‘It’s so hard and so challenging’: An oral history of year three of pandemic schooling

As the new school year began this fall, battles around vaccine and mask mandates raged, school boards took up the thorny issue of how to teach students about race and Congress argued about how much to spend on children (and everything else). But now the first few weeks of school have turned into the first few months and another new normal is taking shape.

As teachers and students, parents and principals, settle into this strange new school year, they say they are just beginning to understand the effects of last year’s disruptions. Our reporters are spending the year listening to people from across the country as they manage school districts, lead classrooms, parent students and attend school. We talked to a student in Wyoming, a kindergarten teacher in Philadelphia, and a pastor (and father) in Arkansas, among nearly a dozen others.

Here are some voices from our first round of interviews, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity:

(Data note: Masks are required on all school buses, per federal regulation. The requirements listed below relate to whether masks are required in school buildings. County vaccination rates were pulled from The New York Times’ vaccination tracker on Nov. 18, 2021. The rates given are for fully vaccinated individuals, age 12 and older.)

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA

  • 198,645 students
  • 52 percent Black, 21 percent Hispanic
  • Masks required
  • 69 percent vaccinated

In Philadelphia, Superintendent William Hite announced he’d step down at the end of this academic year, one of a growing number of school officials who are exiting amid the ongoing turmoil of the pandemic. The high-poverty district saw enrollment drop significantly in the pandemic, especially among kindergartners. As of this fall, it had 198,645 students, compared with 205,778 in the 2019-2020 school year, and was still trying to track down students who’d gone missing.  

Anna Phelan, kindergarten teacher at Overbrook Educational Center in Philadelphia

I feel like I should be happier, because all I wanted was to come back to school with kids. But it’s so hard and so challenging that then it makes it even sadder. It feels surreal because they are all masked and they are not doing the things we’d normally do and it’s back to normal but at the same time it’s not back to normal at all. It feels like we are living in this weird dystopia.

Sharahn Santana, African American history and English teacher at Parkway Northwest High School 

Sharahn Santana, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I had a conversation with my kids today about an assignment for another class. They just broke down a little bit and said, ‘Ms. Santana, I am just not motivated anymore. The pandemic changed me. You guys have to give us more time. I have been here a month and I have ten things due and I can’t get a hold on it.’ This might have been about 10 students who shared this with me today. I just listened.

We as teachers, as a school entity, we are trying to jump back into it and get them back into the practice of having deadlines and learning and having standards and expectations. But we are living in unprecedented times. Maybe they are going to ease in a little differently than in the past. Teachers certainly will have to adjust some of our pedagogy, and extended deadlines might just become a norm, or having more flexibility about how kids are able to complete assignments.

William Hite, superintendent of Philadelphia’s public schools

William Hite, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Young people are glad to be back in school. That’s number one. But you also feel the stress associated with all of the protocols that individuals must follow. We feel the stress of not having enough individuals who are able to fill vacancies, many of which were added as a part of ESSER II [federal relief] dollars. We just don’t have the available workforce out there. Individuals are stressed with doing more to cover and to supervise children when they are not in classrooms.

I am very worried [about academic skills]. The children who dropped the most a year ago when we were virtual were our youngest learners. From the spring of the prior year to the winter of the next year, we saw children in the youngest grades drop 14 points in reading. I think the long-term impact of that could be more children having difficulty later on.

I also worry about the 3,000 children who were not in kindergarten. Depending on who those young people are, it could mean they’ve missed an opportunity to develop those foundational skills.

FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS

  • 10,400 students
  • 66 percent of students are white, 12 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are Black
  • Masks required
  • 59 percent vaccinated

The county encompassing the Fayetteville Public Schools — in Northwest Arkansas near the Ozark Mountains — has logged the third highest number of deaths to Covid in the state. The public schools required masks at the beginning of the year, a rule that sparked conflict, and now the school board is making them optional by the end of December. The district’s Covid dashboard shows there have been more than 400 cases among students and staff, and 50 people were quarantined in mid-November.

