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Celebrating Return to In-Person School

May 1, 2021

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 29, 2021

School is more popular than ever. Old school, that is — when kids, staff and teachers inhabited the same building.

Each day was a buzz of activity where students navigated hallways, traveled up and down stairs, ran about in gymnasiums and on playgrounds, ate and laughed in loud cacophonous lunchrooms and engaged in live, face-to-face conversations.

Those schools, however imperfect, were thriving ecosystems of academic learning, emotional development and social interaction.

While many returned to a new version of this old school experience months ago, our middle schoolers Zoe and Adam, along with most of their peers, are finally returning to a full in-person schedule. When class schedules were posted online the weekend before this long-awaited reset, Zoe and Adam were most concerned about learning whether they would be in classes with their friends — just like the old days.

Both have maintained connections to their peers this past year, though far fewer in number than in normal times and mostly in one-to-one interactions, occasionally a group of three, and almost always outdoors. Zoe has continued gymnastics team with practice three times a week and Adam attended an outdoor wilderness survival camp on Wednesdays through fall and winter. So, by each having some friend contact and one special activity — more than many kids have had access to — they’ve been fortunate to experience some normalcy in their out-of-school lives.

Still, at age 11 and 14, respectively, they both long for the daily presence of their friends and teachers, and the social connection that is not only at the core of the in-person school experience but also central to healthy child development.

Academic learning loss is a real and unfortunate byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one that disproportionately impacts children and families that have fewer resources. But just as important as acknowledging and remediating learning loss, it will be essential to support kids in this new phase of the pandemic — reconnecting.

In an online article titled, “Good News: Your Brain Will Adapt to Post-COVID Life,” a neuroscientist who studies the impact of stress on the human brain is cited. In short, she posits that the brain fog that kids and adults alike have been experiencing during the pandemic is a product of the stress resulting from increased isolation and loneliness, disruption of routines and persistent screen time, among other factors.

The researcher, Kim Hellemans, suggests that “there’s [also] going to be a reverse culture shock when we re-enter society, some of us will bounce back right away and others will need additional support.” 

I have a fairly introverted personality (a tendency shared by about 25% of Americans). We introverts best maintain our personal energy through ample amounts of alone time and being in environments with low stimulation. For some, therefore, readjusting to high-stimulation school environments — students and teachers — will result in being more tired and overwhelmed, at least initially.

This will be accompanied by a decrease in sleep as kids, at least our Zoe and Adam, will be setting their alarms 30 minutes earlier than was necessary for remote learning, while at the same time increased sport and social activities will push bedtimes later.

All of this will be happening at the same time that students and teachers engage in the third start of school since September, where schedules, assignments and expectations are changing once again, for the remaining two months of school.

My wife, Lori, and I share both the excitement and reservation expressed by our kids as they prepare for the return to full-time school. Mostly, though, we welcome the opportunity for them to experience the social and emotional connection that they crave and that propels them in their learning and life journey.

I’ll sincerely miss seeing Zoe and Adam throughout the day — connecting over snacks or lunch, checking in on their classes and homework, and hearing muffled sounds of their presence through the ceiling of our basement office. I will also enjoy the solitude of working from home, with the only the sound of our dog Luna gently snoring in the background.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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