As NYC Moves to Reopen High Schools in Two Weeks, Students Are Both Torn About Returning and Weary of Staying Home

Nina Worley, third from right, a junior at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, with her fellow Teens Take Charge members at a November photo shoot after they were all COVID tested. (Nina Worley)

Updated, March 9

Edward Acosta couldn’t help but notice when the number of teenagers in four of his classes started to dwindle.

“I used to have 30 people. Now, it’s 20 people logging in; now it’s only 15 people logging in,” the Richmond Hill High School sophomore explained.

While Edward said he wasn’t about to disappear, too, his feelings about virtual learning were unambiguous: “I don’t like it. It’s difficult for me. I’d rather be in school, where a teacher’s in front of me, and I have a piece of paper.”

Aside from a brief stint in the fall when all New York City students had access to some form of in-person learning, teens enrolled in public high school have been fully remote since a November COVID case spike shuttered the country’s largest school district. While elementary and middle school students and those with significant special needs have made their way back into buildings, high schools remained closed. That changed Monday, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced they would reopen for some in-person learning March 22. High school sports will also resume next month, he said, including for kids who have been learning remotely.

“There is nothing more essential to our recovery than bringing back our public schools,” the mayor said. “Families depend on them. Everything revolves around our public schools. So we’re moving aggressively to bring our schools back now and fully in September.”

But only approximately 55,000 of the city’s roughly 282,000 high schoolers are supposed to show up in classrooms. That represents the students who opted into hybrid learning back in September.

It’s not clear whether the mayor’s decision to reopen high schools will allow for another opt-in period in what’s left of the 2020-21 school year. But even though there is widespread disengagement from virtual learning among high schoolers, as evidenced by 15-year-old Edward and other teens from around the city interviewed by The 74, it’s also not certain how ready they are to leap back into the classroom.

“I think it seems very rushed and unsafe, and I have no plan to go back in person,” said Gaby Cancel, a senior at the 4,600-student Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn.

What is clear is that when students do return, either now or in September, school officials will have to grapple with how a year of lost learning and missed social opportunities has affected them.

Early in the pandemic, Edward would sometimes get anxiety attacks when he tried to do his remote coursework, he said. Initially, his sister would help him manage the material. As the pandemic wore on, his school guidance counselor started to help fill that role.

Without her check-ins, “I would probably never do school,” Edward said.

Each student interviewed by The 74 described a unique set of challenges they were confronting as they tried to learn during the pandemic. But sometimes those issues overlapped. Many faced shared feelings — anxiety, listlessness, estrangement, and a lack of interest in course material, despite having a love for school pre-COVID. As their enthusiasm for school dropped off, many found new meaning in extracurriculars, especially activism and the arts.

Sixteen-year-old Roberto Quesada, a sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the city’s elite specialized high schools, said that in his experience, regular check-ins from school staff — like Edward had with his guidance counselor — have helped mitigate some of the strain of remote learning.

“Giving [students] compliments, asking, ‘How has your day been?'” he said. These days, when a staff-to-peer relationship is strictly about academics, “It causes problems.”

For Gaby, the Fort Hamilton senior, the loss of that interactive component has meant that math, once her favorite subject, is now her least favorite. As a junior, she enjoyed learning new formulas during pre-calculus: “I actually really loved being able to understand and grasp information and do the problems really fast because it makes me feel smarter, when I know what I’m doing,” she said.

Calculus during remote learning, on the other hand, is something entirely different: staring into a teacher’s face and a sea of blank, muted screens. “It’s so hard to grasp certain formulas and ideas,” Gaby said. “Whereas in school, it was more of a conversation — like, we could just raise our hands — now, it’s more just like everybody’s either too afraid or too tired to come off of mute, or too uncomfortable.”

“Online puts a damper on the learning experience,” said Roberto, who’s been mourning the loss of face-to-face chemistry class which, he knows, would have involved colorful experiments with metals and gasses. The lack of that in-person component has left him and his classmates confused, he said. “You don’t understand the concepts as well without ways to visualize what’s happening.”

And then there’s the exhaustion of being on a computer all day. The students all put slightly different spins on this, but overall, their message was the same.

Rainier Harris, a senior at Regis High School, an all-boys Catholic prep school on the Upper East Side whose alumni include Dr. Anthony Fauci, called virtual learning “a thorn in his side.” While his school has offered students a hybrid learning option since early December, Rainier decided going into the building wasn’t worth the extra risk.

