Quiet lunchrooms, hands-off learning: Teens share what school looks like during omicron

·11 min read

Reminders of the pandemic’s ripple effects are everywhere in America's schools. The teachers who must livestream lessons for students in quarantine. The sanitation routines at the end of class. All the missing staff and students.

Adults have battled over how best to operate schools in ways that safely support the development of children during the pandemic. Protocols vary greatly by region, even amid a nationwide surge. What does school look like nearly two years into COVID-19? When classrooms are open, what kind of learning is taking place?

For answers, USA TODAY turned to a well-equipped, opinionated source: the great American teenager. We asked half a dozen high school students nationwide to document a school day in words, photos or video. Here's what they said.

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Hands-off learning

"Being a high schooler during the pandemic grants you a lot of independence, which could be beneficial," Tristan Wilcher, 17, a junior at Indianapolis' Purdue Polytechnic High School Englewood, said in a video he recorded last week in an empty school hallway. "But at the same time, we're still high school students. We don't entirely know what we're doing."

Some students lamented all the self-directed schoolwork they do because of staff absences. Others noted the return to real class hasn't always meant a return to hands-on learning.

Eliana Smith says the table in physics class at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas,  is normally filled with students.
Eliana Smith says the table in physics class at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, is normally filled with students.

If this were a normal year, Macie Trimarchi, a senior in Albany, New York, would be learning advanced skills such as DNA splicing in her “Personal Genetics” course. She signed up for it because she wants to pursue a career in the sciences; she thought it would give her an idea of what she'd learn in college.

Because she and her peers at Colonie Central High School were in remote learning for so long, they have to play catch-up – learning lab safety, for example, and how to use Bunsen burners. Last Tuesday, they spent a session watching a documentary on the dangers of future technology. She enjoys the course but wishes she could do the lab activities former students got to do.

Tiernee Pitts, 17, a senior at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, had an “especially bad” Accounting II class Wednesday. Pitts and her peers were supposed to learn how to use the Quickbooks software, but their teacher was out with COVID-19. Nobody else could answer questions about the software, she said.

There wasn’t even anyone to let them into the classroom for the first 10 minutes, according to Pitts. Students huddled around the door waiting to be let in; almost none wore masks. (School mask mandates have been banned in Texas.)

Students gather outside a classroom as they wait to be let inside at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas.
Students gather outside a classroom as they wait to be let inside at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas.

When another teacher let them in, Pitts said, students were told to work on whatever had been assigned.

“It just felt like we were being babysat," she wrote.

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Attending AP Biology class fills Eliana Smith, 17, another senior at Cedar Ridge, with anxiety.

"Despite being a class often taken by people who want to be doctors, not many people wear masks here,” Smith wrote Wednesday. “The class is about half empty. Two of the people I used to sit with now have COVID.

"We’re learning about cell signaling, though I believe most of this class would benefit from a lesson about the transmission of viruses. How is it possible that people who hope to be doctors are so dismissive of a pandemic?

"In the past, I’ve overheard some of the people who don’t wear masks discussing how they’d never get tested or vaccinated, so I’m incredibly cautious in this class.”

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In Madelyn Terry's molecular biology class at Colonie Central High School in Albany, N.Y., students work in smaller groups.
In Madelyn Terry's molecular biology class at Colonie Central High School in Albany, N.Y., students work in smaller groups.

Learning in person has been so much better than the alternative for Treva Warzocha, 17, a senior at Colonie Central in Albany. Last year, she said, teachers were distracted trying to educate kids both at home and in the classroom. Sometimes the internet crashed. Warzocha had a harder time retaining information and forming a relationship with her teachers under the hybrid model her school used earlier in the pandemic.

Being out of school for so long really shows during her seventh- and eighth-period science classes, she said.

“A year off of doing hands-on lab work has affected my overall performance in the class,” she wrote. “Typically most science classes have a lab period every other day, but last year when we were hybrid, a lab class in person might only be once a week.”

Lunch still distant – and less social

Students said lunchrooms are strangely quiet these days. That's in part because of students' quarantine absences.

