After months of being in a virtual classroom, Daiana Fuentes Velasquez felt shy when she returned to school on a hybrid schedule last fall.
She was quiet. Other students were quiet. The classrooms were quiet.
"Before COVID hit, I remember that teachers would be like: ‘OK, guys, slow down. No speaking when I'm speaking,’ " said Fuentes Velasquez, 16, a rising junior at Islip High School. "When we came back, the teachers were like: ‘Come on, guys. You’ve got to talk more. You've got to answer.’ It was a very drastic change."
In the past 18 months, students such as Fuentes Velasquez have lived through the isolation and other challenges brought by remote learning, saw Black Lives Matter protests evolve nationwide and watched a contentious debate over masking intensify in their schools.
As districts across Long Island reopen, students said they hope to return to a new, re-imagined learning environment that emphasizes social interaction, mental health needs and curricula diversity.
Not just pre-pandemic normal.
What to Know
- As districts across Long Island reopen, some students said they want to return to a re-imagined learning environment that emphasizes social interaction, mental health needs and curricula diversity.
- It’s not enough to return to pre-pandemic normal.
- And they argue the moment presents an opportunity for meaningful changes to build a more equitable education system for all.
Fuentes Velasquez, of Central Islip, would like to see teachers help students ease back into school on the first day and encourage reconnection with their classmates.
"I know that telling us about their classes is really important," she said. "But I feel like they should do some type of icebreakers to make students feel comfortable."
Rebuilding relationships is one of the first steps to a "restorative restart," meaning to use the lessons learned in the pandemic to improve education for all, said Alan Singer, a Hofstra University professor of teaching. The idea came from a May report by a California policy think tank.
"It's not enough to go back and do what we did before," Singer said. "What we have to do is to use the return as an opportunity to rethink what we do in school to better improve the learning of all students."
Aidan Davis, 17, a rising senior at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, suggested schools launch campaigns to de-stigmatize mental health needs, increase access to guidance counselors and find ways to encourage students to talk about their remote learning experiences.
"You could prompt class discussion about how distance learning has affected their learning styles," said Davis, of Plainview. "I think that would work wonders for kids’ mental health because it not only makes them feel like they're being listened to but [also] helps them in the long run by making sure that they're absorbing information."
Davis also said students did not retain information as well in the past academic year.
"There should definitely be a big push to get kids to go to remedial and ask questions," he said.
Michelle Paszek, 14, an incoming sophomore at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, said while she had fun during her first year of high school, it felt like a reduced experience.
"I'm excited to get more of an experience of what high school is," said Paszek, of Hicksville.
Despite her eagerness to start school, the teenager said she’s still worried about the delta variant and how it could hang over the school year.
"It's a big unknown," she said. "There's always that little bit of worry left."
Students looking for unity, connection
Xian Scott, 17, a rising senior at Lawrence High School, said extra care should be paid to incoming freshmen and sophomores who haven’t had a traditional high school experience.
It was hard for Scott to switch from online learning back to in-person instruction, and he imagined it was even harder for younger grades to make that full transition.
One way to help bring students into the fold is to build school unity via group activities, he said.
"Seeing how happy it makes everyone during a pep rally, for example, where the whole school gets together and we celebrate the fall sports teams … is just a great feeling," said Scott, of North Woodmere.
The more connected the students feel, the more likely they are to do better academically and personally, he said.
As many students witnessed — and some organized — protests to condemn hate and racial inequality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and the surge of anti-Asian violence, some teens said they want to see districts incorporate diversity learning into the curriculum.
Sabrina Guo, 15, a rising junior at Syosset High School, said learning about the history of people of color would help foster empathy.
"I'm looking forward to see my district including more diversity learning into its curriculum to combat discrimination and microaggression, including curricula that teach Asian American, African American, and other minority groups’ histories in our lesson plans … and not just educate our students during Black History Month or Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month," she said.