On the First Day of a New Kind of School Year
If, on the first day of my Junior year, you told me I was experiencing my last first day of high school class in person, I would have laughed. But here we are, and no one’s laughing. During this pandemic in which millions are jobless and we’re required to wear masks and keep our distance from each other, youth and teachers are all logging into virtual classrooms to begin our first week of school.
My name is Kathya and I am a senior at June Jordan School for Equity. I am on track to becoming the first in my family to graduate high school. Education has been valuable to me for as long as I can remember. It is the most effective way I have to impact positively the course of my life. I see so much value in education that I was elected to sit on the San Francisco Unified School District’s Board of Education as a student delegate.
But things have changed dramatically.
In this school year, the first week of school means a reality where I can virtually raise my hand and a teacher can mute me with the click of a button. Practically no one could have predicted that classrooms around the country would be closed down, and yet here we are, learning to adapt to a socially-distanced norm where students participate solely through their screens, and many of us don’t show our faces. It feels impossible to accept that this is what my last year of high school will look like.
One week in, all I can think is, “How are we going to make it?”
For years, researchers, doctors, and well-meaning adults have scolded people of my generation for being buried in their screens. Today, even the best teachers can’t avoid requiring us to stare at a screen for hours in order to get the education we need and deserve — even if that education feels as remote as it is.
We’ve been told, “This is all we can do for now,” and “We don’t know when this will end,” and “Forget the old normal because it is long gone.” While some students watch their loved ones die without being able to hold them, others watch their parents lose the jobs that kept food on the table, and more — or likely even the same students — receive daily reminders from police and the government that their lives don’t matter. Amid this, we must open our phones or laptops to learn about Founding Fathers and ancient civilizations that are long gone. We are expected to do our best but have little way of telling our teachers that, although it may not meet pre-pandemic expectations, students, too, are doing the best we can do under the circumstances.
This pandemic shines a spotlight on the inequities this country has long lived with: food deserts, lack of healthcare, homelessness, poverty, racism, discrimination, and other things that make living in this country feel impossible. I can’t help but wonder; are we taking advantage of this moment in history? Are we ensuring that communities such as schools will lead us into a better future? Are we offering students financial, emotional, and physical support? Are we teaching students that they must make the change they want to see in the world?
The school I have known for twelve years feels very far away. My classrooms feel disconnected from the strong community I’ve been proudly part of at June Jordan School for Equity. And yet, I maintain my optimism. I’ve seen teachers become more open minded than ever before, teaching more creatively, creating more accessible spaces for more youth, and being willing to learn from students in new ways.
Whether we like it or not, classrooms everywhere are changing. It’s in our best interest to make sure those changes are for the better — because the students opening their laptops or phones to log in for their first day of school are the future, and we will not be stopped.
I hope you are inspired to play a role in ensuring students across the nation receive a great education, even during a pandemic: we deserve it.
Kathya is a leader in her school’s Peer Resources program, where this spring they launched QuaranTeen, a blog to raise up youth voices during lockdown. Listen to past episodes here, and be on the lookout for Kathya’s podcast featuring this blog post.