Students Respond to Reopening of Schools During Pandemic: 'Better Safe Than Sorry'

"I feel happy I get to meet my friends again ... I also feel sad because people have higher chances to get COVID-19," said 10-year-old Aaron Chandra

mighty writers
Photo: Courtesy Mighty Writers

August always brings change as temperatures drop and families sneak in last-minute vacations before sending their kids back to school.

This school year, however, will look drastically different as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic impacts the United States. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 5.5 million people in the U.S. have been infected with the virus and at least 173,306 have died, according to The New York Times.

States like Georgia and Alabama have chosen to reopen schools as others opt for remote learning or a mix of virtual and in-person classes.

Parents and teachers, too, have wrestled with the decision of in-person classes versus remote learning or homeschooling. Often, though, students’ voices are missing from these conversations.

Mighty Writers, a nonprofit writing program based in Philadelphia, asked 27 students between the ages of 7 and 18 what their thoughts were on going back to school with the threat of coronavirus looming.

Many of the students Mighty Writers works with identify as Black or Latinx and come from low-income households in and around Philadelphia — communities that have suffered a disproportionate impact from the pandemic. About 70 percent of the students attend public school, with the remainder enrolled in charter schools, the organization said.

Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite announced in late July a proposal that would see students in the district stick with remote learning through Nov. 17, then transition to a hybrid learning model, pending guidance from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

Though it'll be a couple months before students are back in classrooms, they have a lot to say about the coronavirus and its effect on their lives. Some expressed excitement about the possibility of going to school and seeing their friends again, while others were scared about catching the virus or getting others sick. Nearly all were uncertain about whether this school year would be as fun or safe as past terms.

“Maybe [I’m] a little scared because I don't know who was sick or was [their] family sick,” 7-year-old Aileen Zhang wrote.

mighty writers
courtesy of Mighty Writers

Aaron Chandra, 10, also had mixed feelings.

“I feel happy I get to meet my friends again,” he wrote. “I also feel sad because people have higher chances to get COVID-19.”

He continued: “I am happy because I get to play with all my friends in school, but I will be sad if either of my friends get COVID.”

Serenity Baruzzini, an incoming freshman at Drexel University, felt a sense of urgency to delay in-person instruction.

"On a college level, everything should wait," wrote Baruzzini, 18, responding to some of the universities that are welcoming students back to campus, including Drexel. "The only people who should be on campus are homeless, international, or any students that truly need a place to stay."

She continued: “I fear for everyone who is in an at-risk community, especially our professors. Because I'm not an infectious disease specialist, I don’t know if there’s even a way to attend in-person classes at this time safely."

mighty writers
courtesy of Mighty Writers

On its website, Drexel University explained the motivation behind its phased reopening is to reduce the risk of the virus for students and faculty while "continuing to support the research and experiential learning at the core of a Drexel education." Safety precautions will include mandating face masks, social distancing policies and better cleaning procedures.

In their writings, students made suggestions to improve online learning, including virtual clubs, one-on-one check-in calls between teachers and students and better IT support.

"I would prefer to be far away from the possibility of catching [the virus]," wrote 10-year-old Tenay Brown. "I bet a school is a perfect environment for the pandemic to spread. Although, on the other hand, the only good thing coming out of this is seeing friends. [Still], I would rather take Zoom classes for the last year at my school. Better safe than sorry."

They also offered tips for teachers and administrators to safely reopen schools.

Many, including 10-year-old Porter Tate, mentioned requiring everyone to wear masks, enforcing social distancing and regularly disinfecting classrooms.

Indyla Yudiono, 13, put her thoughts on the “schools reopening” debate more bluntly.

"Hazmat suits," Yudiono wrote. "Everyone should just wear hazmat suits, and to top it all off we can all wear makeup and a clown nose too, because that’s how ridiculous going back to school in the fall sounds. There’s no way I’m entering the school building if it’s not safe."

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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