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High Schoolers Talk About The Challenges, Fear & Optimism Of Being Back In-Person

Spencer Tritt
DeKalb High School

A year after COVID-19 shut down schools, DeKalb high schoolers are back in the building. And in just a few days, they’ll be back a full five days a week.

“Me and my friends had this joke until we got back -- spring break never ended,” said Abby Slater, she’s a freshman at DeKalb. As she mentioned, time moves differently during the pandemic -- especially for students who had their whole education experience thrown out the window and reassembled before it hit the ground last year.

“Having the social interaction, after sitting in your home staring at a screen and playing video games for like an entire year," she said, "it's just kind of nice to see other people."

So, is it strange to be back in school, seeing your friends masked up and at a distance? Yes, well, even if it’s not strange, it’s at least not normal.

Despite that, many students -- like Slater and her peers -- were more than ready to come back. Iliana Rigaud is a sophomore at DeKalb. She said remote learning was not working for her.

“I was done with remote,” Rigaud said.

She said one of the things people don’t often get is that some people do really well with remote, and others have found the experience really challenging.

“I think most people don't understand there are different ways of learning,” she said. “There are some people who are struggling and there are people who are thriving like this. There's no middle. I feel like there are either people who are doing really well or are doing really bad with remote.”

Brayten Wilkerson has some senioritis. He said the hardest part of this year has been staying focused while the schedule keeps changing -- from remote to hybrid, and now to full week in-person.

“It just doesn't feel 'normal' at all,” he said.

Upperclassmen like Wilkerson were the last to come back in-person, nearly a year after COVID abruptly ended his junior year. He said he’s wanted to come back since August.

“It's so easy to just fall in a dark place sitting there staring at a computer all day at home, said Wilkerson. "Like just seeing everybody that you talk to on-screen for a little while is so refreshing, just the interactions. You need to socialize.” 

But he has some friends that have a tough time paying attention in class after getting used to learning from home  -- and being worn down by the trauma of the pandemic.

“I have friends where they're still stuck in the E-learning mode, where they just don't want to do anything,” he said. “I have people, they just sleep all day in class because, it's so easy, you don't want to do all these assignments.”

Elizabeth Schramer is a freshman. They came back before the other high schoolers to help them get acclimated to the building. But she said she’s not all the way used to it yet.

She said she does – quote --“horrible” with remote learning. She’s happy to be back. But there are still challenges -- like Wednesdays, where they have to do both in-person AND remote work.

“Wednesdays are my most dreaded days because it's all of the classes," said Schramer. "It just makes me so mad because especially all the work I get.” 

She felt like she had zero connection with her teachers online but said that’s gotten better in-person.

“The first week we were back," she said, "I was like, ‘huh, this is what they look like. They're like actual people. They're not just robots!’”

She’s still having trouble with math. And while it’s easier to ask for help now, Schramer and her classmates wish they could have “flex” passes to visit teachers and get extra help.

Iliana Rigaud also said “flex” is the No. 1 support she wishes students had right now that they don’t. She said schools had online “office hours” but it’s just not the same or as promoted to students.

As they return five days a week, the school is also offering a few events they didn’t get to have last year, like graduation and prom. But the students said the COVID-safe “prom” being discussed seems a bit strange.

Rigaud said one of the options involves students staying inside small “poly spot” circles so they can dance from a distance.

“An option is doing the poly spots, but then everybody has their own music -- [you’re] listening to your own music,” she said. “It kind of defeats the purpose, basically.”

Wilkerson said he’s already hearing people talk about holding their own proms in backyards. But he added the school-sanctioned event feels like what you’d expect out of the weirdest year they could imagine.

Even if being back in-person isn’t quite as “normal” as the school administrators and parents asking for some “normalcy” might think, the students are happy to have the option of something close to it.

But will it last till May? Will they have to go back to remote if cases spike again? Wilkerson called it “the big fear” in the back of everyone’s mind.

The DeKalb High School students said, with teachers getting vaccinated, they believe they can make it. And that maybe, by next fall, they can get even closer to that elusive and tough-to-define “normalcy.”