What It's Like to Go to a Re-Opened High School in a Pandemic

Student Life

Making the decision to come back to school in person for my senior year amidst a pandemic, was somehow both the easiest and hardest decision I’ve had to make in a while. I knew I couldn’t do online learning again, I needed a structured routine to stay focused and on task, but the stories of how teachers, students, and parents would all be in danger guilted me for weeks. It was definitely a moral dilemma. Me versus everyone else, would the risk even be worth it? It was my senior year and this is what I wanted, but at what cost?

The great state of Florida where I reside made the decision to push for students to return to in-person learning, with individual counties being able to make their choices accordingly. My county gave us three options: enroll in Florida Virtual School, do regular school at home, or return to campus. I chose to return to campus.

My last first day felt like a fever dream. My school was full of one-way hallways and staircases, "stay six feet apart" signs, and kids with their faces covered- it felt unreal. I sat through my classes that were only half full trying to carry conversations with classmates sitting three desks away that just last year sat next to me.

Now, over a month in, it feels normal. I park my car in the student lot, put on my mask, grab my backpack, and walk to class through one-way halls. I drink my iced coffee in outdoor hallways and text my friends who are at home when our teacher’s mic cuts out. I doodle on my notes and watch Netflix in study hall instead of doing my work. I sanitize my desk before sitting down and talk to my teachers through plexiglass.

It was certainly a learning curve, the first two weeks and even still now it was a lot of assigned seats, screens not sharing, assignment deadlines being moved, and “we’re all new to this”. I do think that my school has handled it all pretty well, and honestly, I’m somewhat surprised by that.

Masks

We started off the year being gifted a lovely five-pack of plain white fabric masks by our homeroom teacher, one for each day of the week. Too big for my small face, too plain compared to the assortment of patterned and colorful masks I already had, and quite frankly, ill-fitting even when I twisted the earpieces. Of course, it was expected that we would already be wearing masks once we arrived at campus, and I was sporting a blue tie-dye piece of my own creation.

Administrators were stationed around the hallways reminding students to keep masks above their noses, not eat while walking, and keep to the one-way rules. All of my teachers politely reinforced the same ideas through friendly reminders and kept the doors unlocked so trips to the hall for sips of water wouldn’t be a hassle. In all my classes an overwhelming majority of my peers have been excellent at following mask rules (the exception being the juniors in my study hall, but there’s a reason nobody likes them).

My school has no set policy on what kinds of face coverings were acceptable, even with the controversy surrounding neck gaiters. By the second week of school, the front office began selling masks and gaiters in school colors with our mascot. Over the past month, I’ve grown very accustomed to wearing a mask for six hours a day, and personally, it doesn’t bother me even in the Florida heat aside from getting a little humid. Most times I don’t even give it a second thought, this is just how it is now.

Social Distancing

It was mentioned by a member of our school board that high schools, in particular, are structurally built to encourage socialization. Now, however, this is exactly what we were trying to avoid. The one-way hallways, staircases, and posted signage about maintaining a six-foot distance was half of the school’s solution.

The other half came on a district-wide scale, for all the high schools in our county- lunch. Every high schooler’s favorite thirty minutes of their seven-hour school day was pushed back to the very end, in hopes of sending students who drive themselves off-campus at the opportunity to leave half an hour early. And it worked, every senior I know takes themselves right off campus once the lunch bell rings.

My sister, who attends another local high school for their arts program, is not as in love with it as I am. As a sophomore, my sister has to wait for the thirty-minute lunch break (during which most of her friends are picked up by parents) to end before taking the bus home.

Personally, it has been a real exercise in self-control as I make the twenty-minute drive, avoiding the idea of getting food on my way instead of just making myself something for free at home. But it makes staying “after school” for club meetings and talking to teachers somewhat more attainable.

Contact Tracing

If someone (teacher or student), contracts COVID-19 and potentially spreads it among others at school there’s a policy for that too. A two-week mandatory quarantine period is placed upon any potentially contacted students and teachers. Seems good, but in actuality, a single sick kid can send fifty people home for two weeks. Rather than just people who sat within six feet of a student, the entire class is locked down and transferred to virtual learning, even if they repeatedly test negative.

Thankfully it hasn’t happened to me, at least yet. Although it did happen to my sister as a student who rides her bus tested positive, she will be learning at home until mid-October.

Extracurricular Activities

I was absolutely ecstatic back in May when I was once again chosen to be the captain of the color guard in my school’s marching band. However, we really did think this all would be over by now, and we would not be rehearsing Elton John songs and performing football games in masks with shower caps over the ends of instruments. While I am really glad that marching band is still technically happening this year it’s definitely not what I originally had in mind for my final season.

Before entering school for practice each member is asked a series of symptom-related questions- if they answer yes to any of the questions they are barred from coming in. An additional COVID-related form was required by the county along with our typical mountain of paperwork to participate this season and all of our competitions and a majority of our football games were canceled.

The band is required to practice outside, socially distanced wearing masks with a slit at the mouth for their instrument and a covering over anywhere spit may escape from. Color guard and percussion members wear normal masks and are only permitted to take them off for socially distanced water breaks.

Outside of band, other extracurricular activities have had a particularly hard time keeping afloat due to a multitude of reasons. Even the best thought up solutions can have holes poked in them, Zoom meetings, club dues, online service activities will never completely achieve the same connection between members as previous years.

Overall Thoughts

Honestly, at this point, I feel safer at school than I do going out to restaurants or downtown for a walk. I believe my school is genuinely taking this seriously. I’m thoroughly impressed and proud of my teachers and peers for being so willing to make these changes if it means we can have a taste of what our senior year could have been, even if it wasn’t what we wanted.

It was definitely something new, and sometimes the realization that this is what my life is, now really hits me, but I do think I’m glad that I returned in person. I can only hope that I do actually get to walk across a stage at graduation and go to senior prom this year. That my friends online can safely return and that I don’t have to worry about this in college.

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Hollis Humphrey

Hollis Humphrey is a high school senior from Central Florida. In her free time she enjoys rollerskating, watching movies, petting dogs and hanging out with her friends. After high school she plans to pursue a career in journalism or creative writing.


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