There are also equity concerns to consider for students who have accessibility needs. Ava Adams is a Washington parent who has an autoimmune disorder. In addition to concerns about being exposed to the virus if her son returns to school, she worries that social distancing and masks might impact the one-on-one assistance he needs as someone who is hard of hearing and primarily reads lips to hear.
“He also has a one-on-one aide in the classroom who is right next to him and touches his shoulder to redirect semi-regularly, so I’m not sure how that is going to be possible with the six-foot rule,” Adams says, adding that her son has been doing well in online school.
While some students are doing well with virtual learning, many of the students and teachers Teen Vogue has spoken with acknowledge it has been a miserable experience.
“Online school is really individual, which can make classes that I struggle in much harder because I don’t have the opportunity to ask classmates for help or study after school with people,” says Gia. “It isolates you, which is mostly a negative experience. I feel like I’m missing out on any semblance of a high school experience, and although my school tries to do virtual events, it’s not really the same.” Gia says that the school could provide more support by focusing on giving students more virtual-learning tips, rather than focusing exclusively on hosting virtual events.
Ava, the senior in Atlanta, who recently moved and now attends a new school, says that virtual learning has made adjusting difficult, if not impossible. “It’s been hard not just to make and keep friends, but if I miss notes or some assignment, it’s harder to catch up if I don’t have [phone numbers] of anyone in my classes,” she explains. “There’s no real way to make friends over Zoom, even with break-out rooms.” When asked what the school could do to better support students, Ava suggests less focus on grading and more focus on safely facilitating in-person student interactions outdoors.
Teachers have also been struggling and dealing with the pressures of working under protocols that have not been adjusted for student or teacher well-being. Porter would like grading to not be a priority, and points out that the state still insists on these metrics and teachers are still being evaluated for performance.
“There are some kids that are enrolled in my school that I have not seen or heard from all year,” she tells Teen Vogue. “When I see them during a normal school year, they are great, capable students. But now, because they don’t come to virtual learning, I have to give them failing grades, which is unfair and unethical.”
Steve, a teacher for a charter school in the Chicago Public Schools, says the miserable situation could be made better if daily work and hours are cut: “We can do difficult and challenging work, but we don’t need to do it for eight hours a day. Drop the daily work and keep it shorter so the students and teachers have time to just exist.”
Steve wants the public to understand that teachers are professionals, and that school does not just serve as a childcare service, but as a place for children to learn. Arguments for reopening have prominently featured childcare, childhood hunger, and lack of internet access at home as factors to consider, underscoring the roles school has come to play in the United States’ lacking social welfare systems.
So when can students and teachers head back to school? Feldman says it’s not clear. “We need more research — and high-quality research — to be able to answer that question well,” Feldman tells Teen Vogue. “We need an independent CDC advisory committee to synthesize the research and develop guidelines in a way that is transparent and publicly accountable. Vaccines will certainly help, but we are still waiting on evidence about whether the vaccine only prevents COVID-19 symptoms or also prevents spread to others. It is also important to speed up the vaccination process so that students’ family members receive the vaccine, especially since neither available vaccine is approved for children yet.”
For teachers like Jean in South Carolina, she feels the answer to the question of when they will move back to remote learning has become abundantly clear: “We think it doesn’t matter how many teachers die,” she says. “We’ll only go virtual when kids die.”
Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect identities.
Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: The Stress of Coronavirus Means We Should Get Rid of Grades and Use Universal Pass