan, a 17-year-old attending Alcoa High School in Tennessee, said his school permits students on campus only one day a week, requires students to wear masks unless they're seated in class, and spaces out desks to maintain physical distancing. Ian said he's doing his best to stay safe during his senior year "so [he] can start college, hopefully when everything is back to normal."

    Some teachers, students feel trapped by lack of coronavirus policies

    Other schools have opted to reopen despite coronavirus outbreaks in their areas, making both students and teachers feel as if they must resume classes in a dangerous situation regardless of their preferences, BuzzFeed News reports.

    For instance, North Paulding High School in Georgia initially decided to reopen after reporting a coronavirus outbreak among members of its football team, in addition to other cases among students and staff. The school notified parents of the infections just hours before classes resumed. And although the school gave students the option to take virtual classes, the window to make that decision was narrow and slots quickly filled up, BuzzFeed News reports—meaning a lot of parents missed the opportunity to enroll their children in the virtual option.

    Moreover, when the school did reopen, although teachers were provided with face masks and shields, mask-wearing was considered a "personal choice," BuzzFeed News reports. The district also said physical distancing would not always be "possible to enforce."

    Within a few days, Hannah Watters, a 15-year-old student at the school, posted images of the school's crowded hallways packed with many people who weren't wearing masks—and later was suspended because of the post, Watters said. (BuzzFeed News couldn't reach the school's principal for comment, but the district's superintendent said the photos were taken out of context.)

    Another student at the school, a senior named James, told BuzzFeed News that his experience was similar. A lot of students weren't wearing masks, he said, and students worked closely in groups. But James said, "It's the hallway situation that has me most paranoid. There's a lot of people in the hallways, and you can't do nothing about it, so it's scary."

    James considered staying home from school but was informed that students who "chose not to go to school" could be suspended or expelled, BuzzFeed News reports.

    Similarly, some staff members at the school reported that they felt they had no choice but to return to class, even after some staff members tested positive for the coronavirus or showed symptoms of Covid-19.

    Teachers also said the school has refused to confirm which staff members have tested positive for the virus due to privacy concerns. "A lot of us are terrified, and they won't let us know if we have been exposed until a state contact tracer has contacted us," one North Paulding teacher said.

    The lack of clarity has resulted in at least one resignation, BuzzFeed News reports. A school nurse, who resigned from Paulding County Schools in July, cited several reasons for decision, including the schools' lack of a mask mandate, the district's plan requiring school nurses to act as contact tracers for several thousand students and staff, and what she described as a faulty isolation plan for children believed to have been exposed to the virus. "I did not want to have any part of that," she said. "It was completely and totally irresponsible."

    A family member of a teacher at Paulding High School  said they are "deeply concerned for [the teachers'] health, especially the older ones and those with major health problems."

    But some students aren't worried about the coronavirus at all, and they've said the school district is doing "the best they can," according to Mary Wells, a grandmother of multiple students in the Paulding school district.

    And one student, Steven, said the virus didn't seem like "much of a problem" in the county. "I've only known three people to get it, other than the football players, obviously," he said. "If I get it, I get it. I believe that's what most people in my area's ideology is—if we get it, we get it."

    According to The Hill, Brian Otott, superintendent for the Paulding County School District, on Sunday sent a letter to parents and guardians of students at North Paulding High School stating that classes at the school will switch from in person to online only on Monday and Tuesday of this week. Otott wrote that the school is making the switch "as a result of us being informed of nine cases of Covid-19" at the high school following its resumption of in-person classes last week. According to Otott, school officials will notify parents and guardians late Tuesday regarding if and when students will be able to resume in-person classes (Folley, The Hill, 8/9; Wren/Levin, New York Times, 8/6; Clancy/O'Donovan, Buzzfeed News, 8/5).

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