“I’m so tired of school, and grades, and submitting things before 11:59 (p.m.),” he said. “I haven’t felt like I was learning … honestly, since the pandemic started. I feel like I’ve been giving correct answers and, you know, getting stuff to the teachers that they like, but I don’t feel like I’m actually digesting anything, which is really sad, ’cause I like learning.”

Hamza Banihani and his younger sister Sumaya also attend private school, but in their case, it’s two that are designed to address their special needs. For the siblings, remote learning was an untenable option.

School before the pandemic was Hamza’s whole life, his mother Merieme Rafik said. It was all of his social relationships, a place where he was beloved by his teachers. But virtual classes were completely different.

“With the remote, he cannot focus,” she explained. “He always complained from the headache in his brain because he tried to focus, he tried his best … It was very hard for him to handle.”

Hamza, who has Asperger’s syndrome and asthma, tried to find the good in the bad during virtual learning in the spring, getting a kick out of the avatar he chose for his Zoom meetings — “Meter Griffin,” Peter Griffin from Family Guy plastered on all six sides of a cube — but overall, virtual learning was a major hassle, he said.

“I would like to say this,” Hamza added with a laugh. “If the coronavirus manifested itself into a human form, I’d like to kick it. I’d like to be the first person to kick the human coronavirus in the face.”

Hamza Banihani gives the thumbs-up during a family vacation photo at Lake George in August. His sister, Sumaya, is wearing a sun hat. (Merieme Rafik)

In November, the nonprofit Advocates for Children filed a federal class action lawsuit against the city on behalf of students with special needs who they say have missed legally mandated services during virtual learning. Fortunately for Hamza and Sumaya, their mother Merieme and the advocacy group fought years ago to get the two NYC public school students into a state-approved private school. Once schools opened up in late September, they were able to go back, and they’ve been back ever since.

While Hamza can’t exchange high fives and handshakes with his peers in-person like he used to, the aspiring digital animator can still draw cartoons on his iPad during lunch. He now looks back at homeschooling as the worst part of the pandemic.

During virtual learning, “The two things speaking were the teachers talking and my own brain talking,” he said. “In normal situations, I usually don’t focus on things too well. My brain is a very good distracting tool … It was a really good relief being back in school.”

Many of the students who haven’t reentered buildings say that what they miss most about pre-pandemic life are the little moments that made school feel like school: that interaction when they’d ask a classmate at a neighboring desk to borrow a pencil, or when the room would erupt into laughter over something goofy a teacher said. Those were the everyday things that brought them closer to their peers, they said.

“In-person, someone can make a joke and we can all laugh, have some fun a little,” explained Hamza. Virtual learning “is way more boring than in-person.”

“When you’re talking with friends in school, you’ll talk about funny things that happened in class or something stupid that happened …” said Rainier. “All those little moments are lost … These little moments that make the day a bit easier to go through. I don’t really know how to explain it, just the energy — the energy gets lost.”

“My friend group has narrowed down a lot,” said Roberto, the Brooklyn Tech sophomore, who, before the pandemic, was the kind of student who greeted dozens of acquaintances as he swept through the hallways on his way to class: kids he’d gotten to know through clubs like student government and debate. That large group has disappeared from his life, he said. Now, he has regular interactions with about six close friends.

Social media platforms like Instagram are now the nearest thing the school has to a town square, he said. “That’s where people see what everyone’s doing, and ‘like’ each others’ posts,” he said. But as is painfully obvious to everyone at this point, the internet is no substitute for real social interactions.

“I think it’s hard to form new friendships during the pandemic,” he said. “It doesn’t foster social interaction.”

Prior to the pandemic, a central part of Gaby’s social life was congregating with other Fort Hamilton High students at the shopping center on 86th Street and 4th Avenue in Bay Ridge, where they’d drop by Starbucks and Chipotle.

Gaby Cancel, a senior at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn. (Gaby Cancel)

The transition to virtual learning has been so isolating, she said, that it’s affected her mental health. “Now, I don’t see anyone,” she explained. “I don’t go out at all, unless it’s to go to a family member’s house … It made me kind of lose friends because there are a lot of friends … that I would only really talk to in school, and I wouldn’t feel the need to reach out through text or FaceTiming them … With the decline of my mental state, that kind of also impacted how much I was willing to reach out to my friends … It’s a lot when there’s so much going on.”

