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  • Zoe Fisher

How Has Walls Changed Since COVID? Teachers and Seniors Weigh In.

Students are still required to use at-home antigen test kits before returning to school after long breaks. / Credits: Nick Nikolov

Most Walls students’ lives have changed a lot in the past three years. Some students were sixth graders, others were freshmen when everyone was sent home for what was supposed to be two weeks. But how has Walls changed as a school?

Across the board, teachers said Walls students have always been independent and motivated not always by school, but instead by interests unique to them. No matter the year, teenagers are teenagers and are at school to learn and have fun. However, the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on this socialization.

“The one thing that a lot of teachers have noticed is very few kids pick up books anymore if they’re done with a test or an assignment,” social studies teacher Rachel Blessing said. “Five years ago people would pull out their books and read, and now they pull out their phones and scroll.” She explained how last year students would sit in silence and not talk to each other the way high schoolers would before the pandemic. Having spent a year and a half online, there was a learning curve to get back into normal socialization again.

PE teacher Cory Matthews explained that students have already begun to come back from their COVID-induced backslide in social skills. He said, “I think the students have done a great job showing resiliency. They’re kids having fun. I think we’re on the way back to almost pre-COVID social and emotional [health], folks are just happy to be back.”

The pandemic impacted students’ academic motivation as well. Chemistry teacher Cristal Piper shared, “One of the downsides of COVID is that everybody thinks they're brilliant now … and that everybody gets A’s or should get A’s. That's not really the case.” According to Ms. Piper, with DCPS’s new grading policy, in an attempt to level the playing field, DCPS has given students a skewed impression of how hard they need to work in order to achieve their goals. (The Rookery reported on grade inflation due to pandemic-era DCPS policies last month.)

Ellie Sanders (‘23) said, “COVID year taught me how much work I actually have to do in order to get a good grade … coming back from COVID, things have been easier.” Sanders may not think that she is “brilliant” now, but she has learned what it takes to be a good student and how not to overdo it.

The pandemic offered a rare opportunity for students to develop interests they would otherwise not have had the time to hone. Ms. Piper said, “People started gardening, people started knitting, all these other hobbies that you might not have participated in, all kinds of cool stuff, and that makes everybody a lot more interesting and cool.”

The hunger for new interests and experiences has spilled over into in-person school as well. Ms. Blessing said, with school dances, “People are like ‘Oh we didn’t have this [during COVID]. I want this experience.’ So I think it’s really positive that people have bought into many of the more typical high school things that they might not have before COVID.”

Mr. Matthews had a similar impression. He said, “Now more so than ever, students are willing to try new things, to be a part of new things that they have not been a part of before.” Whether it be trying out Model UN or a new sport, COVID has created excitement for students to do something that they could not do during the pandemic.

Before COVID, one of the defining aspects of Walls was that its students frequently left the school building for their education. Mr. Matthews said, “School Without Walls meant that the world was our classroom, the city was our classroom, we had anonymity to do things we wanted. And it was wide open.” But because of the pandemic, GW and other outside entities wanted to keep groups that could spread the virus away, so the Walls students had to stay put. It’s only now in the spring of their senior year that the Walls class of 2023 is finally getting back to the openness that they knew in their freshman year, he said. An example of this is PE classes returning to the GW gym.

Mr. Matthews added, “This year we got to have multiple dances and a welcoming field day; previously we only had a field day at the end of the year. I actually think since COVID we’ve been able to do more social and emotional things than we were in the past.”

A major tradition that has yet to fully return is the Thanksgiving feast. Around Thanksgiving, the school would gather to eat and talk to returning alumni about their experience at Walls and since graduation. Both Ms. Blessing and Mr. Matthews miss this tradition most as it’s fun, unique, and makes the Walls community stronger.

Amaia Noursi (‘23) said the Thanksgiving feast used to be “amazing. I came back and was like, ‘Guys I had the best day today.’” It was a great way for her to be introduced to the Walls community and high school as a whole by bonding with new friends as they ate and seeing all the upperclassmen’s talents during the assembly.

“It’s a little sad and disappointing to see what the Thanksgiving feasts have come to be,” she said.

Every student, teacher, faculty member, and administrator at Walls has been challenged at one point or another in the past couple of years. But this community is resilient and has come back stronger. As Ms. Blessing said, “People are just excited to be in high school again.” So let’s make the most of our time at Walls!


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