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Students across the country face uncertainty over in-person or virtual school this fall. | Getty Images/Westend61

Students from 7 to 19 years old on their hopes and worries about the coming school year.

During a normal year around this time, parents would be heading to the store to get folders and pencils for their elementary school children, incoming college freshmen would be packing up for a fresh start in a parent-free space, and high school seniors would begin celebrating their final year at home before college.

But since the coronavirus pandemic swept the world in January, education has been disrupted. Schools quickly moved online, forcing teachers and students to adapt to a new mode of learning while coping with the uncertainty of a pandemic. The whole process felt makeshift — some students were better equipped than others, which tended to fall along socioeconomic lines, while others struggled with lack of child care, the safety of high-risk family members, or busy multigenerational homes. The academic year concluded with lots of unanswered questions about what would happen to schools in the fall.

After a summer of planning, strategizing, and weighing risks, some schools are reopening or gearing up to reopen part time, while others will be completely online for the foreseeable future. Educators, stressed about the potential dangers of the classroom, are organizing around workplace safety issues or quitting altogether. Parents, forced to make decisions based on their families’ personal risk factors, are fretting about what’s to come.

But how are kids themselves thinking about the pandemic, the upcoming school year, and this uncertain time? Vox spoke to five students, from second-graders to college freshmen, about their feelings surrounding returning to school.

Ryla Ruscio, 7 years old, Laurelhurst School in Portland, Oregon

When coronavirus first happened, it changed my life a lot, especially school, which went totally on the apps. Reading is also on apps now, with my teachers all onscreen. I don’t like it that much, but I think it’s fine. My mom says I will go back to school in the fall. It’ll be different because instead of just the apps that I do over the summer, there will be meetings with my teachers too. I would rather go back to school in person, though, because it’s much easier.

 Courtesy of Jory Ruscio

My summer’s been pretty much like a normal summer, but we didn’t really get to do everything we did last summer, like camps and swim lessons and vacations, because of the coronavirus. We’ve been watering our neighbors’ gardens. We do more screen time. We started playing Animal Crossing. It’s a really great game. I have also been watching more movies. But I don’t have a favorite.

We see some friends sometimes, but we always wear masks for safety. One time I hung out with four friends at once. We definitely had to keep our distance and all of that stuff, so we were on bikes.

We also got two new kittens because my mom thought it would make us happy. I think it’s really cool. The first one is pretty much a big fat cat, but she is really cute. She’s always asleep. Her name is Covi because of coronavirus. She’s a very silly kitty. The other cat is named Blueberry.

I’m so excited for school to come back so I can see my friends. But I think it’s gonna be weird. I’ve never started school this way, where we have to be on technology. I’m nervous about it. We did school on screens when coronavirus first started, using little apps and readings on their screens. I didn’t like doing school on the apps, but I thought it was okay.

Coronavirus is changing my life a little bit. I don’t know how long it will go on. I think it might harm my family, but maybe not. Coronavirus is not really so great. I’m definitely not liking it.

Lauren West, 17 years old, Shawnee Mission East High School, Prairie Village, Kansas

We are planning on heading back to school right after Labor Day. Our school district has to decide if they want to be fully online for the year, or if they want to do a hybrid type version. Those are the only two options, so you just pick whichever you’re comfortable with. The online would be permanent for the whole entire year, where the hybrid is gonna be based off of how many Covid cases we have in our county. So if it’s kind of spiked that week, we would see ourselves doing online, and two weeks later, if it’s gone down, we could potentially be at school for a few days out of the week.

Personally, I decided on doing the hybrid option. I actually, unfortunately this month ended up getting Covid, so I have kind of — it changed my perspective a lot. For me, I really struggled doing online school for the remainder of my junior year. But I do understand how important safety and all of that is, and if I felt like my school wasn’t taking safety precautions, I could definitely see myself not feeling 100 percent comfortable going to school.

Since I did get Covid, I was just kind of surprised by how many things are open. I think it’s crazy that our swimming pools and stuff like that are open and there are just people running around pretending like maybe there’s nothing going on. But I think for me, when I did catch it, it just put in perspective how real and scary this all is, which is too bad that it took me getting it to kind of realize that.

I was kind of the first person in my area to get it. But it was definitely kind of hard coming from the social aspect even more than the actual illness. A lot of people kind of looked at my family as the people who spread it in our area, which, of course, if we knew we had had it, we would have never wanted to expose it to anyone. But there were definitely some people I think personally, who were looking at me like I was some kind of Covid monster, and I think that part was definitely hard.

