Madeline Gupta is a rising senior at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor and was recently named one of Washtenaw County's 2020 Young Citizens of the Year. She is director of development and communications at ByKids4Kids, a nonprofit literacy program in Washtenaw County.
At my school, before COVID-19 hit, there was seldom a moment where a student could walk through the hall and not accidentally brush another student. In the classroom, it was unsurprising when the number of students exceeded the number of desks. The stairwells, especially at the beginning and end of each day, were packed so tightly that one was often forced to stand shoulder to shoulder with another person.
With the coronavirus pandemic, vivid pictures of these moments in my mind awaken intense anxiety for me as well as my friends. Today, near the end of June, we look toward Governor Whitmer to announce her plan for school reopenings in the fall.
With only tentative plans from my school district, I’m left anxious and confused about where I will be and what I will be doing in two months. Although Ann Arbor schools’ proposition includes virtual learning, it also includes an in-person return. My anxiety and confusion is only heightened by this possibility. Even if students who are uncomfortable coming to school are given the option to participate online full time, peer pressure and fear of missing out may lead to them attending in person, anyway.
I’ll be a senior this fall at my high school, which has almost 2,000 students. If an in-person return to school is ultimately allowed, I feel that social distancing will be difficult and could become unsafe if done ineffectively and without supervision. Everyday activities that we are used to doing at school, such as putting our backpacks and books on shared desks and eating lunch with a large group, are now risks for which we will have to scramble to find alternatives.
Beyond the personal dangers returning to school in person brings, I also worry for my friends and family. Personally, the idea of removing my mask to eat lunch at school feels stressful. I miss my friends, but I don’t want to get them sick anymore than I want to be sick. A possible in-person return to school in the fall also frightens me because of my 87-year-old grandmother, who lives with me. Anything that I will bring home from school runs the risk of infecting her.
My situation isn’t unique. Many of my peers feel the same hesitation when considering their older relatives, some of whom also live with them. Even if the infection rates remain stable into the fall, the number of students at my school make safety measures hard to implement and maintain. We’re afraid that an in-person return to school will be harmful for our loved ones.
High schoolers may have more contact with others during the school day because teenagers are given increased freedom. An average student’s schedule at my school involves six or seven different classrooms. Additionally, many students drive to school with the ability to leave campus during the day. While some leave for lunch, others are required to leave for dual enrollment classes at other high schools or local universities.
I’ve heard many friends express concern over the distractions and difficulty of online learning. The distractions and difficulty that come with learning in-person under COVID-19 restrictions are also intense though. Wearing a mask for hours, sanitizing desks and hyper awareness over touch I imagine will keep me from being able to fully pay attention in class or focus on assignments.
The considerations my school will have to address given an in-person return are numerous. To keep students concentrated on their education, breaks for sanitation measures will have to be taken more often. To feel safe in a classroom, I would expect to be given the time to clean my desk and chair. As the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ plan indicates, my peers and I would also anticipate seeing fewer students in the building at once, meaning a staggered schedule with shorter class periods. These are just a few of the many questions that we will all grapple with.
At the end of the day, the risks of going to school in person with such a high student population may potentially outweigh the troubles of another semester at home. With an in-person learning environment, the door is open for anxiety over personal contact, peer pressure, and overwhelmed and unfocused students trying to learn math or English while ensuring proper sanitation and social distancing practices.
This fall, it is my hope that students will not have to choose between education and safety.