Some of the students, including Edward from Richmond Hill and Rainier from Regis, still see their friends in-person, meeting in local parks and taking long walks, sometimes for hours. Edward’s group, which met in middle school, will camp out on the swings and “walk it off” as they talk and listen to artists like SZA and Frank Ocean.

Over in Manhattan, Rainier and a few peers gather at the Great Lawn in Central Park, just a block from their school, where they eat Shake Shack or Chick-fil-A for lunch and chat about the TV shows they’ve been watching.

Importantly, those friendships pre-date the pandemic. Roberto said he’s mentored first-years on his Brooklyn Tech debate team during COVID, as they’ve struggled to make friends at a school they’d never fully attended.

“The freshman class is having a hard time,” he said. “It must be very tough, it must be very lonely.”

Some of those students have told Roberto that when they return to school in September, it’ll feel like being new all over again, he said. “They don’t know a lot about the school that people who have physically been in there know,” he said. “I think that’s something the freshman class uniquely faces.”

Like the transition from middle school to high school, teenagers moving out of high school and into the next chapter of their lives are also confronting singular pressures.

Rainier, who has already applied to schools and will be looking for college acceptance letters this April, said that if the pandemic means he won’t be able to start in-person this fall, he’ll be crushed.

“I’m really looking to college to be the highlight of my life,” he said. “I hope it can come together.”

For Nina Worley, a junior at Manhattan’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the pandemic has already changed her college application journey. The daughter of a psychologist from Argentina and a nonprofit worker from Germany, she had planned to apply to international universities. But those schools require a slew of AP exams, and taking those tests online during Covid proved extra stressful because the virtual versions don’t let students toggle to previous pages to check and revise their answers.

Nina Worley and her brother, Noah, at home in Harlem in July. (Nina Worley)

For Nina and the others, extracurriculars now occupied a new, central role. She started two virtual clubs at her school, a Latinx student union and a group that helps middle school students in low-income neighborhoods get into specialized high schools like her own.

Gaby, who in the first months of the pandemic found herself barraged with negative thoughts, channeled her energy into a holiday drive organized by the activist group Teens Take Charge, which supplied food and clothes to homeless residents in the Bronx.

And she found her way back to visual arts, after giving up drawing last year. Now, she’s trying her hand at new forms, like printmaking and watercolor.

Meanwhile, Rainier received an extraordinary opportunity in May, when he was hired as an apprentice to work on the Renegades: Born in the USA podcast with Bruce Springsteen and former president Barack Obama. While balancing the job with school was tricky, he enjoyed attending producer meetings, cutting tape, doing live transcriptions and learning the basics of audio and sound design.

“It’s made me feel like the work I’m putting in is working towards something, rather than just a grade,” he said. “That’s definitely been beneficial for my mental health.”

Students said that, after a year of tumult, returning to school is anything but simple. The mayor said on Friday that by September, he expects students to either be attending school full time in person or be fully remote. There will be no more hybrid mixture of both.

Gaby’s family has been trying to help her connect with a therapist for a while now, she said, but the lack of resources at Fort Hamilton, combined with the number of counselors who are booked citywide, has made finding one difficult. As students return to in-person learning, she’d like to see more social workers and therapists for teens grappling with the fallout of the pandemic in city schools, she said.

When Roberto thinks about going back to in-person learning, he considers his crowded A-train commute and the once-teeming hallways of Brooklyn Tech. He thinks about how sometimes, he’d arrive late to a class on the 8th floor because the elevators were broken and the stairwells so crowded, he’d have to throw an elbow or two to break through the hordes of students.

“That environment reflects why a virus is likely to spread in our school,” he said.

For Edward Acosta, it’s hard to picture the shift back to school, given how much time has passed, and how comfortably he’s settled into a routine of watching anime and cuddling his cat, Winter.

When schools first opened up back in September, Edward’s family opted him in. But after he went into the building and saw kids taking their online classes in one room all day, he decided he’d rather stay home.

“I do miss [school], but I don’t want to go back,” he said. “Now, I can’t even socialize. … No one has talked to me in forever. Nobody really knows about me, they just think I disappeared. So when I go back to school, I just don’t want to feel that pressure, like everyone looking at me. I’ve just been home like everybody else.”

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