Demarri Murphy, 11 years old, Montera Middle School in Oakland, California

We went back to school August 10. I’m excited to be back. It’s really good to be back at school, not back fully in school, but it’s so good to see some of my classmates and to have somebody to talk to. I’m in sixth grade now.

 Courtesy of Lakea Murphy

The first week of summer vacation, I did nothing. Second week, before coronavirus was major, I went to the gym. Then the third week, I stayed home and played my video games. Fourth week, stay home, fifth week, stay home, stay, home, stay home. Sometimes I play Fortnite, but the most games I play are Need for Speed and Madden.

Once school started again, it was all on Zoom. It doesn’t feel the same. I like regular school better, because you get to be in school, because you get to have recess with your friends, instead of seeing them online at their houses doing nothing. School in the classroom is more hands-on than on the computer. There’s more to stuff to do; the hours are shorter.

I miss my friends a lot. Every day after school, we used to go to a hangout place and kick it there until our parents came and picked us up. Now we can’t. Normally when I get bored, I ask my mom to take me to the gym. But I can’t do that anymore. I can’t do sports because of the pandemic. I can’t do anything except sit at home, watch TV, and do homework.

My favorite thing about the pandemic so far is getting to go back to school, even though we are not fully back to school. I like seeing my new teachers, and getting to do work. I really missed school. I know other kids don’t right now, but I really do. I’m just praying we can go back to real school. Staying home is not going that well.

I am really ready for the coronavirus to be over. I know everybody across the world is also ready, ’cause nobody likes staying at home doing nothing. Unless you are rich and have everything.

Camden Schmidt, 19 years old, Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon

I will be going into my freshman year at Oregon State University. Some classes are in person, some are remote learning, and some are just online. I’ll move in in mid-September. I’m surely conflicted about it. On one hand, it means kind of a return to normalcy. My life has been upended the past couple of months, and so I see this as a way to kind of get my life back on track. But on the other end, I know that it exposes others and myself to risks that we don’t necessarily have to be in, so I’m deeply conflicted about it, I guess.

 Courtesy of Camden Schmidt

I’ve already had the coronavirus, actually, but the safety concern I’m really worried about is being able to enforce rules where rules are already hard to be enforced. Kids on college campuses aren’t known for being the best rule-followers, and so I just see it as hard to put in any safety measures and make sure they’re followed.

I, and I think so many of my peers, crave normalcy. This part in our lives seems so exciting and eventful and it feels like we’re missing out on so much. By colleges returning to school like before, it feels like we can experience what we expected. That being said, we have to weigh that against the incredible risk returning to normal poses to our community. While I would certainly give up all of the college experiences in a heartbeat if it meant people didn’t get sick, it’s hard not to dwell on what I might be missing.

I also can’t help feeling frustrated with how poorly the pandemic has been handled in the US, especially in juxtaposition of many European and Asian nations. One of my concerns is that we see their faster return to normal life as an indication that we, too, can go back to normal; that will only make things worse. I feel strongly that we are far from the place they are and need to respond to the crisis where it is, not as where we want it to be.

Ewan, 9 years old, in Missouri

I got sick right before coronavirus hit and we all had to stay in our houses, so I was already out from school. I haven’t been to school for a very, very long time. I did classes on Zoom, and I really didn’t like it that much. It was just kinda weird, and it was hard for my mom because she had to run back and forth for my sister and me with so many different things.

 Courtesy of Ewan’s parents
Ewan and his sister, Isla.

This summer has been so different because we’ve had to stay in our houses and we’re not really able to see anybody or go and do anything. My grandpa will come and sit in our driveway or on our deck six feet apart, but that’s really the only people we get to see. I went to one play date with my sister where we just rode bikes around, but that’s the only one I’ve gone to.

I’ve been mostly staying at home and playing video games and reading a lot of books. I’ve been playing one of my favorite video games with my dad and my sister called Rocket League. I love reading the Harry Potter books.

I got to see my friends a little bit on Zoom during school, but it’s not like now, this summer, where I get to video-call them like two times a week, maybe. I mostly do video calls with my friend Timothy but sometimes my other friends. We play video games together, and do stuff like that.

I’m really excited about starting homeschooling [this fall], because we are pretty much going to be doing the same stuff as regular school. Also, we don’t have to do school for as long. We had to do it for seven hours before, and now we’ll only have to do it for, like, three or four hours.

I think that homeschool is just going to be easier for both [my mom and sister]. But I never thought I would ever do homeschooling. This has been the biggest change from coronavirus.

I don’t really like having to be with the sickness in my surroundings. The worst part is not being able to go places and be with people.


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