The Return to In-Person School: Rethinking What Education Looks Like

Catherine Auerbach

The week of March 22nd, 2021, WESS high schoolers will return to the building after more than a year of remote learning. While the ninth grade has had in-person learning for parts of this school year, this will be tenth and eleventh graders’ first time back in the building since last March. 


As COVID-19 remains a threat, school cannot immediately return to the way it was before. CDC and DOE guidelines draw certain limitations for how the school day and educational environment can be structured. These rules have forced WESS leadership to think outside the box and get creative. Principal Jessica Jenkins shared what in-person school will look like for the students choosing to return this week. 


For this week, ninth and tenth graders will report on Wednesday, and eleventh graders will be returning Friday.  However, this is just for the first week.  Jessica’s plan, which will go into effect April 5th, will be for grades 9-11 to return on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Students who need extra support and have been identified by one or more teachers as needing this help will have the opportunity to return 5 days a week immediately.  For the students who feel comfortable coming in, attending in-person school may help provide a healthy routine and a dose of normalcy into their lives. Seeing peers at school, while only once a week at first and socially distanced, may help combat the sense of isolation that many have been experiencing throughout the pandemic. 


An in-person school day for high schoolers will look much different than what they’re used to. For example, eleventh grade students currently have asynchronous learning (no Zoom classes) on Wednesdays, but the asynchronous day will be moved to Friday so both remote and in-person students can participate in learning. There will still be structure during the school day, but unlike on remote days, not every period will be devoted to a specific academic class in front of a computer. The asynchronous in-person schedule will allow students to engage in social and team building activities along with academics. Students will also be able to attend art and music classes. 


The administration recognizes that attending school through the computer all day every day is incredibly exhausting, which is why in-person days will prioritize time away from the computer to give students a much-needed break. 


Upon arriving at school in the morning, students will attend Crew on Zoom during first period. Students will then attend their art or music classes, whose opportunities are greatly expanded by the ability to be in the school (as specific technique can be much harder to teach virtually). Students will be grouped with their current study groups for academic learning, which will consist of discussion based protocols and grappling with other academic content.  In-person study group time will focus heavily on structured  group discussion, a tool especially helpful to students ahead of the upcoming AP exams in May. This time will balance academic learning with crucial socialization. 


Because of CDC guidelines, WESS leadership is working within tight parameters as they plan our return to the building. Current social distancing guidelines allow for up to 9-10 students in traditional classrooms, so in addition to classrooms being utilized, some study groups will meet in larger spaces like the black box theater and cafeteria. 


The school day will also include time for students to work independently. During this time, computers will be allowed, while they likely won’t be used during study group time. 


A great benefit of students having this independent work time while in school is that their peers (as well as certain teachers) will be there as a resource. The administration recognizes that some students may have gaps in their content knowledge due to the difficulty of learning remotely. Some students are taking as many as four AP classes, and retaining copious amounts of knowledge all through the screen can be quite challenging. Thus, the school day will include a period for office hours with teachers, when students can reach out for more direct help and with specific questions. Some high school teachers will be available in the building for office hours, while students can reach those who aren’t through Zoom. 


Maintaining students’ mental health is a top priority for staff as we transition to in-person learning. “We can’t learn unless we’re okay in terms of mental health,” stated Jessica. High school is difficult enough on its own, even without the added weight of a global pandemic. This is why WESS will be working with NYC Outward Bound to introduce team building and socialization opportunities during the school day. These activities will be especially important for new students who joined WESS remotely and haven’t yet made close connections with their peers. Jessica wants to maximize safe opportunities to collaborate with friends, as engaging with their peers is the reason many students have decided to attend in-person classes. 


Students will also have opportunities to go outside and get fresh air during the day. During their lunch period, students will head outside with staff to eat, if weather permits. In order to ensure social distancing, students will unfortunately not be allowed to buy food at their usual spots like Pick a Bagel and Starbucks. Rather, students can either take a free grab-and-go lunch provided by the school or pack their own meal. Eating outside offers a change in routine from sitting inside all day and reduces the risk of COVID-19 spreading as students take their masks off to eat. There is also a chance that students will be able to attend their physical education classes outdoors, offering a pleasant break from our usual at-home workout activities. 


Returning to the building definitely while adhering to such strict guidelines won’t be the same experience as it was pre-pandemic, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Adapting education to the limitations of the pandemic has allowed creativity and innovation to thrive. The introduction of new academic structures like study groups has been immensely successful, and instituting an asynchronous in-person structure will allow opportunities for art, music, PE, and essential student collaboration. These new features have resulted from the pandemic, and have been an enhancement to the WESS curriculum and community. 


Not all plans are completely set in stone, and school structure will continue to evolve as we switch from one day of in-person instruction to two. While we all can’t wait to return to the school building in the Fall, for the time being, we can’t wait for all the opportunities in-person learning will bring!