2021 is going to be a back-to-school year like no other.
Since March 2020, most students have been attending classes either 100 percent remotely or through some kind of hybrid model. But after both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommended that schools reopen their doors, those students are now returning to in-person learning.
That transition would be challenging enough—but it’s not the only issue students are facing as they go back to school. The more infectious Delta variant has caused a surge in pediatric COVID-19 cases, now representing 18 percent of all reported cases nationwide, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Of that number, the CDC reports that 8.1 percent are five- to 11-year-olds.
And though health experts agree that wearing masks is key to preventing infections in kids, adults have made that idea controversial. Eight states ban the enforcement of mask wearing in school, though some school districts are defying those orders. Others—like public school systems in New York, Idaho, and Mississippi—are either mandating or strongly encouraging masks for teachers and students alike.
Coupled with the mask controversy is the high number of eligible children who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19, often because of concerns some parents have about the efficacy and safety of the shots. According to the CDC, less than 33 percent of children 12- to 15-years-old are fully vaccinated. And for the younger set still looking for approval for their vaccine, waiting for a birthday to be old enough is a real source of frustration.
All these issues were created by adults—and yet it’s children who have no choice but to deal with the fallout. So between virtual-to-physical transitions, mask wearing, and vaccines, how are kids really feeling about going back to school? We went straight to the source to give children a voice. Here’s what they had to say.
‘I feel like I should have never passed fifth grade.'
Although few students would ever admit actually wanting to go back to school, most seem genuinely excited to return to the classroom. Maison Smith, a 14-year-old incoming freshman in New Rochelle, New York, says he actually likes being in a classroom, listening to the teacher, and looking at the board.
“When virtual learning came along, I wouldn’t do everything like I used to,” he says. “I wouldn’t talk and present as much. No one would talk. It was a challenge, but I’m excited now to go back to school.”
Twelve-year-old Zora Nunley, an eighth grader from Detroit, cannot wait to correct the procrastination habit she developed during remote learning.
“[Being in school] brings you a sense of urgency and makes it easier to stay on top of your work,” she says. “When everything starts to feel the same, your sense of time and your sense of urgency goes out the window. It’s like, what’s the point?” (Did your child develop any quirky social habits during the pandemic? This article can help.)
The ability to physically raise a hand in class and be seen and called on is what 14-year- old Miles Haynes of Mequon, Wisconsin, longs for in his freshman year.
“We had such big classes with multiple pages of screens, and the teacher couldn’t see everyone at once,” he says. “To answer a question, you’d have to unmute right there, and most of the time I didn’t do that quick enough.”
Yet not every scholar is thrilled about returning to all aspects of the live classroom experience.
“The group project part, that is going to be challenging,” says nine-year-old Miles Nunley from Detroit (and Zora’s brother). “I’m more independent, and I don’t like doing projects, working with other people.” (If your kids are feeling stressed about returning to school, check out this advice.)
For 11-year-old Kevin “KJ” Ward of Edina, Minnesota, the chance to sit or stand less than an arm’s length from friends, in the same room, without plexiglass dividers and social distance tape on the floor is more meaningful than any lesson scribbled on a smartboard. And he definitely thinks he’ll benefit academically by being back in the classroom.
“I feel like I should have never passed fifth grade because honestly I never submitted any assignments,” he says. “I just didn’t have the energy.”
Milan Smith of New Rochelle, Maison’s 11-year-old sister, felt so far behind that she opted for summer enrichment.
“I have a summer assignment for reading to see my current reading level,” she says. “I got help out of school to prepare me for middle school because the things they were teaching me [last year] they should have taught me already. It was just crazy.”
Other students are a little anxious about getting used to a routine again. Last year as a remote student, Lonnie “LJ” McAllister’s time was his own. This year, the incoming freshman from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, will have a 45-minute commute to his Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.
“The main thing for me was being able to sleep late and roll out of bed, put on a jacket, and get on a class,” says the 14-year-old. “I think I’ll dread having to get up early each morning.”
On the flip side, Miles from Wisconsin hopes the discipline he developed during remote learning translates to this new school year.
“I set timers for each of my classes so I’d never be late,” he says. “I would always turn my assignments in on time. I would wake up at the same time and never sleep in. I did find I liked that about myself.”
‘I’m tired of wearing a mask.'
For some, the enthusiasm about returning to school full time is tempered with anxiety about their health—as well as anxiety over how much their health has become such a hot-button issue for adults.
Though 14-year-old Maison isn’t interested in getting vaccinated right now—feeling that youth and a strong immune system are on his side—he thinks most adults should be.
“The people who are older than me who are around me … I know that they’ve had the vaccine, so I feel more comfortable,” he says. “But the teachers who don’t have the vaccine, I don’t really understand that.”
Other children who are vaccinated continue to also wear masks to protect others. Zora Nunley, the 12-year-old from Detroit, says it’s her younger brother Miles she’s protecting.
“I do wear a mask even though I’m fully vaccinated,” she says. “If I get it, I could spread it to him, and that could be problematic.” (Here are tips on getting your child to mask up.)
The inconsistent adult enforcement of wearing masks at school last year is what 10-year-old Rylin Morrow of Albany, Georgia, found confusing—and hopes will be better this school year.
“It was pretty stressful,” she says. “My reading teacher was very strict with the masks, but my other teachers didn’t bother.”
Soledad Seclen-Otero describes her anxiety level as “10” because of lax mask behavior coupled with the Delta variant—especially because the eight-year-old’s grandmother is immunocompromised.
“In school I was still worried because we were in spaces with closed doors even though we were six feet apart,” says the fourth grader from New York City. “People are wearing masks down under their chins. And they didn’t bother to pick them up.” As for this year, “I will absolutely continue to remind my classmates to pick up their masks.”
Others express frustration at the idea of yet another year in masks—as well as the wait to become vaccinated.
“I’m tired of wearing a mask so I just want to be vaccinated right now,” says KJ, the 11-year-old from Minnesota. “I don’t want to wait another so many months until my birthday in May.” (This article explains why vaccines for younger children are taking so long.)
Karan Tambar of Queens is equally frustrated that he’s waiting for a vaccine, but the sixth grader at the United Nations International School is happy that it’s available for others he cares about. “I’m 11, and 12 is the youngest age. It’s so annoying,” he says. “I used to be worried about my grandparents but once they got their vaccine, I was no longer worried as much.”
What awaits many of the nation’s school children like 11-year-old Emery Anderson of Franklin, Michigan, may still be a school year filled with surprises. Yet, as her first year of middle school unfolds, Emery is certain of at least one thing: “I am definitely ready.” In the end, that’s all any parent can hope for.