Administrators, parents, and health officials weighed in on school reopening. But what do students think?

Screenshot of four women talking on a zoom video conference call
Dani Farley, top left, senior at Palmer High School, Emma Knapp, bottom left, junior at West High school, and Ava Lieb, bottom right, junior at Bethel Regional High School, speak with Alaska Public Media Education reporter Mayowa Aina, top right, about the start a school year in a pandemic via zoom videoconferencing software on August 19, 2020. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

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“I think it was just surprising how, how quickly we reacted to something so out of this world that no one expected and I thought that was really awesome,” said Dani Farley.

Farley is a senior at Palmer High School in Palmer. Palmer High is part of the Mat-Su school district where students started classes in-person this week. Farley said she was anxious about students complying with the mask policy but things went better than she expected. 

“I was really happy to see that everyone was wearing their masks and people were still smiling. We were all happy to see our friends,” Farley said. “It was a really great environment, and I even think it almost felt a little bit cleaner because we were all separated and the classes were a lot smaller.”

In Anchorage where students have begun classes online, Emma Knapp, a junior at West High School, said the first day of school kind of snuck up on her.  

“I think I have to lower my expectations a little bit, if I’m being honest,” Knapp said. “I feel like in order to be receptive or in a mindset where I’m able to learn, I have to understand that this is new for everyone and that it’s not going to be perfect.”

Related: ‘We’ll figure it out together’: Thousands of Anchorage teachers and students log on for the first day of school

And Ava Lieb is a junior at Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, where classes don’t start until next week. She said she learned a lot about herself during the school closure that she’s planning to take into her junior year. 

“I didn’t realize how well I was able to self-teach myself until we started to learn at home,” Lieb said. “Here we don’t have unlimited Wi-Fi and it’s kind of hard with Zoom meetings because we have to watch how much Wi-Fi we use. So, I didn’t go to the Zoom meetings. I really tried my hardest to self-teach myself.”

Knapp said she had a similar experience realizing just how much work she and her classmates needed to do on their own. “I think when people realized that it would be the rest of the school year and probably into, into this year, people started to put like a little more work into it,” she said. “[They] realize that they are going to have to figure out how to learn on their own.”

Related: Hundreds of Anchorage students didn’t participate in online learning last spring. Will they this fall?

The students also had a wide range of advice for teachers and administrators.

Farley was concerned about mask-wearing becoming too politicized and hoped that teachers would set a good example. “I was worried that it would be almost cool to break the rules, but in reality, this is super serious,” Farley said. “I think teachers could even educate students so that we know why are we wearing masks and incorporating that into what they’re teaching might make students feel better about wearing them.”

“I just want them to know how valued they are with all the work that they’re doing and putting into this. And we have students really appreciate it,” Lieb said.

Knapp added that students will also need space to process what’s going on. 

“Teachers could try to foster more one-on-one relationships with kids, which is obviously going to be way more difficult now that we’re not in like an actual classroom,” Knapp said. “I think it’s so important in order to get to know your students, and maybe even hold a time in class to where you guys just talk about your days or how you’re dealing with the current situation.”

Farley agreed. She said while learning at home, she realized that she struggled to pay attention to recorded lectures and after talking with someone she was diagnosed with ADHD. She much prefers being in the classroom and said she could tell other students felt the same way. “There was a lot of like, good behaviors in class,” Farley said. “I think everyone’s going through the same boat. This is really hard, so we’re all being really empathetic towards each other and understanding.”

Read comprehensive Alaska Public Media coverage of COVID-19

For all three students, when asked about how they hoped this school year would go, their hopes for themselves revolved around the same idea: getting back to who they know themselves to be. 

For Lieb, it was about getting back to her routine. 

“I hope for by the end of the school year, we can get back to normal, have normal school days,” Lieb said. “Be able to get back to sports, have extra curricular activities.”

Farley, also wanted to keep up with her extracurriculars like student government and Key Club.

RELATED: Anchorage homeschool programs fill and waitlists grow as the school year begins

“I want to make sure by the end of the year, I’m still in the community, still helping out and staying busy,” Farly said. “I hope you call me and I would say ‘Hey sorry I’m too busy to get to, I’ve got a ton of things to do.’”

Knapp agreed with Farly, hoping that she will be able “to find purpose and productivity.” Knapp said that teens generally struggle to feel like they’re doing enough to stand or make a difference. “And I think all of that is exacerbated by the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and it’s almost like we can’t do anything.”  

Since the pandemic took hold, Knapp said her main focus has just been to be happy, and she will continue to focus on that through the school year. “You don’t have to do all of these things in order to feel purpose, you just have take care of yourself,” Knapp said. “And I just want to be able to have taken care of myself [by the end of the school year].”

And their parting words for anyone who’s listening? 

“If you do your part, this will be over soon. Wear a mask. Social distance,” said Knapp.  

“Protect your community,” Farley said.

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