My backpack lays in an untouched corner of my closet underneath half-filled notebooks, an unworn choir dress and library books I keep forgetting to return. I unzipped my bag to find a never-opened copy of “Macbeth” along with crumpled sheets of heat conductance chemistry notes for a test I never took.
As I packed my turkey sandwich and rummaged for my keys, I was surprised at how easily my morning routine slipped back into place. I thought I’d feel strange putting on my jacket, donning my backpack and pulling into the Paly parking lot for the first time in a year, but my attention was focused on the flutter of butterflies in my stomach: Who am I going to eat lunch with? Did I remember my biology notebook? I hope my computer doesn’t die.
I have never hated nor dreaded going to school. I liked the routine it gave me, I liked seeing my friends every day and I liked the nuance it added to my life.
I regret complaining about luxuries I did not know I had. Online, I lost those moments in class that alleviated the stress of school — like when I was too busy giggling about how I had pronounced chaos “cha-whose” in front of the class to worry about my upcoming tests. I am no longer able to slack off with my friends in an algebra study period, nor rush through the crowds of familiar faces to tell my friend a funny story. I used to experience so much more than the dead silence of me, by myself, in my room.
Since the fall, I have been an avid supporter of a return to in-person school. When I heard the Palo Alto Unified School Board announce in early February that secondary students would return as soon as March 9, I was ecstatic. Finally, I could escape the engulfing isolation of my bedroom and no longer have a pitiful 5-foot separation — the distance from my desk to my bed — between my school and home life.
On my first day back to in-person school, I arrived at a quiet — but not desolate — campus. There were small lines of students at the health check-in stations, spaced-out huddles of friend groups and a couple of seniors scootering by sporting camouflage.
Walking to my first class, the campus felt eerily quiet. Unlike the days of shoving through the packed math building’s staircase, I made my way to my calculus class peacefully — without any pushing.
But contrary to the empty hallways, when I walked into my first class, four students were already sitting at desks — more than I expected. I assumed I would be one of two at best.
Unfortunately, the number of students in my class steadily declined throughout the day until I was sitting in my last class of the day alone with my teacher. Despite the small class sizes, all of my classmates were chatty, voicing their relief to be back in school and to be taking a beginning step towards normality.
Prior to returning to campus, teachers and students alike had voiced concerns that masks and social distancing would impede the ability for students to socialize, but I barely noticed either. Seeing as we are over a year into the pandemic, wearing a mask and keeping a respectful distance are common practices and feel normal.
The majority of my teachers talked with students during passing periods or when distance learning students were off of Zoom, and many had put in a great deal of effort to make in-person learning as effective as possible. I had a teacher who let my classmates and I work together outside, teachers who projected the Zoom through a speaker to eliminate a slight audio lag, and teachers who engaged in real, face-to-face conversations. While some of these changes may seem small, they noticeably improved my day and further proved to me that in-person and digital interactions are incomparable.
Prior to returning to campus, I was well aware that some of my teachers were opposed to the school reopening, but I was unsure whether this apprehensiveness would be present in the classroom. In the majority of my classes I was met with welcoming and professional teachers who appeared to respect my decision to return to campus.
I did, however, have a teacher who was clearly upset to be back in the miserable, dystopian classroom, as he put it. After ignoring the greetings from all five students who came to school in-person, he told the class that he would not be teaching synchronous lessons until his second vaccine dose was effective, at which point he would be able to remove his N95 mask and wear a cloth one instead. As of now, three weeks into in-person school, the asynchronous lessons, along with the daily three-minute defense of why the lessons are asynchronous, have persisted.
Even though my return was not perfect, I still had an amazing first day. For the first time in a long time, I was not left with classwork to complete after school had ended, my room was a place of relaxation, and in one day I had experienced much more connection with my classmates and teachers than I had the entire year.
I don’t think many students realize how much interaction and normalcy they are missing until they experience it again. For a year I have sat in Zoom calls staring at 20 other blank faces, entering silent breakout rooms, and wanting real interaction, not conversations that ended with a click of a button. Now, as I watch more and more students file into the classroom each day, rediscovering the thrill of in-person school, I am proud to have pushed for reopening.
Unlike with distance learning, I am eager to go to school and excited to wake up to a new day. A day not spent staring at pre-pandemic photos of me and my friends and hanging on my walls, but a day spent creating new memories, forging new friendships and experiencing life with others — in person.