Students and Teachers Share Hopes and Fears as They Return to School: 'It's Really Tough'

School is back and session, and those headed back to the classroom, whether in person or remotely, share their thoughts with PEOPLE

sue smith
Sue Smith. Photo: Courtesy Jessica Wechtenheiser

After a long, uncertain summer, school is back in session — though classrooms and hallways look a lot different than they did before COVID-19 hit the United States.

Some school districts have taken classes entirely online, others are hosting students in person and some are testing a mix of the two.

Parents, teachers, students and more speak to PEOPLE in this week’s issue to share their thoughts and concerns about the unprecedented reality of education in the time of coronavirus.

Sue Smith (pictured above) is a 62-year-old school nurse in Milford, Delaware

I’m not worried. In my nurse’s office, I’ll still feel very comfortable doing what I normally do. I’ll have my mask and goggles on because I’ll be very close to the children, but I’ll feel very confident doing an assessment. Of course, I think there’s always going to be a level of anxiety for the unknown, because this virus is an unknown. We don’t have a crystal ball to tell us everything will be okay. It’s not about if someone’s going to get infected — it’s when. But I truly believe we’re prepared to handle it. We’ve been preparing all summer, and the key is to bring the children back safely. We worked on a plan, which was submitted to the governor, [that] entails protocols such as masks and strict social distancing. Right now the big focus at our school is on sanitizing. We’ve seen what couldn’t be safely wiped down in the classrooms, and we removed those items. The virus isn’t going to go away until we get a vaccine or a treatment that works for everyone. It’s really tough. This year is going to be a different kind of memory for our kids.

For more on back-to-school season amid the pandemic, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Hattie Jennings, 43, is a mom to kids Marvin, 14, Milton, 13, and Kennedy, 10, in Smithfield, Michigan

hattie jennings
Hattie Jennings. Courtesy Hattie Jennings

I have three children in three different schools. With the pandemic, it’s really crazy. Two of my children, Marvin and Kennedy, go to public school, so that’s a no-brainer because the public school district does only remote learning. But Milton is a scholarship student at a private school, Cranbrook Kingswood Boys' Middle School, which is going back to school because they only have 12 or 13 kids in a classroom anyway, with about 200 total students. In his eighth-grade class, Milton’s the only African American and he’s getting anxiety. He says, "I’m already the only minority, don’t make me the only one not going to class, too." Social things bother him more now. I just had to lay it out and say we are more susceptible and have to take more precautions. I hate to say it, but it’s a numbers game. I’m a middle-class mom, and the people who go to Cranbrook live in million-dollar-plus homes, and 95 percent of that class has not been hit by COVID. I had a good friend from high school die of COVID. My perspective is going to be different when it comes to the risks.

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Megan Camunez, 41, is a teacher in Queen Creek, Arizona

megan camunez
Courtesy Patrick Camunez

I have a congenital heart condition called pulmonary stenosis and am at high risk if I contract COVID-19. The district was not requiring the students to wear masks and the school board voted to allow in-person classes. I teach fifth grade and wanted to teach online but wasn't given that option. I put in requests to teach remotely but the district denied them all, so I put in for emergency family medical leave. [The Queen Creek Unified School District — which did not immediately return PEOPLE's request for comment — has since decided to require students over the age of 5 to wear masks, unless they have a medical condition or breathing issues, according to the Arizona Republic.] I feel so disappointed; it makes me feel like my life is not valued. It's very, very scary, there is a chance of people dying and getting sick and I am very very high risk. I feel safer at home. I would have loved to go back and act like it was normal times. I want to be there and can't. My husband and I withdrew our three children from the district, and I am homeschooling my kids. The virus doesn't discriminate and I have a life that I want to live out.

Jennifer Boyd, 43, is a superintendent in Lanett, Alabama

jennifer boyd
Jennifer Boyd. Courtesy Jennifer Boyd

In a town [population 6,200] where everyone knows everyone else, all the kids have lost someone — aunts, uncles, grandparents — to COVID. I was born and raised in Lanett; I graduated from Lanett High School. I love this community. Early on it spread through our churches, the same churches our students attend. When you know everyone, you have to be mindful of that. It has been a huge weight for me as superintendent. We surveyed our parents to find out what they wanted, and it made them feel more comfortable to have a choice. So the students will be staying at home for the first nine weeks. The parents know we’re not bringing the kids back until we’re convinced it’s safe.

Emma Nicolette is a 15-year-old student in Fort Myers, Florida

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Emma Nicolette. Courtesy Diane Nicolette

It’s kind of scary not knowing if someone has COVID. I could be brushing up against somebody who has it and not even know it. So I just keep washing my hands and wearing my mask and trying to stay 6 feet away from everyone. All our desks are spaced out 6 feet apart. And if the desks aren’t far enough apart, they have a plexiglass shield around them so you can’t breathe on anybody. Lunch can be tough. I have a group of friends, and sometimes we move our chairs closer together so we can hear one another, but there are always people patrolling, saying, "Move 6 feet away. Put your chair back where it was." We try to do that, but we always end up moving closer together. I definitely don’t want to get COVID. It’s always in the back of my mind. But I feel like if I follow the precautions the school is taking, I’ll be fine. What they’re making us do isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s bearable. And I’d definitely rather be at school, even with all this going on.

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