Samantha Mack said she was worried about returning to school this fall. She feared COVID-19 would make the place depressing, and that the virus restrictions would make school feel like a jail.
But once inside Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick, the 17-year-old senior said she was overjoyed greeting friends and teachers she hadn't seen in nearly six months. So many of the best parts of school were still there, she said.
Yet much was different as well, Mack discovered. COVID-19 had reordered academic life. Her school has adopted hybrid learning, where students rotate between days of in-person and remote instruction. There's little in the way of sports, and she had played on the badminton team. She worries that her final year of high school will not have a prom or traditional graduation.
"This isn't normal," said Mack, who is currently attending school five days a week. "This isn't how normal is."
On Long Island, 374 public schools have taken on the hybrid model of learning, while 210 are doing full five days a week of in-class learning, according to figures from the state Department of Education. A total of 26 schools are fully remote.
Weeks into the school year, students say they are happy to be back, if only because the months away were so hard to take. When schools closed abruptly in mid-March, many students had celebrated what they thought would be a few weeks off. That turned into a few months of remote learning that largely failed to deliver quality education, and then even more months away from friends and favorite teachers, from school sports and clubs.
But now that they've returned, many students say they are feeling a different kind of social disconnect. While many are happy to see their friends again, they say they can't talk to them as much. Many schools have banned the use of lockers, the places where friends often meet and walk together to class. The long communal tables in the cafeteria have been replaced with desks, where they must eat by themselves. And it's harder to make new friends when everybody’s wearing masks and social distancing, they say.
At Martin L. King Jr. Elementary School in Wyandanch, where students follow the hybrid learning model, the school is surveying the student body on how it feels about this academic year. School psychologist Jonathan Afanador said about 20% of the students are expressing a sense of stress in terms of either learning, making friends or handling their emotions.
"This whole pandemic has thrown a wrench into the academic development and social development for kids," Afanador said. "There are kids who need help with friendships and emotions, and there are some who report being sad."
He said he worries about the children who feel down but don't speak up. "They can slip through the cracks," Afanador said.
He emphasized that the children he serves — ranging from age 8 to 10 — are in their prime years of development, and "if that's damaged, you have to do a lot of repairing."
The challenges of remote learning
For Long Island students not going to school, or attending only a few days a week, at-home remote learning continues to present challenges. It's come a long way from the spring, when it consisted mostly of computer links to worksheets and recorded lessons by teachers the students didn't even know. But students say it still feels distant and, well, remote.
Oliver Connolly, 15, a 10th-grader at Long Beach High School, remote-learns five days a week. "I don't really like it," he said. "You don't get to see your friends and form connections."
At first, Connolly liked the idea of rolling out of bed, sitting at the desk in his room and taking a class remotely, but now, he said, he finds himself feeling detached. He sees a video stream of his class on his computer with an on-screen box showing written lessons. Technology glitches are fewer, but he can feel the strain of teachers trying to instruct the students in class as well as those at home, like a performer trying to please two audiences.
Connolly said he worries he's falling behind in chemistry and geometry.
Joy Connolly, his mother, said she had registered her two boys for remote learning because she didn't believe schools would be safe from the coronavirus. But she said that she's learning lessons about how important social life is to school. And she's thinking about switching her son into the hybrid program, where he'll get a few days a week in school.
Her youngest son, Max, however, said he likes remote learning. The seventh-grader at Long Beach Middle School said he enjoys the freedom of learning at home. He can snuggle with the dog on the couch during lessons, or eat a bagel while his science teacher talks.
"I don't have to get up as early," he said. "Most of my friends live on the same street. We can just walk over to each other's house."
And there are those who simply enjoy being in school.
Sophie Luce, a fifth-grader at Barnum Woods Elementary School in East Meadow, said she's a happier person doing in-person instruction. She's attending classes five days a week, and she said it's easier to focus and learn in-person versus the remote learning she did in the spring.
Her art teacher, who comes into class with a cart full of supplies, is "nice and funny." But Sophie can't share crayons and markers with her friends in class. After school, her parents allow only certain friends into the house.
"We don't really hug, but we get to talk," said the 10-year-old student, who wants to grow up to study Egyptian tombs and mummies.
Parents say they notice the difference
Parents say they see the improvement in many students' moods being back in school.
Jodi Luce said her daughter, Sophie, as well as her son, Joshua, a 10th-grader at East Meadow High School, are "thrilled to be back."
As her son, who attends school twice a week and every other Wednesday under the hybrid model, said, "It feels like school but with less people."
Sometimes, it's the students who ask the most of themselves who feel the strain. Olivia Zhang, who signed up for four AP courses in her senior year at East Islip High School, is attending class a few days a week under the hybrid program, but she's finding it difficult during the days of learning at home. Some teachers seem more focused on the kids in the classroom. Sometimes she can't even see the teacher if he or she moves away from the camera.
"It's harder to keep up," Zhang said.
Students say they appreciate the extra effort teachers and schools are taking to make learning exciting. They like going outdoors for lessons, and the fun things music and art teachers do when they wheel their carts into classes, rather than have all the students come to their rooms, which could spread the virus.
Sanaalee Troupe, a junior at the Waldorf School in Garden City, is doing full-time remote learning because she was concerned about contracting the virus in school and bringing it home to family, some of whom have compromised immune systems. While her computer had been freezing and glitching a lot at the start of school, she was helped when the school created a special tech team to help students and faculty.
"They told me I needed a new router," which fixed the problems, Troupe said.
Mack, the senior in Merrick, said she prides herself on being a positive person. And overall, she said, she feels safe in school and is having a good school year. But sometimes it's the little things that get to her.
At Calhoun High School, seniors traditionally gather before and after school at the "Senior Sill," a part of the main floor with a long windowsill. Not this year, though.
"You are not allowed," she said. "It's unsafe."
With Michael Ebert