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.
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.
I cannot help wondering how an institution organized so stupidly can produce so much brilliance, including some that helped conceive these amazing vaccines that have given so many of us back our freedoms and our families.
The view from India:My American classmates graduated in cap and gown. In India, I graduated during a COVID crisis.
On Day One, I stroll around the dystopian-looking lunch area and chat with masked students spaced apart from each other and looking like prisoners just out of solitary confinement, squinting at the sunlight. I’m actually thrilled to be able to have these casual conversations from a distance through masks.
I am inspired to see them in classrooms, focused. At desks, with mostly reliable internet and nearby adults who can help with technological challenges. Academic help if they need it. In-person teacher-student interaction — an hour a day in the classroom that is supposed to help with social and emotional wellness.
There’s even running into students in hallways, just like in Before Times. I have one of those chats with a student who has spent most of her life in foster care. She doesn’t want to be back at school but her foster mother thinks she hasn’t been active enough. When I ask if she’s left the house this past year, she tells me that she has hardly gotten out of bed.
She also tells me that this year is the first time she’d ever gotten straight A’s.
A workout for problem-solving skills
I remember when “problem solving skills” became an essential teaching goal; this past year we’ve provided more than ample opportunities.
Kids have had to reimagine school as a corner of a room and their own intellectual identity as an abstraction in a virtual space; figure out how to learn in a crowded apartment with all the chatter and yelling and tantrums of family life; understand classes through internet lag and failure; and manage stress and anxiety amid the hyper-stress and anxiety of adults.
Show them it’s safe:Parents of Black and Hispanic kids more hesitant on in-person school
They have had to conceive a future in a world more uncertain than ever.
I want them to understand their prodigious accomplishments and I’m glad that I can tell at least a few of them in person.
I wish more of them were here with us though I understand their reluctance. And perhaps I sometimes give them a bit too much appreciation of the MUTE button.
That occurs to me as I’m telling the young woman, now a straight-A student, who doesn’t want to be here, that I’m glad she got out of bed and got dressed and showed up. She may well have conquered school from bed and I have a quote for her from Willy in “Death of a Salesman”: “The world is an oyster, but you don’t crack it open on a mattress!”
Now I’m on a roll, telling students how the dystopian lunch set-up ties into Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” — and I think they may actually have forgotten just how annoying an English teacher can be.
Then I tell them something that seems to mildly cheer them up. I say that they will one day describe this absurdness to their children and grandchildren who won’t believe it.
I really hope I’m right about that.
Larry Strauss is a high school English teacher and retired basketball coach in South Los Angeles. A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, he is the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher” and, on audio, “Now’s the Time” (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss