“Returning to school is a privilege.” These were the first words I remember hearing when I stepped into the school building this August after more than a year of online school. Like millions of children and adolescents around the country, my sister and I returned to in person school this fall. With the delta variant of the coronavirus surging, especially among the unvaccinated, and many kids in my school still not eligible for the vaccine, I am confused about how these decisions make sense.
Perhaps we are being told that returning to school is a privilege to make us feel grateful for the opportunity to learn in school again. However, returning to school is not a privilege. It is a right and it is the law of the land. What if me, my sister, or my friends get COVID? Will children be okay and get better? What if there is an outbreak? Will we go back to online school again? How will it all work out? How are we being sent back to school without having a proper plan? Every now and then kids have colds and coughs, especially during the fall and winter seasons. Will they need to be away from school? How will the constant disruption affect our education?
My teachers do not seem to have satisfying answers to these questions. This makes me even more disturbed and anxious than I already am. To be fair, my teachers probably agree with my sentiments and may not have had much say in these decisions.
My feelings of anxiousness are mixed with curious observations of my classmates’ behaviors. Adults are always saying that “kids need to socialize.” It seems to me that most kids are not interested in socializing when they have the opportunity to do so. Most kids are glued to their phones or Chromebooks at lunchtime when they are sitting right next to each other. Even during class, I see my classmates distracted with video games or checking their phones under the table. There is scarcely any socializing.
Being one of the few 6th graders who does not have a phone and has no interest in having one, I am dismayed. My friends are missing their childhood and adolescence. I wonder what their memories of middle school will be when they grow up and grow old. Will they remember losing their tooth and getting excited about it and sharing it with others? Will they remember their friends’ laughter and smiles? Will they remember long conversations and walks around the school grounds? There is so much to life beyond these screens. I hope I am never so absorbed in these screens that I forget to see the life around me.
Despite my anxiousness, anger, and dismay, I am very fortunate to have friends who think like me. We take walks around the school’s outdoor garden and have lunch in the midst of blooming flowers. We observe the squirrels, spiders, and butterflies. We observe other students and the strange racial, ethnic, and gender segregation in middle school. We are glad not to feel as if we have to be in this box or that category. We get to know more about each other with each passing day, check each other’s homework, and discuss all of our ideas for after school clubs. So much seems possible!
Even though everything seems messed up and uncertain, I am thankful for the opportunity to meet new people in 6th grade, make new friends, and have the chance to talk to old friends as well. My mom says I look happier now that I have returned to school. I have so much to report each afternoon, which contrasts with the severely limited experiences in online school. My mom is delighted to hear my stories. I didn’t even see my classmates' faces on zoom because so many kept their cameras off. Now, of course, half our faces are covered with our masks. I have forgotten some of my friends’ faces. Still, I think I am happier, too. I think it is because I have something more than the four walls of my room and a screen to experience. I am stunned to think about how limited my world has been for the past year and a half.
As the pandemic goes on relentlessly, I hear platitudes like “…everything will be ok…. we are resilient…. we will stop COVID from spreading in the school….we should hold on to hope…” My heart wants to believe that everything will be okay, but my mind resists. For now, I stop myself from thinking about the future and dwelling on the past. I just accept my situation.