I recently went back to school in person. It’s a huge relief.

On campus, I feel more connected to my teachers and peers. And there’s no unmuting required.

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

Going back to school in person feels like a breath of fresh air. 

It is only once a week, which isn’t ideal, but it still makes me feel more grounded. The divide between home and school is a little larger. I enjoy the separation; in remote learning, school feels like doing homework all day. 

Mirelle Liimatta (Courtesy photo)

On the days I am in the building, I feel happier, more capable, and better able to focus on work. It’s pretty far from regular school, as there are many restrictions, such as the spacing of our desks and the masking of our faces. But in the classroom I am at least surrounded by people — about 15, compared to the normal 35 —  and some of the social aspect of school has returned. 

There’s still a lot of adjusting that has to happen. We don’t move for classes (teachers visit us), and we are with the same people all day. It is hard to read facial expressions and hear each other because the masks cover our faces and muffle our words. I had to message a friend to communicate because even two desks away we couldn’t hear each other. There is also little opportunity to talk to friends in other classes. There are no offhand remarks to people in the hallways, no, “Hey, how was this class? What did you do?” 

Still, it’s a huge upgrade. I wake up earlier to return to campus, but I am happy to sacrifice that sleep if it means I get to see a schoolyard with people, even socially distanced ones. 

I have a study hall in the morning, but study hall with other people is better than classes staring at a screen. I can talk to friends, and we can help each other with work. It feels like we are in it together. I even uttered the words to a friend, “It’s OK that we are confused because we can be confused together.” It is great to be able to work through things with other people. It’s great not to be sitting alone. 

On Zoom, where I learned exclusively for the better part of a year and where I still spend most school days, I feel disconnected from everyone on the screen and barely register the time passing. If someone at home asks what I did that day, I will often answer “nothing.” Online lessons are easy to forget. 

When I am in person, I get to talk to teachers and other students. I even have gotten to know some people I rarely talked to before COVID. If I were in a normal class with all my friends, I would have likely stuck to the people I already knew. But with many friends doing remote learning, I branched out and talked to more people. 

Online, I don’t feel comfortable just unmuting and saying something. Zoom chats aren’t the place to be social; it is only for answers to a teacher’s question, and besides, I worry about making a typo. Even outside of school, I don’t express myself very well over chats. I don’t feel like I can crack jokes through chats, as my tone of voice says a lot. 

And teachers don’t really get to know you very well when you are remote. They see you on a screen, but there are limited opportunities for staying after class and asking a question. I feel as though I am breaking the teacher’s flow if I participate. 

Clicking on and off all day and trying to focus is completely draining. Sitting in a chair all day and staring at a screen shouldn’t zap all my energy, but it does. In person, I spend more time outdoors. I even take walks after school, and I come home with more energy.

It’s also made a big difference to go outside to do lessons. We had a science lab in a park, dissecting flowers; it was so much better than looking at a picture of a flower on a worksheet. Outside, we could work together, ask the teachers questions, and touch the flower we were studying. 

Another time, all of us got carried away doing a project and created a 15-foot stick sculpture, adorned with old newspapers. In trying to one-up the other teams, we all played off one another’s energy to complete a project that never would have gotten off the ground were we online. This was not a Zoom breakout room where nobody turns on their cameras and everyone seems afraid to talk. This time, the group work actually worked. 

In person, I feel included, and encouraged to participate and really pay attention. I feel more connected to both my peers and teachers. I can talk to people, and it feels more natural. No unmuting necessary.

Mirelle Liimatta is a ninth grader in New York City. She writes and takes photos for her school’s newspaper.