By an anonymous sophomore
The age-old high school social dilemma of where to sit at lunch has finally been solved—it only took a global pandemic.
I am a sophomore who attends a private school in Manhattan. My school has recently announced that they will be switching to an optional hybrid model after previously stating that they would remain remote until mid-January. I was extremely happy and proud of my school when they initially announced they would be remote for at least five months, and I was shocked and upset when they declared their decision to switch. Upon receiving the news, my parents informed me that the decision to attend school in-person or remain in my pajamas was mine.
While I always appreciate having a say in what I do in life, this was not a choice I wanted to have to make. Did I want to risk my and my family’s safety just to be able to walk to school and sit six feet apart all day with a mask? Or, did I want to stay safe but be isolated from my friends and continue to stare at a screen all day? Neither choice seemed satisfactory. I did not know what to do.
It is imperative to note that I am extremely lucky; I have access to steady wi-fi, a quiet place to work, and reliable, wholesome meals. If I do not attend school in-person, I will still receive a quality education and have access to additional help. If anyone should sacrifice in-person learning so that other children in the city can access education and public services safely, it is me. If anyone should sacrifice in-person learning so that healthcare and other essential workers can perform their jobs safely and without additional burdens, it is me. I do not want to require my teachers to put their health at risk when they could effectively teach from home, if they desire. I am disappointed that my school seems not to have taken these ideas into account, even though a majority of their students are in circumstances similar to mine.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my decision and the decision of my school impacts our entire city. Every kid who travels to and from school and sits inside with others for hours on end will become a possible vector for the virus. All of my teachers have to travel to school each day, exposing themselves and their families to the virus. There is the possibility that we will become an unnecessary and additional burden on the healthcare system when a second wave of infection blooms in the city. Given the circumstances and my school’s plentiful resources for online instruction, I do not think that they should reopen.
Let me tell you who I was as a student before the pandemic: I loved school. I was a three-season athlete, involved in many clubs, and took an optional academic class. I went to bed and woke up early. I studied and felt well-prepared for assessments. While I was not a stranger to social media or using my phone, I certainly was not in front of a screen all the time.
I still am all of these things, but how I am these things has obviously changed. Sports consist of team building activities (on the screen) and exercising alone asynchronously. My clubs meet on Zoom, along with my classes. I take tests on Zoom. In spite of everything, I still love school. I still am who I was, it’s just harder to still be me.
To be involved in class, I feel that I have to look directly at the screen and use non-verbal communication (such as nodding or giving the now ubiquitous thumbs-up) to show that I am actively listening along with participating when possible. I also have to submit and do most of my homework online. During assessments, when students finish, they are normally allowed to leave the meeting, which only makes me feel rushed as my face on the screen gets bigger and bigger as people leave the meeting.
On the other hand, I have been able to try new methods of learning on online platforms that I had not previously used. I am extremely grateful for my wonderful teachers and the amount of effort that they put into creating engaging, fun class environments.
So I waited and listened to what my friends had to say.
Ultimately, most of my close friends informed me that they will return to school in person. I am not a fan of online learning, to say the least. So why did I decide to stay home?
The turning point came when I heard through the grapevine that once in-person learning resumes, students will eat lunch facing forward in silence while watching school-related videos. If I were to take the risk of attending school in person, I would hope to at least be able to talk to my classmates during what should be a social time.
As we know from a lot of neuroscience research, the adolescent brain has a drive towards social connection, and recent research has shown that sixty-one percent of teenagers feel lonelier since the pandemic began.
Returning to school just doesn’t make sense to me if we are still deprived of the social interaction that we really need right now–especially when virtual socialization and learning are possible. Combined with the safety concern of sitting in a room with seventeen people for an extended period of time without masks for lunch, my decision was made.
I look forward to when we can all return to school safely and resume our sports and other extracurriculars—but in the meantime, I am happy to do my part in combatting the pandemic by remaining at home. On the plus side, my commute has been drastically reduced from forty-five minutes to thirty seconds, and my wardrobe mainly consists of “soft clothes.” And, of course, I know exactly where to sit at lunch.
 Siegel, D. J. (2014). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York: TarcherPerigee