Wilcher, the Indianapolis junior, was a first-year high schooler when the pandemic shuttered schools. He has yet to experience a normal year of high school. At lunch, students all sit in one direction at the long cafeteria tables to limit talking face to face while eating. The sprawling room is quiet for the most part.

“Before, we could definitely notice that people were more social than they are right now,” Wilcher said. "People are usually just by themselves or doing their work silently."

Tristan Wilcher is a junior at Purdue Polytechnic High School.
Tristan Wilcher is a junior at Purdue Polytechnic High School.

For teens, one of the pandemic's most enduring strains has been on lunch. The long-cherished and necessary break for food and socializing has become less cheery in places trying to limit exposure.

In New York at Colonie Central, students sign in to the cafeteria using a QR code, which helps with contact tracing. Meals are the only time students may take off their masks, but they're expected to alternate eating times when sitting in groups to limit exposure, Trimarchi said.

Students are allowed to take their masks down to eat during the study hall period in the cafeteria at Colonie Central High School in Albany, N.Y., student Treva Warzocha says. Many students have been absent because of COVID-19 quarantines, Warzocha says.
Students are allowed to take their masks down to eat during the study hall period in the cafeteria at Colonie Central High School in Albany, N.Y., student Treva Warzocha says. Many students have been absent because of COVID-19 quarantines, Warzocha says.

At Poland Central School, also in New York, the gym was converted into the middle-school lunchroom to allow for more spacing in the cafeteria, which is strictly reserved for high schoolers, wrote Nathan Draper, 18, a senior at the middle and high school of less than 300 students.

“The days of cramming as many of your friends as possible into one small circular table are sadly over,” he wrote. "These days, no more than four students sit together."

Elsewhere, students complained of the opposite problem.

In Texas, Cedar Ridge High has two lunch periods for 2,750 students, Pitts said. That means more than a thousand students could eat at the same time. Pitts said she takes advantage of the senior privilege of leaving campus for lunch.

Cedar Ridge High School students Trevor Love, left, and Tiernee Pitts sit in their AP Government class. Pitts said the majority of students in the class wear masks during the period.
Cedar Ridge High School students Trevor Love, left, and Tiernee Pitts sit in their AP Government class. Pitts said the majority of students in the class wear masks during the period.

Fellow senior Smith called the packed lunchroom "terrifying." She also leaves for lunch.

“I avoid the cafeteria like the plague,” she wrote. “There are outdoor spaces, but they’re very limited and usually filled within the first minute after the bell.”

Rushed passing periods

Last year, most of the hallways at Vanessa Tantillo’s school were restricted to traffic in one direction to improve airflow and enable distancing, the 16-year-old Long Island junior said. “It was pretty funny because even if your class was a couple doors down, you had to go in the direction of the hallway and make a loop around,” she said.

There are still some one-way or otherwise divided hallways at Half Hollow Hills High School East, but for the most part they’ve opened up. “I am glad they changed it because everyone was late to their classes,” Tantillo wrote.

Students at Colonie Central High School in Albany, New York, crowd the hallways between class periods.
Students at Colonie Central High School in Albany, New York, crowd the hallways between class periods.

Warzocha, one of the Albany seniors, does the announcements for her classmates in the morning. They’ve been tightened because of COVID-19, she said.

“Typically announcements would range from five to seven minutes in the morning, with many people speaking, but now we have cut the number down so there is more time to get to your classes and ease hallway traffic,” she wrote. “Only two seniors participate, and we usually only say the Pledge of Allegiance with one or two announcements.”

Smith makes it her mission to get to class as fast as possible to keep herself safe from COVID-19.

“If you leave quickly, the hallways aren’t full,” she said.

Pitts also tries to beat the crowds. Wednesday, she left study hall early and avoided the pre-lunch rush hour. Even then, as her photo shows, the hallways were pretty packed.

Students crowd the stairwell before a lunch period at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas.
Students crowd the stairwell before a lunch period at Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas.

Earlier finals – and less paper

Many exam procedures have changed – and the changes are likely to stick.

