After almost 18 months of online learning, all School Without Walls students went back to full-time in-person school on Aug. 31. Out of the entire student population, only the current seniors have been in the school building for a full year prior to the pandemic. One month later, what are students’ reactions to in-person school? To find out, I spoke to one student from each grade and a student in the GW early college program. There was near unanimity in their responses.
Online school allowed formal interaction with faculty in the virtual classroom setting, but did not offer any informal, spontaneous or private conversation. This departure from normal left many students and teachers dissatisfied by the end of the 2020–21 school year. Every returning student interviewed said that what they have enjoyed most on re-entry is getting to spend more time talking and working with friends and classmates. They particularly like the energy and greater variety of activities that come with convening in person for class.
Freshman Beckett Neustad emphasized how much easier it is for him to ask teachers and classmates questions. “When we were on Zoom it was very hard to ask questions without interrupting the entire class,” he said.
Similarly, sophomore Ayele Gousseva says she was put off by the awkwardness of talking to teachers and classmates over Microsoft Teams. Gousseva contrasted this with the interactions she is able to have during in person school. “Now, teachers seem more open to joking around in class and going a bit off-script at times,” she said. “You get to see all your classmate’s personalities and who they really are.”
“I’ve enjoyed seeing my peers and being able to play in the orchestra the most [after a school year online]", said Alex Liesegang, a junior.
Welcome as the changes have been, however, students said in-person school has also brought back a few challenges — most notoriously the need to wake up early. Online school allowed most students to get more sleep; some got up as late as 9:30, skipped the commute and simply turned on their computers to get to class. In person, students must wake up early enough to be in their first classes by 9:00, and even earlier than that for club meetings.
Finding time for homework is now more of a struggle for many Walls students. In a way, the extra time to complete homework during online school was a gift. Teachers now typically use the entire class period to teach — which is not necessarily a bad thing, as some students described enjoying the additional social interactions and activities that take place during in-person class. The drawback is that class time now cannot be used for anything else or for multitasking. With the resumption of commuting, clubs, sports, and other activities, students once again have little time to devote to anything at the end of their scheduled school time.
Several aspects of school have surprised students from all four grades. Making the transition to in-person school is definitely not a matter of simply resuming from where everyone left off: School in the time of coronavirus is not school as it was two years ago. No one, freshmen and sophomores in particular, knew what to expect.
Many students said they were surprised that COVID-19 affects school life as much as it does life outside school. Neustad said he had thought the pandemic’s only significant effect on students’ lives was to close schools, but he now realizes otherwise. “Instead, because of a lot of the things like masking and social distancing, it has felt like the pandemic’s influence on my life hasn’t changed that much,” he said.
Junior Amaia Noursi was surprised by the sheer amount of hand sanitizer and wipes that the school uses every day, particularly to counter an airborne threat, not something that predominantly spreads by touch. However, she was impressed by “the way we went back to normal so quickly, the amount of time we’ve stayed in person and the efficiency,” she said. “Only two people have gotten COVID-19.”
“What has surprised me most is the lack of testing [or a] mandate for vaccination,” Liesegang said. Liesegang is part of the George Washington University early college program, which allows Walls juniors and seniors to enroll in college classes. A few weeks into school, however, GW changed its guidelines to require testing every 15 days for all vaccinated people. DCPS still only has randomized testing once a week and requires vaccinations only for faculty and for students twelve and older who participate in a winter sport.
Other students emphasized other aspects of school that have been affected by COVID-19. Senior Ben White said he noticed how much many of his peers had changed over quarantine, to the extent that he almost didn’t recognize some of them. “What is also surprising is seeing all of the sophomores and freshmen for the first time,” White said, “especially from the perspective of a senior.”
Starting in-person school as a sophomore, Gousseva could only derive her expectations of DCPS this year from her online experiences. She had definitely disliked those experiences, too. She says she had grown to dread facing school every morning (regardless of that extra sleep). Gousseva was therefore pleasantly surprised when she found herself actually enjoying school this year and glad to get there each day. “I can always find something to look forward to during the day,” she said. “Seeing certain people, frisbee practice, lunch outside in great weather, or clubs. There’s just so much more now that online school couldn’t really offer.”
As the year goes on, most students will naturally adjust to their new sleep schedules and increased homework load, or at least come to accept the new routine as normal. With luck, school will remain in person this year, and students will at last have the high school experience they were denied last year.