Evan Garner, father of four and rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

It feels really good and really important that our children… have access to in-person, five-day-a-week education. But I say that from a position of considerable privilege. As one whose children and all the people who live with us are relatively healthy, and where we don’t have the kind of jobs where we’re at inordinate risk of COVID. If one of them brought Covid home, I wouldn’t lose my job because of it.

Within three weeks of doing hybrid [last year] – all of our children were desperate to be in school. Their parents were desperate, too. I think the oldest of my children, whose education was synchronous … fell behind substantially less than the others.

[The younger children] missed out, not necessarily in the introduction of a concept, but the reiteration of that and inculcation of concepts. Our youngest – a kindergartener last year – is still not always confident about going to school. It’s not always easy for her to approach the school day without anxiety and without tears. And here are academic implications to that.

Fayetteville is a fairly progressive community in a fairly conservative state. Our district wanted to stay with a mask mandate. And then our legislature said there shall be no mask mandates, and then a lawsuit has made it possible… It’s a politically polarizing issue, and seems to have nothing to do with public health, and everything to do with larger [national] political issues.

I was invited to come speak at school board … my message was primarily a message of gratitude to the school board … even though there was a long line of speakers who wanted to say how terrible a mask mandate was for our children.

Maranda Seawood, student support specialist at Washington Elementary School

When the pandemic happened, there was a lot of sadness, and scariness. The first thing popped in my mind was how big are the gaps going to be if they don’t have us? Can we really allow the parents to have to do this? Now, this year,I’m so excited to come back because you haven’t seen faces. Now we have teachers, friends, all the little kids all in the building together. The social aspect was the big thing. We were all excited about being back in the building.

But now we’re worried about the education part, knowing that there’s going to be gaps. If you think about the second graders, they didn’t get the end of kindergarten. I think about first grade, where you have to leave us reading.

I meet with teachers twice a week, and every day I push in a class or pull kids out depending on what they’re doing in class. Teachers are all working to get those kids where they need to be.

There are times I have cried thinking about ‘how can I get them where they need to be?’  There are some that we’ll be able to get there, and others we’re just going to have to keep on digging.

There are some good things: how we’re working together to get those kids caught up and we’re saying, ‘OK, these babies need extra things.’ We’re having to collaborate across classrooms to help each other and talk about what’s working, what’s not working. And that’s the positive.

Steven Weber, associate superintendent for teaching and learning for the Fayetteville Public Schools

We feel like we’re in a better place as a school district than we were in October of 2020. OK, so it is better, new challenges, it’s like peeling back an onion, there are different layers.

We’re seeing some issues with student engagement, and we’re also seeing some issues with students just having the stamina to make it through a whole day of school, make it through five days in a row of school.

And teachers and principals across the United States are also very tired. We don’t talk about it very often because the parents are our customers [and] you don’t want to sound like you’re complaining or whining or that, ‘hey, we’ve got it rough.’ We know that several of our families lost jobs, so it’s hard on everyone. So you don’t want to complain, but I am seeing teachers saying it feels like end-of-the-school-year tired.

A lot of people don’t talk about that because…we realize that this is the only third-grade experience this student will ever have. So we’re trying to do our best to give them the best experience.

FREMONT COUNTY, WYOMING

  • 400 students
  • 66 percent of students are white, 18 percent are Native American
  • Masks not required
  • 68 percent vaccinated

After the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in spring 2020, schools in Wyoming remained open. Fremont County is both rural and remote and Superintendent Troy Zickefoose said the school district had little choice but to remain open for students because unreliable cell and broadband service across the region made remote learning nearly impossible. In this new school year, the national shortage of bus drivers has been felt as seven drivers work to gather students from a catchment area spanning 1,200 square miles.

