Schools Begin to Hold Classes—How Have They Fared?

By Ethan Hersch

Two hundred eighty-seven students at Utah State University were quarantined last week to quell the spread of COVID-19 across the 20,000-student campus. Students were traced back to four residence halls. How were these students located? Was it contact tracing? No. Mass testing? No. The school realized that the virus can be tracked in wastewater.

While Utah State’s unconventional tracing method may seem like an enticing fact about the virus, it also underscores a complexity associated with opening campuses. Despite schools that are transitioning to virtual fall terms, there are a great deal of schools that choose to resume in-person classes and let students back on campus. Not only is finding 287 coronavirus-positive students troubling for epidemiologists, but this also puts America’s forefront of education in an unprecedented situation; these test results reveal that colleges are having difficulty in preventing the spread of the virus.

Utah State, as well as more schools across the country, is struggling to keep the virus contained. Testing is not enough to track the virus, so wastewater tests are a compromise for this struggle. Now, the Big Ten football conference is debating its return to competition, and many schools are reversing their decisions to hold classes on campus.

Amid this chaos are high schools. Where I live, Westchester County, most public schools have decided to offer two schedules for its students: a hybrid schedule and a completely virtual schedule. The New York City public school system, alongside Mayor Bill de Blasio, is committed to having in-person classes.

For NYC schools, online school in the spring was a huge disaster. Over 100,000 students are homeless, and many more are without WiFi. For the students who are technologically disadvantaged, online school puts a great burden on families. De Blasio’s attempt to open up schools is justified for the right reasons, yet it is very difficult to pull off such an elaborate plan when this school district has had many struggles pre-COVID-19, including overcrowded buildings.

My school is beginning its hybrid schedule on September 21. This schedule includes two cohorts of students—A and B—who take the same classes but appear in school on different days of the week. Cohort A meets on Mondays and Thursdays, while group B meets on Tuesdays and Fridays. Students are only in school from 8:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. The rest of the week includes short Zoom calls with classes and asynchronous instruction. Not only is this schedule challenging for students and parents, but many teachers are not comfortable returning to school in person. Over half of the teachers at my school are opting to teach classes completely online.

Students, however, are generally choosing to go to school in person. In my school of approximately fifteen hundred students, fewer than one hundred are staying home. Now, many students—including myself, are making impetuous decisions. I have spoken with friends who said that if more students were doing the virtual schedule, they would also opt out of hybrid learning. This pressure to go back to school is not primarily coming from students’ urge to see their friends, but rather my school’s complicated virtual learning.

Approximately twenty kids in each grade are going completely remote, and students feel disadvantaged if they are a part of this large minority. Students are afraid they will not build personal relationships with teachers if they do not go to school in person. Also, in a learning environment where class participation is critical, it is more difficult to engage with your class if discussions are only held remotely.

Recently, schools in my county began revoking hybrid schedules, and instead they are holding all classes online. Personally, this seems like a more adequate option for students. Virtual school not only makes sense because students can be graded on the same criteria and nobody is disadvantaged but also because more than half of the teachers in my school are refusing to teach in person. Colleges are holding classes online, and high school should learn to adapt in similar ways.

Hybrid schedules in schools do not allow students to experience school in the same ways that they normally would. Whether students take classes from home or periodically go to school, learning will be difficult. For the more privileged districts that can afford to accommodate for every student’s technology needs, virtual school is the best option. For desperate districts like New York City, running schools at reduced capacities suit many students’ needs.

Just last month, teachers were scolding my school’s administration after they decided that they would like teachers to endorse a hybrid schedule. If I were a parent, I would not want to send my child to school when there is a constant feud between the administration and the faculty.