After months of remote learning, a year of in-person-but-not-quite-stable hybrid school and a fall semester that was just beginning to feel kind of normal, Kyla Chester-Hopkins, a high school junior in Milwaukee, learned that she had Covid-19.
Kyla, 16, was deeply anxious about spreading it to her family members. She worried that she had infected her best friend. So in early January, she stopped going to school and returned to learning online — stuck, once again, in the bedroom where she had already spent so much of 2020.
Back then, she was home with her father and four siblings, all but one of whom — her baby brother — relied on the same Wi-Fi connection to work and learn. Missing art class most of all, she pulled out her acrylic paints to make murals that sprawled across her bedroom walls and ceiling. She returned to school in the fall of 2020, but it was hybrid at the time, and most of her classmates were not there.
Her junior year has been better. Kyla recovered from her bout of Covid this month and is now back in class. But she feels that the instability of her freshman and sophomore years is not over yet, and she is always cautious.
“There are students who don’t wear their masks, or complain about wearing a mask, and I nag them,” she said. “People say I’m like another staff member at our school.”
The school shutdowns in the spring of 2020 were hard enough for students. But this winter, as the Omicron variant drove a spike in coronavirus case numbers, the disruptions began to feel like they would never end. Some school districts extended winter break or returned temporarily to remote learning. And some schools, already struggling with a nationwide labor shortage, were forced to cancel classes after staff members called in sick.
Many students are still scrambling to catch up academically after months of struggling to learn online, and some switched schools or dropped out altogether.
And while most are back in class today, a sense of profound isolation persists. There are feelings of loneliness and angst. Many students feel that an entire system has failed them, leaving them to take on additional responsibilities far beyond what is typically asked of young people.
For many students, school openings last fall brought a sense of relief. Jordan Spencer, an aspiring marine biologist in Detroit, could not wait to start his freshman year of high school in person after two years of remote learning, an isolated existence in which he was constantly distracted by video games and YouTube tutorials.
He kept his grades up but struggled to stay motivated while learning alone in his bedroom. Last year, his parents were happy to see him start at a high school that had more advanced classes and operated on a hybrid system where he could be in person a few days a week.
This school year, Jordan has developed a crush on a classmate (he has not told her yet), attended the homecoming dance and made friends to roller skate with on weekends.
But Jordan, 14, said he tried to remind himself how quickly the virus could make it all go away. The warning signs are there: His district went remote every Friday in December because of the surge in cases. And after the winter break, his school stayed virtual until Jan. 14. He waited patiently to see his friends again and show off his new kicks: a pair of Jordan 3 Retro sneakers in pine green, to match his school colors.
“I’m just getting that experience of being back at school again,” he said. “It’s like, ‘What if that all gets taken away from me again?’”
For many schools, the risk of infection has not been the only concern. Even in states that are determined to stay open, districts are dealing with staff shortages, and students and teachers are frequently absent.
Classrooms in Tulsa, Okla., are back in person after a year and a half of disruptions caused by the pandemic. But this month, some schools reverted to remote learning, sometimes on a day-by-day basis as they struggled with staff shortages and the rising number of cases.
Graham Bevel, 8, a third grader there, was one of the many students who had to pause in-person learning and return, temporarily, to virtual classes in recent weeks. He and his 5-year-old sister went back to the old routine: doing schoolwork together as their parents watched.
“I’m just fine with it,” he said. “I’m sort of used to it by now.”
And though Graham has his model trains and a “Harry Potter” book to keep him busy at home, he has been much happier going to class and seeing his friends again. “I missed them,” he said.
Reyes Pineda-Rothstein, an eighth grader in Oak Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, had a hard time learning at home when his classes went remote in 2020. He said that virtual class was isolating, and that he was easily distracted from the lessons on his computer screen.
Reyes, 14, started going back to school during the spring semester of last year. But that was part of a hybrid arrangement, and many of his classmates stayed home. He was happy to return to a more normal version of in-person class last year.
But this month, he felt ill, he said, and did not want to return until both a rapid coronavirus test and a P.C.R. test came back negative.
“It’s way too risky,” he said of his decision to avoid school during that time. “Plus, you wouldn’t be able to learn anything because you’d be so on edge. And some of the kids in my school are really unreliable with masks.”
So he stayed home for a few days, despite his deep distaste for online lessons. “Pretty much everyone hates remote learning,” he said. “Well, some kids just like it because they can goof off.”
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For some students, the thought of going remote again brings back painful memories from the earlier months of the pandemic.
“We did get a lot of homework, and it was all online,” said Kaitlyn Long-Cheng, a seventh grader in Saline, Mich. “And you had to figure it out yourself because you couldn’t ask questions or anything, because there was no one there.”
Schools in Saline, a small town outside of Ann Arbor, had every intention of starting the school year in person. It is the reason Kaitlyn’s mother had moved the family there in the first place.
Before, when Kaitlyn attended school in Ann Arbor, the isolation and the workload of virtual school took a toll on her mental and physical health. She became withdrawn, and staring at the screen for hours each day led to migraines that were so painful Kaitlyn had to be hospitalized.
She said things are better now that she is back in school, though some anxiety lingers. This month, Kaitlyn stayed home for a day while her teachers tested some new software, just in case lessons need to go remote again sometime soon. That made her nervous.
“I don’t want to end up in the hospital, or anything, again,” she said.
While many students are girding for future shutdowns, some have been pushing for them.
Elizabeth Feng, a high school junior in Oakland, Calif., a district that serves high numbers of Latino and Black students and where most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — said that remote learning left her feeling disconnected during her sophomore year. But she also worried that in-person classes would expose her teachers and classmates to the virus.
“It’s kind of like a lose-lose situation,” Elizabeth, 16, said. “It’s like, which one are you willing to sacrifice?”
After she returned to class last fall, she saw things that alarmed her: Students were riding to school on crowded buses, teachers were not supplied with enough masks and the school’s outdoor spaces were not used enough. This month, Elizabeth became one of more than 1,000 students in her district who signed a petition calling for a student walkout unless in-person safety measures were improved or the schools went back to remote learning.
“A lot of students are saying they would rather be at home because they don’t want to risk their health or their family members’ health,” Elizabeth said, adding that the schools could do a better job supporting students’ mental health during periods of remote learning.
The Oakland students who signed the petition came to a tentative agreement with the district, but their worries are far from over. “It seems that many people are stressed and behind on their assignments,” Elizabeth said, adding that Covid safety was still a major concern.
For a vast majority who are back in school across the United States, many are still playing academic catch-up as they juggle safety concerns, sporadic quarantines and staff shortages.
They know that the next variant could upend everything once again. And while many hope for lasting stability, the weight of uncertainty is heavy.
“We’re trying to get back into the swing of things, and not necessarily be stuck in this pandemic loop,” Kyla said. “Because it’s been two years now, and we don’t know how long it’s going to last, and we don’t want it to last forever.”