Lucas Fonte’s first day of virtual third grade was a virtual flop. There was no exciting wait for the school bus or morning greeting from the bus driver, Mrs. Rodriguez. Instead, the talkative eight-year-old put on his school uniform shirt, sat down next to his mother and brother at the dining room table and tried to log on to the Miami-Dade Public School district’s new online learning platform.
Suddenly an image appeared on his laptop: “Oops. Request Blocked.” It was not just Lucas having problems. The entire district had been hit by a cyberattack, so his teachers asked every student to log onto Zoom.
This was not how Lucas and his brother Logan, 6, wanted to begin the new school year at North Beach Elementary in Miami Beach, Fla. Last spring, the brothers struggled with the challenges of remote learning: sitting still for hours, staying focused on lessons while classmates talked over one another, depending on their parents for extra help. Now, those challenges are back in session.
“I hope my math teacher is better on Zoom this year,” he said. “I don’t really think my mom understands it.”
For Lucas, who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the new school year is clouded by a pandemic that he is too young to fully grasp, but knows he cannot change. All he can do is wait for the school bus to arrive once again.
For tens of millions of American students returning to class in some form or another amid the coronavirus pandemic, that first day ritual is tinged with anxiety, if not fear, as they begin an academic year unlike any other. Remote learners are confronting more days at home stuck to computer screens. Students back in classrooms face social distancing restrictions and the risk of outbreaks and emergency quarantines. Some students are starting new schools virtually, with little opportunity to turn the new faces on webcams into real friends.
In interviews, students across the country shared what they were looking forward to and worried about as the new school year began.
Since it’s a new school, I don’t have any friends there. I know one person because we went to the same middle school, but everyone’s going to be new to me. I really don’t think this year I’m going to make as many friends as I did in other schools. It’s just not going to be the normal experience. I want to make friends, but I don’t want to risk anything.
Elizabeth Bradford, 13, Eighth Grade
I was working with Missoula Parks and Rec. this summer as a junior camp counselor, so I’ve already had to wear a mask for a very long period of time. I already know the symptoms of Covid-19 off the top of my head to be able to do a self-check in the morning. I’m going to miss swim meets and recess at school, and how we all can just be so close and hug each other. I feel like that’s going to to be really hard for me.
Marshay McKinley, 8, Third Grade
I’m nervous about multiplication — what if the teacher asks me and I don’t know the answer? But I’m most worried about corona, that some kids might get it and I might get it too. I’m going to use hand sanitizer and wear masks.
Nyelah Wimsatt, 16, Sophomore
We’re a very diverse school, we often have debates in certain classes, like English and history. I’m looking forward to those discussions because as I’ve seen through social media, a lot of people from my school are very vocal about what’s going on right now and what has happened. My grandfather taught me at a very young age about all the things that Columbus did and why he’s not to be celebrated. I have learned a lot more though over these past few months. People are talking about more things that aren’t talked about in school that should be.
Areli: “It’s going to be sad because usually your friends are there to support you, so we’re going to be eating lunch alone. But we’re in the same grade so we can ask each other for help. My mom wouldn’t allow me to go to school because of the virus. My grandma and my uncle got the virus and had to go to the hospital for a day but thankfully they’re healed now. At home we have laptops from the school and we work in our bedroom. It’s hard learning on a computer, especially when my head starts to hurt and my eyes get dry from staring at the screen for too long. Also, we will have to wear our school uniform, a white blouse and dark blue blazer and plaid skirt with socks and shoes. I don’t really like the idea because we’re not going to the school building, we’re staying at home. And the school said that they don’t want any decorations in your room while you’re doing the zoom call because they don’t want to distract the other students, so we will have to remove quilts we made in a sewing class and decorations we made with extra fabric.”
Angie Montas, 14, Freshman
I’m nervous about my grades and succeeding in my first year of high school.
With remote learning, it was really hard for me to focus and have my undivided attention on my school work. A lot of the time my phone would be blowing up because kids in my classes would text me and ask me stuff about the schoolwork that I didn’t even know.
This year they gave me A.P. Social Studies. I don’t know how I’m going to take that on remote, I feel like that’s going to be really hard. I’m really easily distracted.
Bryanna Montas, 15, Sophomore
I think remote learning is the safest option because we have a lot of cases here in Georgia and our school is very crowded. Going into school would probably double the cases. But I’m nervous. When we did half of our school year online my grades weren’t as good. I’m a straight-A student at school but when I was on remote, I was like an A-B student and my average was a B.
Lucas: I want to go to the school. I don’t like working at home. My mom is not a very good teacher. Last year in second grade, when I didn’t understand something my teacher wasn’t there, and my mom didn’t know how to explain it to me.
School Reopenings ›
Back to School
Updated Sept. 4, 2020
The latest on how schools are reopening amid the pandemic.
- There have been at least 51,000 coronavirus cases at more than 1,000 American college campuses since the pandemic began, the latest New York Times’s survey shows.
- SUNY Oneonta canceled in-person classes and sent students home because of a coronavirus outbreak.
- Millions of college students in Latin America are leaving their studies because of the pandemic.
- Professional licensing exams have been severely disrupted by the coronavirus, making it difficult for newly trained lawyers, doctors and others to start their careers.
I’m going to miss my friends, I liked taking the bus and lunch time. Sometimes they’d give us Doritos or ice cream, stuff my mom wouldn’t pack.
I don’t like doing things on virtual school, like dividing. It’s super hard to understand on virtual school. Last year the teacher would go through all the kids and ask them a question so the other kids, we all had to sit there waiting for our turn. It’s really boring.
Cherry Hill, N.J.
Akiva Bochner, 10, Fifth Grade
I’m doing home-school because I don’t really think school is a good fit for me. Whenever I came home from school I was sad or annoyed. Something always went wrong: I failed a test or recess got cut in half, and then when corona started, we had to do our Zoom.
We use a home-school app. It’s definitely better than Zoom. I think it’s easier because you get to learn by pushing a few buttons, on the app you can wear headphones. You can still hear but you can also be playing chess.
I’ll miss my friends, but I’d rather be in a comfortable environment at home and succeed than have friends in school and fail at everything.
Piper Carroll, 18, Senior
I’m really excited to go back since it’s my senior year. I’m bored and want to see people again. I was really scared about the virus in the beginning, mostly for my grandma. I think she would get really sick because she’s older and she has lung problems and used to smoke. I haven’t seen her in five months.
I almost feel like there’s nothing we can do to stop it at this point. I’m looking forward to all the pep rallies and football games. If they don’t happen it’ll be a huge disappointment because football games are a huge part of high school. I’ll wear a mask, but it’s nearly impossible in a school with thousands of kids to always make sure everyone has their mask on and to social distance constantly. There’s only so much space.
Emma McCarthy, 15, Sophomore
Last year I tried out for tennis. I had never played before. They announced that I had made the varsity team and I was the only freshman. We had one full team practice and then the next day was our last day before quarantine. So I’m hoping we’ll be able to play this year. Fall sports are already canceled but spring is still up for debate. It was cool saying that I was on varsity tennis, I won’t lie. But I’m also hoping we all stay safe.
Interviews were condensed and edited for clarity.