Toni Downing, school bus driver and district transportation director

Bus driving is such a full-time, part-time job. You come early in the morning, and then where we live, you have to drive 30 miles or more to get here to even begin to drive. And then with fuel and everything (prices) going up, people just say they can’t afford to do this.

We have seven bus routes, and right now we have seven drivers. That’s all we have. We’re really shorthanded. Typically you’d hold onto three to four extra subs. We’re down to two, and myself, I drive a route and our mechanic has to, too.

We’re a 1,200-square-mile school district. It’s massive, and spread out. Covid-wise, we still have the masks on our buses and make them (the students) use sanitizer when they get on and it seems to work fine for us. We’re actually pretty lucky. I was trying to think, we maybe had just one bus driver last year that went out. He actually did contract Covid but that’s it. No one else got it.

On mask mandates: You have a few kids whose parents have said they don’t have to do this and I’m just like, “Sorry we have to on the bus. If you don’t like it, you can find another way to get to school.” But it hasn’t really been that bad. Kids are just so used to it that they do it.

I think everyone here is so tired of the constant uproar. We are just a basic rural school that has a lot of ranching, farming in it. I don’t know. We’re just like not into all the craziness of the world and our kids get a great education. Here, they have to be accountable for what they do, and there’s a lot of the Native kids who come to our schools. You look at the future of all these kids, and we just gotta help them.

Troy Zickefoose, superintendent of Fremont County School District #21

I’m fully vaxxed and still caught Delta… Our governor at the start of the year said no state orders, so it comes down to me and basically our school nurses when it comes to quarantining and sending people home. Government is kind of leading from the rear here.

The main story out of Fremont? Resiliency. If I had to put it to one word.

We had moments last year when we thought we might have to shut down. But despite some of the political opinions and ideas about what Covid is or isn’t, there is a mentality of just bearing down and getting it done.

This school year so far, actually it’s been pretty good. When it comes to dealing with Delta, we pushed through regular Covid last year. We learned what worked and what didn’t. We’re still using some of those mitigation strategies. We’re still masking on buses, although I don’t know how popular that is.

The hysteria around reopening schools, I can’t understand it. We never had to close. I can’t even imagine what that’s like.

The first week of November last year, we looked at our options…we didn’t really have a choice. We have horrible broadband, horrible cell service. It’s a joke. If I walk outside with my personal Verizon cell phone, I would get no one. Hotspots didn’t do much. It would have been completely remote (learning) on paper for students. Our actual town, we don’t have a grocery store or gas station. Where else could kids go but school?

PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, MARYLAND

  • 131,700 students
  • 55 percent Black, 36 percent Hispanic, 4 percent white, 3 percent Asian
  • Masks required
  • 76 percent vaccinated

Prince George’s County, a suburb of Washington D.C., has an enrollment of more than 131,000 students, 90 percent of whom are Black or Hispanic. It returned to full-time, in-person school for all students — with mandatory masking — for the 2021-22 school year. But as of October, more than 10,000 students from kindergarten through sixth grade had chosen to remain in virtual school, the most of any district in the state or the Washington, D.C. metro area.  

Alvaro Ceron-Ruiz, junior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and student member of the Prince George’s County Board of Education

Alvaro Ceron-Ruiz, Bowie, Maryland

A lot of the essential stuff I feel I was supposed to learn last year, I feel like I’m lacking. And a lot of students don’t want to say anything, because they don’t want to be held back. The expectation at a magnet school is that you’re on top of everything, you learn by yourself.

Most teachers have been understanding, because I know they need the support as well. The workload has been heavy on students and on teachers. The struggle has been mutual.

I’ve talked to [Monica Goldson, the chief executive officer of Prince George’s County Public Schools] about implementing a three-hour early dismissal once a month, for teachers to get that time for grading and planning that isn’t taken up by professional development. Teachers were taking their time off to spend on planning and grading. Her administration has drafted changes and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a general consensus about this. It’s really evident the stress, the workload, and how draining it is.

