As school gets back to normal, things are better — and worse

COVID restrictions are mostly gone, but apathy and anxiety have taken their place.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

“Things are better this year, right?” I am asked again and again. The short answer, from this high school administrator, is yes and no, depending on which aspect we choose to focus on.

On the surface, things are mostly back to normal. We’re not in masks or tracking COVID cases or on a hybrid learning schedule. We’re having assemblies, sporting events, band concerts, and school dances. Hallway shenanigans are back. We had a senior prank last year. A couple of boys rounded up some local ducks and let them loose in the main hall.

I wasn’t even annoyed. It was nice to have the pranks back.

Brandon McCoy (Courtesy photo)

This school year, I haven’t taken a single angry phone call from a parent about COVID restrictions (too loose or too rigid) and haven’t sat on a committee to determine the safest way to keep schools open. I haven’t heard the phrase, “We’re building the airplane in the air,” in many months. These are all victories in my mind and indications that the worst is behind us.

There are, however, some unfortunate realities that are far more prevalent now in a post-COVID high school world. The two primary culprits I see regularly are student apathy and a lack of perseverance. When students learned in a virtual setting, either fully or partially, the “school muscles” that they had been developing since kindergarten, didn’t get much exercise. The routine — one that so many students relied on to thrive — was broken.

I found that the kids who learned online only during the 2020-21 school year struggled the most with readjustment to campus life. Learning largely in isolation, some overwhelmed students fell behind; some gave up on their studies altogether. We are now trying desperately to catch them up academically, but we are starting to have difficult conversations with families about graduation being a semester or year later than expected for some learners.

We are also reminding our students how to exercise those “school muscles.” But apathy, which shows up mostly in the form of school days missed and assignments not completed, can be difficult to counteract. The overriding sentiment seems to be, “Why does any of this matter?” It’s especially prevalent among underclassmen, who were in middle school during the height of COVID learning. As such, they missed some vital developmental skills — grit, time management, self-advocacy, social communication, and even just how to handle their bodies — that the middle school experience provides.

The overriding sentiment seems to be, ‘Why does any of this matter?’

Juniors and seniors seem to have adjusted better. Juniors, after all, had made it through most of eighth grade, and seniors were already high school freshmen by the time schools shut down in March 2020. They are missing fewer pieces in the “this is how we do school” toolbox. The older kids also seem wiser than in years past. They’ve been through a lot.

We are, of course, experiencing our share of low lows this semester. We’ve seen students facing severe mental health crises, including those too anxious to come to school and those who have run away from home. We are hearing from parents struggling with how to help their children. Through a partnership with a local organization, we are offering free, on-campus therapy for students. And our days as administrators are booked solid with students who are still relearning how to “do” school.

Through it all, though, our teachers continue to show up with compassion and tenacity. But unlike in the spring of 2020, when parents — trying in vain to guide their students through virtual learning — heaped praise upon them, educators today are working under a dark cloud. Recent years have brought loud outside voices weighing in on everything from how we teach about race and gender to which books are in the school library.

There is more trepidation in teaching today than I have seen in my 15 years as an educator. But there is resolve, too. We went through COVID. We can do this.

As for the ubiquitous questions about whether things are better this year: On a day-to-day basis, they really do feel better. COVID took away social interactions and ate away at our school culture. We’ve reclaimed that culture; we’re in the process of catching students up on the academics they missed, all the while sharpening the school skills they need to be successful. There are victories each day.

Dr. Brandon McCoy is a high school administrator in Kansas City, Missouri, where he lives with his wife and three children. He writes about life, and public education at The Worst Kids Always Become Principals.