The Reality of the Return to In-Person School: A Middle and High Schoolers’ Perspective

After a few weeks of in-person schooling for most elementary school students, Ann Arbor Public Schools opened their doors to middle and high school students.

in-person school
A social studies classroom at Ann Arbor Open middle school. Teacher Cedric York works to manage both his in-person “roomies” and his virtual “zoomies.” Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Swift’s Twitter.

The halls of every Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) high school and middle school stayed barren for over a year. On May 3, they became slightly less empty. All AAPS schools were open to students in Cohort A (those who wanted to be in-person and had last names between the letters A-M) while all other students continued to be online. 

In-person students were welcomed by their teachers and administration but mostly found classes empty. For Clague middle schooler Emily Hu, the biggest class of in-person students she has contained a total of five students. She finds that many of her teachers are strict about the ways that the in-person students interact.

“[The teachers] make the people in the front of the room go out first so that the people in the back won’t pass over them,” the seventh-grader said. “Some teachers make you wipe your desk before or after you sit at it.” 

Hu has not seen students breaking the mandatory mask rule or gathering in big groups in the hallways. One of the biggest changes for middle and high school students has been a split block schedule. All students go to their block classes for that day twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. This split allows for students to return home before the lunch period.   

in-person school
Photo courtesy of the AAPS school board meeting on March 10, 2021.

“From a kid’s view, [the afternoon] is really fun because there is not a lot of work,” Hu said. “The 30 minutes is independent work or for stuff you have not finished up. If I did everything in the morning, I wouldn’t do anything for the one hour and a half in the afternoon.”

Another Clague middle schooler, Ashley Han agrees with Hu’s sentiments about the afternoon sessions especially as it becomes a way for all students to interact more compared to the morning class. Han has chosen not to attend in-person learning at all for the remainder of the school year. She is in Cohort C with all other completely virtual students. She decided this mostly because she knew that in-person school would not truly feel like in-person to her. 

“It feels like there are two sides now,” Han said. “Hybrid students will talk with themselves and online students will talk amongst themselves. Hearing about how you just sit apart from each other, it doesn’t really feel like we would be a class, we would just be learning.”

Teachers have become the middle ground for the zoomies and roomies. Usually, when an in-person student says something or asks a question, the teacher will echo it back to the online students. Most teachers have their online audio connected to their room’s speakers. This way, when an online student talks, all of the in-person students can also hear. 

“The teachers have that tough job of making sure the students in their class are both paying attention while the students online are also interacting,” Han said. 

Both students have found positives and negatives within their experiences as a whole but hope that they can return to completely in-person school for the 2021-2022 school year. Han has recently received her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine after the CDC approved use for 12- to 15-year-olds

“I’ve definitely gotten lazier and sometimes I’ll get distracted,” Han said. “But positively, I have tried to get more on task which is giving me more responsibility. Because no one is here to watch me, I get to make my own decisions and kind of grow up.”