Starting off the school year was a lot more difficult, but as we progress, something that truly helped was understanding from teachers but also the principal and our school. The first three weeks she said, we’re going to aim at just getting students back in the swing of things. We want to gradually get into it. Let your students readjust into being back in person.

I personally am vaccinated, and I know a lot of students in the school are vaccinated. The feeling is, we should be okay.

Carmella Long, mother of one and financial management consultant

Carmella Long, Clinton, Maryland

Boris is in fifth grade. He started a non-public placement when he was finishing his fourth grade year. He has [autism spectrum disorder], he also has [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and social pragmatic communication disorder.

I knew that my son had deficits, but it wasn’t until I was sitting with him every day that I really saw just how far behind he was, even before the pandemic. It was really telling, because he was coming home with straight A’s but he couldn’t tell time. He was making straight As but he didn’t have much going on with reading fluency.

As bad as the pandemic was, and it was grueling to go through that schedule, the blessing on the other side of is it shifted me into gear and made me fight that much harder to advocate for him. I was holding absolutely no punches; I was playing no games with anybody. I was telling anyone who would listen about the inequities that I saw in relation to my son.

He was able to enroll in [a] non-public school [paid for by the district] in late October, early November of 2020 and started in February of 2021. He was probably walking in, testing-wise, at the late kindergarten, mid-first-grade level. He’s definitely turned around. I will fight ‘til the day is done for him to stay there. He’s not in the space where he can blend too well in a public school. He needs an environment that is conducive for his learning.

What I do feel good about is that if we have another pandemic, at least this time we’ll know how to get through it. I hope the deficits that happened over the past two years will never happen again because we’ll be prepared. I’m always hopeful, but this has set the kids back tremendously.

REDMOND, OREGON

  • 7,469 students
  • 76 percent of students are white, 18 percent are Hispanic
  • Masks required
  • 72 percent vaccinated

Redmond, Oregon, is an agricultural hub with a small airport that has grown recently as home prices in nearby Bend have risen dramatically. There is desert to the east and forest to the west. Most students are white and about half (47 percent) qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Ben Lawson, band and choir teacher at Redmond High School

​​This year’s been great because we’re all back in the building and I get to see [my students] every day, but there’s definitely a learning gap and a social, behavior, social awkwardness gap going on.

The current freshmen were put into quarantine as sixth graders and that’s the last time they interacted with other kids, so occasionally they act like sixth graders. Seniors should be mentors and thinking about college, but they’ve been living at home. They’re still sophomores in their heads. They don’t act the way I’m expecting them to.

The ability to focus for 72 minutes just isn’t there. [There have been] random bursting out in giggle fits with neighbors and poking each other; randomly throwing stuff across the room; stuff I haven’t seen in high school. We’re just reminding them on a constant basis what it means to live in community and be part of 1,000 students. Today is the first day of week five, and things were normal today – how I would expect it.

Some kept on top of it and practiced [their instrument] a lot and they are where I would expect them to be. Others did nothing and their skills are mid-way through sixth grade band. In choir, you just need to be loud and sing with a big strong voice and be proud. And they’re very timid right now. Usually, there are 10 to 20 percent that want to hide and I have to pull it out of them. Now two thirds of kids are still very shy.

Hybrid was a rough experience. This is a lot better. I have all the kids in front of me. Class time, that’s about as good as it can be.

​​Kami Karr, high school senior at Redmond High School

Kami Karr, Redmond, Oregon

One of my favorite teachers is my AP calculus teacher. She lets me make coffee in her room every morning in first period. I think it’s really helpful to have that connection between teachers and their students. Like having a screen between everybody…it’s just, I don’t know, it’s really isolating, I think, for both sides.

And then it was like, just not knowing what’s going on in the world either. I feel like there’s nothing you can really trust. So I don’t know where to get any information from. There definitely are some [teachers I trust] and there’s definitely some that I would not.

