Jinglin Li was excited to return to the brick-and-mortar building of Mayo High School for the rest of her senior year. Like every other high school student in the Rochester district, she’d been in distance learning for more than a year due to the global pandemic.
And it stung a little.
“Going back to school was kind of our last chance to live out our senior experience, so I think a lot of students were really excited to go back,” Li said, counting herself among them. “I think the whole class of 2021 just really felt robbed of their senior year.”
After months of watching the data and weighing the options, district officials arrived at a decision. April 5 would be the day. Finally, Li and other secondary students would be able to go back to their classrooms.
Except, the grand return wasn’t quite what Li had hoped for. Still cautious about the virus, she immediately saw how packed the hallways of the school could get between classes. And yet, when she wanted to share a quick thought with a friend in class, a teacher would remind them that they needed to keep their distance. In spite of being back in the building, it just wasn’t the same.
“It wasn’t what I was expecting; even though we were back in-person, it wasn't the same as if we were in school during a non-pandemic year,” she said. "It's just impossible to social distance. That made me kind of nervous because I don't want to bring COVID back home and possibly infect my family."
So, two days after returning to the school building, she decided to return to distance learning after all.
She wasn’t alone in her decision. A relatively large percentage of students able to return to school have decided to remain in distance learning instead.
According to Rochester Public Schools, 27% of secondary students have chosen to remain in distance learning, as do about 16% of elementary students.
In early March, the district estimated that 1,800 secondary students would choose distance learning. That number real number is 2,439.
Anna Sun is a sophomore at John Marshall High School who, like Li, decided to remain with distance learning. The ultimate deciding factor for her was the health and wellbeing of her family. She said the decision was hers to make, her parents acknowledging that she would be the one most affected by it.
“Health comes first before anything because it affects everything,” she said. “So I really just put that at the top of my list.”
Nina Munoz, a junior at John Marshall, also mentioned the ongoing health risk in her decision to remain in distance learning. She has a younger brother who returned to in-person learning in a middle school, and there were multiple positive cases reported in his classes within just a brief period of time.
“I wouldn't want to go back to school just to get COVID and have to return to distance learning,” Munoz said.
Her concern of having to return to distance learning after an exposure is not unwarranted. According to the school district’s COVID-19 Dashboard, there were more than 400 students in quarantine during the week of April 11-18, the highest number since the district started publishing the data in October.
But there also have been other considerations in the decision-making process for some students. John Marshall student Manasa Yerriboyina said it would have been disruptive to change learning models this far into the year. She’s developed a system and a routine and said it would be easier to return to the brick-and-mortar school in the fall rather than so close to the end of the year.
Which raises the question: just how many students will return? What will that number look like next fall? Or beyond that? Under directive from the state, Rochester Public Schools is making an online school for students who want to continue a public-school-at-home model even beyond the pandemic.
At the moment, Sun plans to return. So does Yerriboyina. Munoz decided it would be worth staying in distance learning for the rest of this year in “the hopes of a more ‘normal’ senior year next year.”
But for current seniors like Li, the decision has a little more immediacy behind it. This year is the last.
Even though she was excited to return to school in-person, Li has been able to make distance learning work.
It can be disappointing to miss some of those cultural milestones in high school, like a traditional prom and homecoming. But, Li says they are not, in and of themselves, what makes high school special.
"I feel like the reason they're so memorable is because of the people you got to experience those moments with. Just because those events are gone doesn't mean that you won't have meaningful memories to look back on because you can still stay connected with your friends," Li said. "Being forced to do school at home has personally made me a better learner... it's forced me to develop as a student, and I've been grateful for that."