Op-Ed: Not All Students Will Welcome Return to School

While my own district hasn’t made the leap to return all secondary students to the classroom, many of our neighboring districts are marking their lines in the sand with the February break.  My niece, for example, will be resuming 8th grade full-time, in-person before the end of this month.  And, though she is a high-achieving student who excels in writing as well as math (and even “stupid Earth Science”), plays multiple instruments and is a gifted stage actor and vocalist, she is quite unenthusiastic about returning to school.

After speaking with her, I was genuinely surprised.  For close to a year teachers and parents alike have been lamenting the loss of in-person instruction, bemoaning the dissolving of the connective tissue that is the teacher-student relationship, and fearing the social isolation caused by virtual school.

We watched local news reporters at graduation parades interview student body presidents who tearfully mourned the loss of calculus classes and lunch with friends. By all accounts, it really seemed like they wanted to go back.

But virtual learning has given teens something they love — school from bed.  Or the kitchen.  Or the couch.  And realistically for many of them it’s even more than that.  They have access to the bathroom whenever they need it.  They don’t have to shower.  Some are fortunate enough to have a fridge or pantry full of snacks and drinks.  Many of them have found algebra far more palatable at 7:30 AM when they can covertly wear fuzzy pajama pants adorned with llamas in bowties.  This is teen life at its best.  We asked them to edit, modify and accept. And they did.

And now, we are asking them to give that up.  But for those teens who have adapted — found ways to make pandemic school satisfying for them — resetting their lives to the traditional model of school is not as welcome as they (or we) once anticipated.

I am not minimizing the failings of these conditions, the most egregious of which include inconsistent access to free lunch, critical student services, a functional, safe learning environment and genuine human interaction. Virtual learning has also further highlighted socio-economic, racial and language-based disparities within and between districts.

Academically, I am quite cognizant of the constant battles I have waged with my own detached students, demand-begging them to turn their cameras for my daily livestream, or to watch the quasi-comical videos I’ve posted to engage them. I’ve struggled to find the line between maintaining clear and consistent expectations (“Your rewrite is due Thursday at 7:30 AM in Google Classroom or you will lose 20 points”) and offering comprehensive flexibility (“I’m so sorry you’re having such a hard time. Of course you can hand it in late.”).

Teachers, parents and administrators have done their utmost to find ways to allow students to succeed this past year, despite the myriad limitations of the entirety of the experience.  And as a 29-year educator, I am saliently aware that my students need to return to the learning experience promised to them by our comprehensive education system.

But we need to be prepared for the reality that many of our students are not eager to return to the classroom every day.  They don’t want to get up at 6:00 AM so they can shower, pack their materials, stand out in the dark to wait for a bus that they will ride for 30+ minutes.  Every day.  For them, this is a demand to adjust to a whole new way of doing school — again.  And, while this may seem like a terribly pessimistic way to plan for the triumphant return of full-time school, I fear that failing to expect their irritation and disdain will result in frustration for everyone involved.

Moreover, these kids aren’t coming back to their past.  They are coming back to this future.  A future where school still offers early mornings, long days in desks and homework.  But, in addition, it still has face masks, plastic shielding and social distancing.  And, while some extracurricular activities are trying to make a comeback (our girls’ basketball team played its first game last week, though I couldn’t attend because spectators are not permitted…and our boys’ team is quarantined for 2 weeks after a player tested positive 3 days into the mini-season’s kick-off), we need to see clearly that this is not the school they left a year ago.

In fact, some might argue (actually, one of my students did argue) that school will now offer all of the parts they enjoy the least (she cited homework, uncomfortable desks and the detention policy) and very little of the parts they love (“Like what about the prom?”).  Another young woman remarked in her journal a month or so ago: “I definitely don’t miss being bullied,”  incidents of which are reported to be on the decline in districts where students are learning in virtual and hybrid models.

In their hearts, many of them know that they aren’t learning as well via virtual school.  The most perceptive students are aware that they are more able than ever to zone out when I explain the critical components of an argumentative opening with a qualified assertion.  They understand that sharing exam answers is wrong, but also note that the vast sea of opportunities for pandemic cheating is deep and wide.  They even recognize that 2020’s NYS Regents waivers and abridged AP exams have left them underprepared for the rigors of college, and elastic deadlines have allowed them to develop poor time management and personal responsibility habits that will not serve them well in the workforce.

But the reality is that many of our students don’t really care.  They are children.  Despite the fact that some of them are 6 2”, drive, and have plans to leave the state and attend a university of 30,000 people in 6 months, they are children.  And sometimes it’s just hard to want to surrender the comfort of a power nap during lunch for the exciting opportunity to prep for the Global Regents in your good, old traditional classroom.

Thus, parents and educators alike need to be ready.   We need to expect resistance.  And we need to be patient all over again.  I urge my peers to celebrate your students’ return to your classrooms, and continue to be great at what you do. But don’t be surprised or disappointed if the response you receive is less than what it once was.  Eventually we will get back to the way school is supposed to be.  And, with any luck, we will have implemented some of the best silver-lining practices we developed during the 2020-2021 pandemic year

Personally, I cannot wait for my students to return to my classroom, though I have girded myself for their potential underappreciation for my daily presence.  That’s OK. Their apathy may be an unavoidable aspect of this next step toward normalcy. Nevertheless, it is a vital step we must take toward reclaiming and reshaping our post-pandemic world.

Kimberly Eagen Latko is an independent writer and secondary English teacher in the South Huntington School District. She writes for the New York State English Council and her work has previously appeared in The Long Islander, HuntingtonNow and several small press magazines. 



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