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Op-Ed: Here’s everything I missed as a COVID-era student. Will any of it ever come back?

An illustration of teenagers in a school classroom wearing masks and foot tapping
The writer, a high school student, is returning to full-time, in-person school for their sophomore year.
(Getty Images)

I don’t know what most of the kids in my grade look like. I’ve never gone to a high school dance. My last “regular” school year began in the fall of 2018; that was seventh grade. This week, I start 10th grade.

I have watched many movies about high school. Not one was about a kid eating by themselves at a desk while another student six feet away also eats alone. And I’ve yet to see a movie about students who are only allowed into school every other day.

On a Friday in March 2020, my French teacher looked up from her computer and said we wouldn’t be coming to school on Monday. My first thought was, I hope this lasts for two weeks instead of just one. I could use a vacation.

Adults told me school would be back in a week, maybe two. Now, 18 months and two unusual school years later, I am looking for the stash of masks I wasn’t supposed to need for sophomore year.

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This past school year I was scheduled to attend school in-person every other day between September and April. But there was not a lot of consistency. School sometimes would go virtual for a few days, a teacher would be out, or schedules would change because of positive coronavirus cases or exposures, or updated regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state or school district.

My in-person school days started with me putting on the mask that I would wear until 4 p.m. I got on the bus at 6:46 a.m. Even in a Massachusetts winter, my bus still had to have all the windows open. I was not allowed to sit with anyone, so I listened to Spotify to pass the time.

My first class began with the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance over the PA system, and then the speaker would remind me to sanitize and wash my hands.

Classes were quiet. I don’t think anyone knew how to act. There was no chatter before or after class, just silence. We didn’t have lockers and we weren’t allowed to hang out in the hallways. There were school officials stationed around the building to make sure we complied.

More than once I would be looking forward to seeing a friend but would get to school and that person wouldn’t be there. Those who tested positive for the virus, or were close contacts of someone who had, had to either quarantine or show negative tests to come back to school.

If a teacher had to stay home, I had to spend that class period in study hall instead. A few times there were so many teachers out that more study hall space had to be created to accommodate all the students whose classes were missing a teacher.

I went back in person full time in April. A friend and I made a bet about how many coronavirus cases there would be in the first week. I won. I guessed there would be at least 15 cases. We hit that by Wednesday. Fortunately, cases dropped after a few weeks.

That first day with all students back, the number of people in the building doubled, class sizes doubled, and space between desks halved. This followed all COVID-19 protocols, but it was still scary. Going to school meant the possibility of getting seriously ill. The good thing was the eerie silence in the building disappeared. Talking was back.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed me of memories. I worked so hard in eighth-grade French class, and it took away my spring class trip to Quebec. It canceled my eighth-grade graduation trip to Washington. I didn’t get a proper middle school graduation.

Losing the chance to make those memories was awful, but the day-to-day protocols in high school felt worse.

At robotics, I had to space six feet out from my teammates while working on a robot that was 18 inches tall and wide. One person would go to the robot and the others would step away. Jazz band rehearsal took up the entire auditorium — we weren’t allowed to sit next to one another, so we had to spread out to play.

I wasn’t allowed to high-five other teammates at cross-country practice after a long run or challenging workout. At the beginning of softball season, I had to wear a mask underneath my catcher’s helmet.

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Hanging out with friends was entering the local cafe two at a time, ordering a muffin, walking to the town commons, and eating while sitting in a circle six feet apart from one another.

I am not anti-mask or anti-vaccine. I know life can go back to when there was no fear of getting sick, no masks and no social distancing. We have vaccines that allow for this.

I’m about to return to school in person every day, hopefully for the entire school year. As of now my school is not mandating vaccines, but my state just required that masks be worn indoors until at least Oct. 1. For now, the only certainty I have about my sophomore year is that the rules will keep on changing.

Adults tell me that the way my generation is handling the pandemic is inspiring. That’s a wonderful compliment. But I’d rather have my regular life back.

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Sidhi Dhanda is about to start her sophomore year at Hopkinton High School in Hopkinton, Mass.


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