Students, teachers adjust to return to full capacity

Aditya Thiyag | The Chronicle

Five hundred and seventeen days after the entire world first shut down in March 2020, Mason City Schools has resumed operating at full capacity.

The return to full capacity also means the return of thousands of students and teachers who are back in buildings throughout the district.

The return to school has been an adjustment period for students who are dealing with some anxiety as they are back in school after more than a year of online education.

It has been an adjustment for senior Alicia Ephron Harp, the largest one was changing from her completely different schedule and routine that she had online. The rough transition from back to in-person was exacerbated by the laid-back nature of online schooling.

She often had Zoom meetings “just playing in the background” and as a result was “sleeping all the time.”

“I become a little bit more antisocial,” Ephron-Harp said. “I’ve become less dependent on other people and I don’t need to hang out with people as often. [Online school] taught me just how I don’t have to be as social. ”

This antisocial energy is something that Comet Connections teacher Brandon Sethi felt as well. Sethi believed that being back in person has helped him connect with students in a way that virtual learning didn’t allow him to.

“Here, I can sit three feet apart from you,” Sethi said.

“We can feel each other’s presence. Online, didn’t have a visual of who I was talking to a lot of times, which was difficult. That personal connection, even with the mask, is way better than anything. It’s just nice to be able to look someone in the eyes again and not be separated by a screen.”

Although Sethi found it difficult to connect with students virtually, Sophomore English Teacher Olivia Kinross felt the online chat feature on Zoom proved to be extremely useful in connecting with her more introverted students, prompting her to even input this feature into her classroom this school year.

“We sometimes just open up a chat or a dialogue and we’ll talk on a document, and I find that it’s working well,” Kinross said. “Sometimes students will say something like ‘Haha Mrs. Kinross, good pun.’ Just silly stuff like that makes me chuckle.”

Even though she was able to connect with some students, Kinross did feel a bit of a disconnect between her and her peers. She attributed this to the online staff’s unfamiliarity with procedures that took place in the building last year.

“Sometimes people forget that we weren’t here last year,” Kinross said. “They’ll just say things like, ‘like we did last year,’ and [former online teachers] don’t know what that looks like. For example, letting kids out at 2:27 or 2:28, that happened last year. Well, this year, we only did it for the first few days and I think we were all [confused]. That was a concern for me, that I’m not going to know what I’m [supposed to be] doing.”

The procedures for the school year were laid out in a large Google document with a multitude of links and guidelines rather than clearly explained to the staff. Instead of asking staff who were in the building last year or sifting through this document, Kinross had an alternative that she believed would greatly help the online staff gain familiarity with procedures instead.

“It would be helpful to have a big meeting where we get to ask questions,” Kinross said. “There’s a document that I can ask questions on, but I don’t feel like I even know how to ask my questions there.”

Online students had similarly been feeling lost in terms of high school culture – something Sethi began to observe firsthand in his Comet Connection classes, and something he had to adjust to as well.

“There’s a lot of students who have missed out on a lot and don’t know some of the traditions that we take for granted,” Sethi said. “There’s been a lot of just being patient and giving grace to people to come along at their own pace, and recognizing that a third of the school is brand new this year.”

This general sense of unfamiliarity that the online staff and students felt impacted any preconceived notions they had about returning to the building. Ephron-Harp believed the restrictions would be strictly enforced, with less socialization in the hallways and individual dividers in lunchrooms. While she was happy about being able to speak to her friends in between classes, the lax restrictions have prompted safety concerns of her own.

“I definitely do get angry because people get so close to me when walking in the hallway,” Ephron-Harp said, “Sometimes I see people who don’t wear masks and then, to put it bluntly, cough without covering their mouth. It’s concerning because some people just cough right onto the desk. I’ve seen it before. So I got really scared because I thought that the transition within the building would be easy. But, you know, some people are just free range.”

While safety remains an especially concerning issue for those who were online last year, Sethi was genuinely glad to be back in the school, and no event made him feel more welcome than the first football game of the year.

“The band was there and it just felt like it was supposed to,” Sethi said, “There was an energy to the crowd that we hadn’t felt in a long time. That’s what’s really going through my head – just enjoying these moments and not taking them for granted, because they can all be taken away and just appreciating every day that we get to be in Mason High School with each other.”

Illustration by Alisha Verma