Arriving at school
I was mostly feeling frustrated and nervous driving into the upper lot early that morning. I had wanted to return to school for so long, but Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) implemented it too late for me, a senior with three months left in high school, to find any sense of normalcy before my send-off to college in the fall. I did not want to be here, but I was because I should at least give it a shot. There’s no shame in trying.
After I walked in, the first thing I noticed was how eerily quiet the hallways were. There was some conversation, even laughter, but it was much quieter than pre-pandemic school. There were a few faculty members around the hallways monitoring and helping students, especially the freshmen.
I had seen Personal Fitness coach Joseph Vargo around before, but since he was not my coach last year, it was our first time meeting each other. Watching Vargo lead the class virtually was like watching a YouTube vlogger. He was talking to a screen, and there was absolutely nothing on the other end. It was as if I was backstage at a play with the performance in front of a one-way mirror. I could finally see how teachers could struggle with teaching virtually. I was not quite in Vargo’s shoes, but seeing him walk around in them was enough for me to get some kind of understanding.
At the beginning of class, we went over all the new procedures that were expected of me and the two other seniors in the weight room.
“We have to maintain at least a six-foot distance between each other because if the administration sees that we can’t follow guidelines, we’ll get shut down,” Vargo said. We immediately understood how important following these guidelines were. I may not have wanted to go back, but I know for a fact other people do, and I was not about to ruin it for them.
Exercising with a mask covering my mouth and nose posed quite the challenge. I used to be able to freely breathe in that sweet, delicious oxygen I needed, but now I had to fight for my breaths. I could not get what I wanted, but I got what I needed.
IB Computer Science
I was the only student in third period, but I was finally able to meet my IB Computer Science teacher, Christina Martin, for the first time. We had never seen each other before, yet here we are, halfway through the third quarter.
I was finally in a real classroom. The feeling of being in one became foreign to me, and it was like going back to kindergarten. It was especially strange with only 12 desks in there instead of the usual 30 or so.
Before class got started, I stood at the front of the classroom with Martin and said hello to the rest of the class through her computer. I could only see names on the screen. I said my hello, introduced myself and quickly walked back to my isolated desk. After that, I was finally able to understand the virtual teaching struggle.
I had heard before just how much teachers would appreciate students turning on their cameras and microphones, but now I could see why. From a student’s perspective, I only really need to remember seven faces. Even during virtual learning, I see my teachers’ faces every class, so it was not difficult for me to do so. But, from a teacher’s perspective, they have to remember over 100 faces, and they just can’t do that with everyone’s cameras off.
Martin and I had a very fruitful discussion about returning to school and the effects it has on teachers and students. We were also able to talk about our personal experiences with the pandemic thus far, beyond the strain it has on school.
I left that class with something I have wanted for the past year: an actual student-teacher relationship. Finally, we were able to create a foundation for the two of us to build on throughout the year. It was something I had completely lost sight of, and I think all teachers and students can say the same. I became much more optimistic about in-person learning after that class.
IB Lang & Lit II
One noticeable change I saw in my English teacher, Sharon Carser-Brown, was her energy. She seemed a lot more excited to have six of us back in the classroom, even with a little bounce in her step. She was more energetic and fun with us than when she was teaching online. I’m sure other teachers feel the same, but it was clear that she was happy to have students to teach to.
At the end of class, Carser-Brown got a special spray bottle with a sanitizing solution. She went around and sprayed all the desks in the classroom that we were sitting at. When I asked her about it, she said she had to do so at the end of class. Yet another added responsibility for teachers as well.
Once noon rolled around, I walked down to lunch with a group of six or seven of us, though I was only talking with three of them. We were walking with only about a foot or two between us all poking fun at the social distancing guideline, saying it was dumb, no one was enforcing it and questioning just how much people cared.
When we walked into the cafeteria, we had to find our assigned section. I went through the lunch line and got my bagged lunch. No student ID number required or anything; just grab a bag and go.
The free lunch they provided lived up to its cost. It consisted of an abnormally small apple, some cauliflower, a few mayonnaise packets, a carton of chocolate milk, and a ham and cheese sandwich with burger buns. It was like a cheeseburger, but the burger was replaced with three layers of ham slices because that was the only cold or room temperature burger-like food they could provide. It was pretty gross, but I ate it nonetheless.
There was some conversation in the cafeteria, but with less people and more space between everyone, it felt more like the hallways than a lively cafeteria.
The administration set up some “entertainment” for us during lunch by setting up the projectors in the cafeteria and playing some school-produced videos. The first video they played was football highlights from the 2019 season. The second video was from the choir, and they had a virtual performance as well as a message for the students. I did not pay attention to either video, nor did anyone else.
Social studies teacher Samantha Phelps’ in-person teaching was about the same in comparison to how she taught virtually. She had the same high energy, making it clear how passionate she is about her job, both for the students and the course itself. She was vocal about how bad she wanted to see all of us again earlier in the year, and now she finally can with me and one other senior. Her classroom was very decorative with flags from around the world and posters relating to geography. It was nice to get a feel for the mood of the room and her teaching.
Arriving back home from school was rewarding. Home felt like home again instead of home and school. It was that disconnect I was hoping for all along. I was upset with in-person instruction going in, but coming out of it, I feel much more happy and excited about returning to school. The lunch may not be the best, the water fountains may not work, but it is nice to get to see my teachers and some friends again. I was a lot more focused and attentive during classes, and it made me feel overall better about my schoolwork. We are nowhere close to normalcy, but it is a strong start.