I kind of just get my information from around, you know, just from what my parents and teachers tell me. Sometimes I read different articles from random websites that pop up on Instagram, you know how it is. So, but that’s why I don’t feel like I’m very informed on talking on this topic, just because I don’t know who to look for, for information. We are not at all taught how to do that.

I think that it’s really important to know who you can trust. I think it’s also just because there isn’t a lot of people to trust anyway. But it’s probably to just start with being taught in the first place.

Elizabeth Brock, high school senior at Redmond High School

Elizabeth Brock, Redmond, Oregon

It was definitely weird at first, you know, coming back after being on online for so long. It was definitely a shift. But over time, I kind of just got used to it. It just went back to where things were before. The only difference was that there were masks this year. But besides that, it now it feels pretty normal again.

[Last year,] I spent mostly every day in my house, just like in the living room, or in my room, just on Zoom. It was definitely weird. I definitely did not like the way classes were and how there was just such like a separation between the students and the teachers. And it was just, overall, not the best learning experience. And even though I did get by with it, I would definitely not want to do it again. Because it was just a hard time to learn. And I think everyone can agree with that, probably.

Usually in school you can talk with other people, but with Zoom, you can’t really talk to them. And even though we both shared the same experience, it was definitely like, different, because you could text your friends and call them or whatever, but you’re not going to call like a complete stranger, you know? You kind of just lost those people that you would just talk to in class.

Even though we’re back, some of us are still struggling. And you just got to give us some time and patience because the education wasn’t the same over the online school years. So we’re still kind of trying to catch up.

CLEVELAND, OHIO

  • 37,000 students
  • 64 percent Black, nearly 17 percent Hispanic, 15 percent white
  • Masks required
  • 67 percent vaccinated

The high-poverty district of roughly 37,000 children was remote for most of last year. The district CEO, Eric Gordon, said he hopes to reengage kids in learning through a variety of means, including expanded arts programs, “earn and learn” opportunities for high schoolers, and newly appointed student and parent ambassadors who conduct outreach to their peers. The area’s relatively low vaccination rate — Ohio has the 10th lowest vaccination rate of any state — and high levels of gun violence are contributing to parent and teacher stress.

Jessica Boiner, mother of one and home-based child care provider

Jessica Boiner, Cleveland, Ohio

Remote learning actually made my son open up a little more. I don’t know if it made him feel more comfortable because he was at home, but he was talking more, he was doing more. That was the good part.

But the bad part was there were routines he missed. Now that he’s back in person, there are certain things he needs to do — coming in, taking off your coat, unzipping and unbuttoning, putting your book bags in your cubbies. When it comes to those routines, I can see he needs to get back into the swing of things.

I caught myself saying to him, ‘Oh you know how to put on your bookbag, come on.’ And I thought about it, and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, he hasn’t put on a bookbag in a year.’

We have to start those things over again.

Tracy Hill, executive director of family and community engagement, Cleveland Metropolitan School District

Tracy Hill, Cleveland, Ohio

Our attendance has really tanked… We just have these really strange patterns of attendance that we haven’t seen in years … We said ‘OK, let’s talk to the students …’

Some of the things they talked about were just the anxiety, the social anxiety, and being afraid of getting Covid, not wanting to wear a mask because it’s hard to breathe and talk and be social. Some of them actually stopped coming to school because they have a death in the family or their parent was sent to prison or they lost their job and now they are the primary breadwinner in the family. Or they have to take care of their younger siblings so their parent could go to work because daycare has been affected by Covid.

RICHLAND COUNTY, SOUTH CAROLINA

  • 27,966 students
  • 61 percent Black, 19 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic or Latino
  • Masks required
  • 64 percent vaccinated

Richland County School District Two serves students in the suburbs of Columbia, South Carolina. The school system operated on a hybrid schedule for most of last year, ranging from virtual learning to full in-person attendance depending on the spread of Covid-19 in the community. This year, the district is operating fully in person with a virtual option. It is one of only a few school districts in the state that is requiring masks after the state Supreme Court put a hold on a mask mandate ban South Carolina legislators approved in the spring.

