After COVID, school as we have never known it before: We're on campus, but so is Zoom.

We recently reopened our campus to students for the first time in over a year in what could be described as a universally loathed compromise among parents, public health departments, politicians, the school board, district administrators and the teachers union.

Safety dictates that our mostly unvaccinated students — many of whom live in communities still disproportionately impacted by COVID — must stay in the same classroom with the same peers and teacher all day. And since each student takes seven different classes from seven different teachers in seven different classrooms, the only way to hold class is to keep doing it virtually.

Yes, these students sit in a classroom with one teacher and Zoom with teachers in other classrooms, while other kids in the same room attend virtual classes with teachers in other rooms. And then there are those still “going to school” from home. Only 15% of our kids decided to return in person. They only attend every other day, to preserve slots in case some of the rest of the 85% want to come back.

Canceling noise but not reality

This is not school as we have ever known it before. A drama student might recite a monologue next to a PE student performing jumping jacks while a physics student tests the law of gravity with a pencil. To avoid distraction, everyone is issued so-called noise-canceling headphones. But they cannot cancel out the grim reality of what the pandemic has done to all of us.

We welcomed 14- and 15-year olds for their first day in a high school classroom and gave them tours of a campus they’d never been to before. They seemed shaken by the last year of their lives and the sad realization that such massive forces, human and viral, keep colliding like gigantic gladiators, mindlessly stepping on all of us in the process.

Some colleagues and I went in early to set up. Take down all the student work that had been hanging up since last March, curling at the edges and tearing away from the tacks. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t even remove the March 2020 school calendar with all the events that never happened.

March 2020 calendar at Middle College High School in Los Angeles on April 26, 2021.

I guess we all have our way of coping. I ate some year-old snacks I found in my desk drawer, then started my first Zoom class and tried to convince the students still at home that it was worth coming in to sit in one classroom wearing a mask and Zoom with a teacher in another and eat lunch at 10:45 in the morning six feet away from every other living human being.

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