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Are Students Comfortable Returning to School?

Students all across America are beginning to return to, or currently attending, in-person school. Only four states have been fully ordered to offer complete in-person school, and nine states are in full or partial closure. This leaves 37 states with no state mandate. These states have let schools offer classes in a way that districts believe is best for them. COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and the millions of vaccinations that have already been given across the country, have led many schools to contemplate the idea of reopening to offer in-class learning. Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s announcement on Dec. 23rd set many Oregon schools into action concerning reopening schools by February to early to spring. School administrators have yet to consider the opinions of whom their decisions directly affect: the students. I conducted a survey amongst 70 students from 17 schools all across Oregon.

Student and Faculty Safety

Will students feel safe and secure in a reopened school environment as opposed to online learning? When asked to rate their own comfortability on a scale of one to ten (one being comfortable, ten being not comfortable at all), 55.9% of students answered with a number higher than five. 44.1% answered with a number lower than five. The Oregon student body is a little far off from split when expressing their comfort, most likely because of the many determining factors. 44.8% of students surveyed said that their main concern when returning to school would be their family’s safety. Data reports that children under the age of 18 represent only 8.5% of reported cases. This explains why students would be more worried about spreading COVID-19 to their loved ones. A surveyed student said, “I think going back to school can be really stressful for many teens with anxiety. Many students feel as if they are at no risk with COVID, but others may have loved ones who they worry about. I myself don’t feel particularly worried about contracting COVID, but my dad contracting COVID could be dangerous as he has asthma. Going back to school could be really uncomfortable to those with friends who are less stressed.” Similarly, 16.4% of students surveyed said that they are concerned about teacher/faculty safety. If school districts return to school without teachers vaccinated, the consequences could be deadly. A surveyed student wrote, “If we went back I myself would feel sad, but I would be very worried for other people with health conditions, teachers and staff among others. I just don’t think that it’s the right time to go back, especially because cases are bad right now.”

There is even distrust among the students themselves. Without the cooperative effort of all students following protocol together, progress towards the return back to school would be hindered. Some students have sacrificed their mental, social, emotional, and physical health in order to follow guidelines set to decrease COVID. How would it feel to have all that effort dissipated just because your fellow students want to throw a Halloween and New Years party without masks and social distancing? Students’ access to social media has revealed many truths about this dilemma. A surveyed student said, “I don’t trust a lot of people to stay safe away from school.” Sports and weekly hangouts can also spread COVID, not just when students are in the classroom. Another student wrote, “Students clearly aren’t taking mask protocols seriously (from the Snapchats, Tik Toks, and Instagram posts they make), so I’m concerned that teachers or parents will get sick if we go back.” On a completely other note, opposing students have trust in their student body and school districts. A surveyed student wrote, “I have trust in my school that it will take the proper precautions to keep its students and faculty safe.” Additionally, another wrote, “I feel safe returning to school because I know they will take the right precautions.”

Rushing and Readjustment

After a whole semester online, most students have become well adjusted to online learning. Some students don’t understand the sudden rush to return to in-person learning because COVID isn’t even close to being solved in the United States. With cases still higher than when schools shut down, some students feel they are being rushed back into in-person school. One student wrote, “They’re rushing us to go back. It feels like there’s a complete disregard for our safety, and, while I know some parents are pushing, I am not a student who needs to go back, and I honestly regret choosing a hybrid model over a complete online model. I don’t want to go to school every single day, stressed and scared that I’ll get sick.” Another student said, “I believe that it’s best to wait for COVID-19 to set itself straight, rather than rushing forward with reopening. I’d feel much better about coming to school if the vaccine was available to the general public, and if we waited until our school district was eligible by state metrics before returning to school.”

Mental Health

Students’ health should be prioritized along with their education. Mental health is one of the biggest factors to a student's school and life experience as a whole. 47.8% of students surveyed said that returning to school would affect their mental health positively. “It’s tough to not have an obligation/reason to leave the house everyday, it can make it feel like you are living the same day over and over and with no sign of the loop ending. Personally, having a reason to get dressed, get out of the house, and have any social interaction whatsoever will make me healthier mentally even if it's only 2 days a week,” one student said. A study conducted in June, by Core Spaces, concluded 75% of college students reported feeling more anxious or stressed due to online learning. According to counselors Jessica Oyoque and Courtney Brown at MSU’s Counseling and Psychiatric Service, “[Students] may experience increased fatigue, headaches, lack of motivation, avoidance/procrastination, ineffective time management, feelings of isolation due to limited socialization in-person, minimized awareness, and understanding of others created by in-person dialogues.” Numerous students voiced that online school has had a negative impact on their mental health. “Online school has crushed my mental health in a way in-person school never could,” a student wrote. Contrastingly, a good deal of youth surveyed said that a return to school would cause them to have an increase in anxiety and stress, as if students didn’t have enough already. One student suggested these anxieties would be a distraction to the learning environment: “Going back to school would make school extremely stressful. On top of trying to learn, I have to be worried about my classmates potentially carrying the virus. I feel as though my fear for my well-being would be distracting.” The culture shock of shifting between in-person and online greatly affected students and their academic performance. As mentioned before, another student added, “it will be adjusting to something all over again, which can cause a lot of emotional stress.” A proposed school life full of restrictions, separation, and uncertainty.

The Importance of Student Voices

When asked what students would like to be heard by administrators, one student wrote, “Do you hate us?” It's the school administrators’ job to decide a student’s academic experience, and one of the biggest factors that determine an adolescent’s future. So why wouldn’t they include more students in the conversation? It is necessary for students to have a say in a system and administration that will directly affect them for the rest of their lives. Incorporate more student voices.

Carmen Karsonovich is a sophomore at Lake Oswego High School and a member at Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.

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