Chicago Public Schools has set April 16 as its target date to reopen high schools, leaving Kenwood Academy students to make a decision, along with their families, as to whether or not they will go back to their classrooms.
"I know we're part of the younger generation, but just seeing the generations one or two generations older than us are having a hard time understanding what's going on — just imagine how it can be going through a 16-year-old's head," said Sydney Shearer, a junior from Chatham.
Sophomore and Hyde Park resident Morgan Charles said it was her own decision not to go back, figuring there wasn't much point in returning for a month and a half after she had gotten used to virtual learning. Shearer and Ashton Carter, a junior from Beverly, both said Kenwood's block schedule makes online classes flexible.
"I have this really big chunk of time where I don't have class," Carter said. "On Fridays, I don't have my first class at all until 1:25. What does that look like for me? I don't want to be at Kenwood at 9 a.m. until 1 o'clock not doing anything."
Furthermore, Carter said not going back to the school building gives more space to students who need in-person learning more than he does. "Some students' home situations aren't the best, and they need to come back," he said.
Anthony Armstead, a sophomore, is looking forward to going back to Kenwood, saying that his development and learning has been "stunted" by being at home with his grandmother in the south suburbs, having moved away from his parents' house in Bronzeville earlier in the pandemic. With a computer, a phone and gaming consoles at his constant disposal, he finds it hard to engage with his classes and coursework.
He did say that there was an improvement in educational quality between the retreat from the classroom a year ago and the beginning of the current academic year this fall. But even though his grades are still good, Armstead feels like he isn't learning as well.
"I feel like whatever I do, I will always be distracted in some way, shape or form," he said. "I feel like I need to be in some type of brick-and-mortar building."
Charles said she feels like teachers have treated students with a greater degree of leniency than before, because of the circumstances. Shearer said the teachers are trying to keep students engaged with remote lessons but can only do so much across screens.
"There isn't much I can say — it's completely different," she said. "I definitely feel like I would have learned more in person because a lot of things are very limited. You can't call your teacher over and say, 'Oh, can you look at this problem?' It seems like time is much more limited, especially with our block schedules. Everything is completely different."
Nya Latham, a senior from Englewood, commented on how hard it is to do dance outside at home, without an entire class in unison around her. Doing it inside wasn't an option because there was furniture in the way. She does her academic work in bed (strewn with 20 pages of paper when she spoke with the Herald) and goes downstairs to eat.
"I have a routine, but it's not the most healthy routine," she said. "I get up in the morning, I roll over, I turn my computer on, and then I'm in bed for half the day. I'll get up and then come back to my my bed and then stay here to do my homework, go shower and then go to sleep. My room is literally my safe space now, but it's been invaded by school. That's the one thing that I miss: being able to get that break at school, and then you go home."
There is also the question of safety. Armstead turns 16 on Easter, at which point he will be eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Throughout the pandemic, he has mostly stayed put in his grandmother's South Holland home for fear of contracting the coronavirus and exposing her. She has been vaccinated, and once Kenwood reopens, he plans to return to his parents' house in Chicago and go back to school in-person.
"I think we all want to make sure we're being safe rather than sorry. For me, I'm not too worried, my parents either. I'm pretty sure they're both vaccinated, and my family's working on getting me vaccinated," he said. "I think about my safety, but it's not something I'm too concerned about, going back to school."
Seventeen-year-old Latham is also unvaccinated but said she is a little hesitant, citing the side effects of those whom she knows who have gotten their shots. But she is concerned about the number of Americans, including some in her own family, who are traveling in a pandemic.
Carter is also concerned about getting vaccinated, questioning why mask-wearing would still be required after getting one and expressing concern about the side effects, though he supposes more families would send their students back if all of them had gotten their shots.
But at this point he's worried about going back to school in-person, saying he would be constantly anxious about catching the virus, and said he knows the environment would be different from normal with masks and social distancing in the building.
When he goes back, Armstead expects Kenwood parents to make their students abide by the rules — quarantining after travel, masks in the building — and he wants the school to ensure that its staff and students will mask up and ensure social distancing, too. "If we're going to be here for the rest of the year, I feel like everybody needs to play their part, he said. "From the start, this has been a village-type of problem, not just a single person. And I think the more people who cooperate, the quicker this can end."
Armstead said the year of remote learning has been a period of maturation, saying, "I feel like I had been really annoying before the pandemic, so I'm glad I had time to reflect and gain a chiller, more calm personality." But although his stress has not appreciably elevated — he, like Latham, called his room his safe space, where he has everything he needs — he said his social anxiety has been amplified by a year spent primarily within its four walls.
"I really want to see people, talk to people, and when I did see people, I would always be worried if I got them sick, if they got me sick," he said. "I just want to be around people and live my high school experience to the max, because I feel like I took advantage of a lot of things before the pandemic, and once I get out, I'm definitely going to live life as I should."
Carter sees his friends twice a month at the most, for fear of contracting the coronavirus, though some Kenwood sports and clubs have resumed meetings and practices. Shearer, for instance, is now going back to the school three days a week, noting that she has to fill out Chicago Public Schools' health screener every time before she does so.
For Carter's part, he anticipates social awkwardness when he goes back, having not seen so many people in one space in so long, though he and Shearer both expressed confidence in the Kenwood administrators' ability to bridge pandemic-driven divides once everyone is together again.
"I am looking forward to going back to school in the fall, just not in April," Shearer said. "I'm looking forward to having a senior year and enjoying everything that we had to miss out on this year."
Charles said she and her friends still talk semi-regularly, and she said she does not need to talk with people every day. "Honestly for me," she said, "remote has been kind of a way for me to have alone time to myself but also to have the option to talk to my friends if I wanted to. I think when we go back to school in the fall that my friendships will bounce back. I honestly don't think it will be that different."
Early last fall, Latham and her friends met at a park in Indiana; months later, she saw a few other friends when she picked up some materials at the school. Though her water polo practices will resume soon, she said, "If I just went out yesterday, then I'm not going to go back out today with people. I'll wait."
Her sadness comes unexpectedly, and she puts on music to try to calm down in order to finish her homework and go to bed when it does. She eagerly anticipates being able to be around her friends again.
"When I went up to the school to take senior pictures a few days ago, I saw one of my friends," she said. "We almost bawled our eyes out, because we were so happy just to see each other. I talk to her almost every day, but just seeing her and being able to hug her, it was the best thing ever."