Quizzes that used to be on paper are almost always taken on school laptops, wrote Tantillo, the Long Island junior. Many schools distributed computers and iPads to students in 2020 and keep using them two years later.

At Draper’s rural New York school, where the second of four semesters is winding down, lots of teachers decided to give final exams a week or two early to avoid having to move them online in the event of an outbreak, he said. Last Tuesday, he and his peers took their final test for their College Now Writing course.

Draper understands the shift toward earlier testing – it’s a lot easier to cheat in online exams. The timeline has other advantages, he wrote: Teachers can spend the week or two after exams delving into a subtopic they find interesting.

Student Nathan Draper says final exams were moved up at Poland Central School in New York.
Student Nathan Draper says final exams were moved up at Poland Central School in New York.

To study, Draper relishes his time in the senior lounge, a “privilege” he and his fellow 35 soon-to-be graduates have finally earned. When the pandemic hit, the lounge was the first place that shut down; it remained closed into last fall.

“Having that space seemed unrealistic at the start of the year,” Draper writes, “but the school's administration has opened it up.” It was a wise choice, he points out: The lounge has tables and can be used as a study hall, relieving other, overcrowded rooms. Last Tuesday, Draper spent his second and third periods in the lounge studying for finals.

“Reopening that space has been a breath of fresh air for the students,” he wrote. “It not only is a practical space for students to utilize, but a symbol of our school administrators' willingness to try and make the school year as normal as possible.”

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Extracurriculars mean more possible quarantines

The pandemic complicates the balance between schoolwork and sports – which are sometimes masked.

Last Tuesday, Draper spent more than six hours preparing for and playing in an away basketball game at a rival school. All the travel meant greater potential exposure to COVID-19 and a greater chance of being quarantined. “Having to worry about who is cleared to play on your team for that particular week just adds another level of challenge to playing sports (not to mention the difficulty of running sprints with a mask on)," he wrote.

Trimarchi, who plays volleyball, has grown accustomed to limited facilities – her school's locker rooms have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, for example. She’s used to games being moved and players being quarantined. “It has been a challenging season but, it is starting to all feel very normal,” she wrote.

Vanessa Tantillo, a student at Half Hollow Hills High School East in Dix Hills, N.Y., says she and the other members of the school volleyball team had to wear masks during games.
Vanessa Tantillo, a student at Half Hollow Hills High School East in Dix Hills, N.Y., says she and the other members of the school volleyball team had to wear masks during games.

Tantillo, who also plays volleyball, has a similar outlook.

Last year, not only were she and her teammates required to wear masks during games and practices, they also had to get tested for the coronavirus every Saturday. The team's quarantines meant it missed six games. Making matters worse, attendance was limited at the games it could play. Each player was allowed only two spectators, and at home games only. “As a player I really missed the cheering from the crowd,” Tantillo wrote.

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Restrictions aren’t as intense this year. Players are still required to wear masks, but they no longer have to get tested weekly and can have as many spectators as they want. It “really helps the team energy while playing,” she wrote. “Although passing, diving, setting and spiking isn’t easy with a mask on, it is so exciting to have the ability to play again.”

Masks feature in other extracurriculars. Madelyn Terry, 17, a senior at Colonie Central in Albany, has the starring role of Fiona in the school play, "Shrek the Musical." While practicing her solos, she doesn’t have to wear a mask because she keeps her distance from other people. During group scenes, everyone is masked up and trying to be safe, Terry told USA TODAY.

Students at Colonie Central High School in Albany, New York, rehearse for an upcoming spring musical.
Students at Colonie Central High School in Albany, New York, rehearse for an upcoming spring musical.

“I think so many kids are so happy to be back doing it that nobody has a problem with it,” she said.

In Texas, Pitts noticed that two of the five cello players were missing from orchestra class Wednesday. Two violin players were also out, with COVID-19. The school orchestra has some full rehearsals coming up to prepare for a district competition, and she's feeling the crunch.

“We’re not learning our music as fast as we could’ve been if it was a normal year,” she wrote.

Contributing: Arika Herron, Indianapolis Star; María Méndez, Austin American-Statesman

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: High school students speak out about school during COVID-19 pandemic