Karis Mazyck, principal of Blythewood Middle School

Karis Mazyck, Blythewood, South Carolina

We’re trying to create those joy moments for our students as well as our faculty and staff to find those ways that are going to make our students get out of bed and want to come to school.

Just having opportunities – bringing in pizza, bringing in food – whatever we can do to create those opportunities for joy for our faculty and staff to make them say, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can get through one more day.’ Because that’s so important when we know that teachers are leaving the profession right now, and we can’t afford for that to happen.

For our students … I think sometimes they forget how to socially interact with each other. Too much playfulness sometimes – they’re playing, they’re hitting – and [we’re] trying to remind them, these rules and procedures still apply in the school building.

We were able to find additional learning time that traditionally we didn’t think we had. An example of that is in the mornings before school actually starts, we allow students to come in early for those parents that may have to get to work. Prior to the pandemic and prior to the school year, that was social time for students.

What we felt like we had to do this year to fill in those learning gaps was we created study hall … So we took away cell phones, we created study hall in the mornings from 6:50 to 7:30 and we started telling our students, ‘This is an opportunity for you to get missing assignments completed.’

It has totally changed the trajectory of our school day in the morning.

Valente’ Gibson, fifth grade teacher at Jackson Creek Elementary School

Valente’ Gibson, Columbia, South Carolina

It is a joy to see the students’ faces again. That is the number one thing, and for them to experience instruction in person. That has been definitely a highlight of this school year.

I teach upper elementary, and I can kind of tell some of my upper elementary students – some of the actions and things that they do tell [me] they need to get back into the groove. And you can tell they just really want to talk – they didn’t have that social time as much last year.

We knew last year that there would be a lot of academic challenges for some students having to adjust to a virtual lifestyle. And that’s why it is very positive to see students coming in and getting to the point where they’re adjusting to the new schedule academically.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA

  • 22,500 students
  • 55 percent Black, 21 percent white, 19 percent Hispanic
  • Masks required
  • 47 percent vaccinated

In Richmond, Virginia, schools closed the first week of November to give teachers a mental health break. Like some districts around the country, Richmond, which educates roughly 22,500 kids , 55 percent of whom are Black, is facing a staffing crunch. To try to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on young learners, Superintendent Jason Kamras is plowing federal relief dollars into early literacy efforts, spending $65 million on a reading curriculum, reading specialists and coaches, books that students can bring home, a longer school year and school day, and other efforts.    

Jason Kamras, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools

Jason Kamras, Richmond, Virginia

I would describe it as a bizarre combination of joy and exhaustion. The joy is seeing teachers and kids back in action and seeing the magic of classrooms come alive in person. The exhaustion is everybody – whether it’s teachers, custodians, bus drivers, central office staff, principals – having worked so hard for two years throughout the pandemic and now facing all kinds of new challenges, from staff shortages, which means people are covering classes and losing lunch periods, to all the social emotional trauma of the past year that kids have experienced spilling out into classrooms, to complexities of contract tracing and quarantining and everything that goes along with Covid, which is still very much alive in our community.

In 25 years in education, I have not seen this level of stress and exhaustion.

I don’t know any other way to describe [the academic losses] other than devastating. The state of Virginia just launched the Virginia Growth Assessment, it’s the fall baseline assessment; the scores are truly heartbreaking.

In reading, most of our kids are in the 35 percent proficient area and in math it’s down in the teens or lower. This is truly going to be a decades-long effort to climb out from the impacts of the last two years. I just worry that if everything doesn’t ‘swing back to normal’ immediately …people will chase after all kinds of silver bullets and random ideas of the day when what it’s really going to take is science-based instruction with great teachers and lots of social and emotional supports, day after day after day. [That] and a Marshall Plan-level of investment to help particularly urban and rural communities.

Katina Harris, middle school English teacher and president of the local teachers’ union

We’re happy to be back in person and see our students. The workload, though, is overwhelming. The district is using data from the pandemic to assess student success, which means that we are having to do remediation during the school day, at the end of each class. Ideally, we’d be doing extended day or have tutors. But I guess we are waiting on funding.

Teachers have reached out to say they are burned out, stressed out. Colleagues aren’t able to take lunch breaks or have time for planning. We have to make sure everybody has the supports they need and that we know what grace and love looks like.

I think the students are adjusting. They are getting used to the new curriculum. Some of them lost family members during the pandemic. I think instruction…was interrupted. It never stopped though.

Students are doing the best they can.

TAOS, NEW MEXICO

  • 2,700 students
  • 68 percent Hispanic, 22 percent white, 8 percent Native American
  • Masks required
  • 85 percent vaccinated

Taos County is home to breathtaking mountain and desert vistas, wild horses and acres of ranchland. The Taos Pueblo live here and occupy one of the longest continuously inhabited villages in North America. The county is an overwhelmingly liberal island in a conservative area of the country and the vaccination rate rivals that in places like New England. The majority (81 percent) of the district’s 2,700 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Orion Salazar, eighth grader at Taos Middle School

Orion Salazar, Redmond, Oregon

I like [being back in school] a lot. Online was kinda harder for me because I’m not really into computers or like, I’m into computers, but not doing work on them.

I like seeing my friends, and I’m more of an in-person learner. And I’ve been doing pretty good in school. I like learning more when someone’s in front of me, instead of on the screen. It’d be easier to just like walk up there and ask the teacher for help and easier to learn stuff.

I played on the Taos Middle School football team [this fall]. I had a lot of fun with that. And I made lots of new friends. Right now, I’m doing wrestling. I’ve been doing wrestling for five years. I do basketball, football, wrestling and baseball. I like to stay active.

In sixth grade, I made the baseball team but we only had a few practices. And then that’s when lockdown happened and I couldn’t really do anything for the whole year. So it’s good to get back in shape and play all my favorite sports again.

I think I feel like back to normal again. It’s been pretty calm for the most part. I know there’s been some fights, but I don’t think it’s had anything to do with being back to school.

I know for a lot of kids, including me, I had some bad grades in online. And my parents got mad at me. But I guess like, they just don’t understand how hard it was to do online because they never really did that. They don’t know what it’s like.

I definitely think things are going to go good from here on out. And I’m excited to go to high school next year — more sports.

Florence Miera, social worker and homeless liaison

These students [I serve] did suffer. However, almost all of my students are back. They’re all there and they’re all very happy to be at school.

Every single day, I feel like we have had to make CYFD calls. [Editor’s note: In New Mexico, “CYFD” is shorthand for the Children, Youth and Family Department, which handles allegations of child neglect and abuse.] My main job is safety, making sure these kids are safe. [Students are] opening up about the trauma, the deaths, people dying in their homes.

I usually either help with bus duty or morning duty. I take temperatures, greet the kids. There is no typical day. We had one kid who’s like, “my feet are hurting. I’m not getting out of a car.” And it was his shoes. They were too tight. So I had to find him shoes.

They’re definitely a year or two behind. I went into one of the first grade classrooms recently because they were saying they were having a difficult time getting all the kids to [work calmly]. And when I got there, I realized “oh my goodness, they’re like preschoolers!”

They’re still learning social emotional behavior stuff. And that’s the way it is all the way through.

The other thing that’s going really well is because we are a small community, the people are willing to do whatever to support our schools. … They buy shoes, and jackets and socks. I do think that people are more generous right now.

I lost my parents very young. I think it’s why I do the work. I saw how my family struggled in this little town and I just love the people here and completely will give back.

I see these little kids and their eyes and that hope that’s still in them. And I guess the only thing I can say is even when they’re acting out, like just stop and breathe and look in their eyes and people will see that hope and hopefully give back to these kids and just love them.

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